I found out I might have cancer as I was leaving a theater after a screening of Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth. This was only the second time I had been in a movie theater since March of 2020. (The first was the day before, at a screening of another black and white Oscar contender, Belfast.) I was checking my email on my phone, and results of the mammogram I had the week before were available to view.
I had no hesitancy opening the results. I had been having mammograms every year since I turned 40, and had never had anything suspicious show up. I was expecting the usual report that always sounded vaguely insulting, that my breasts were "almost entirely fatty," and "unremarkable," and they had found nothing requiring further imaging.
Instead, I read this:
There is a new mass measuring 4 millimeters with indistinct margins in the middle region of the right breast lower outer quadrant at 7 o'clock.
I immediately went cold. I read the words again and again. I had to stop and catch my breath. My mind instantly went to the darkest places. I was supposed to meet a friend for lunch, as this was the beginning of my Thanksgiving break, a week free from work that I had planned to fill with lots of fun. But I knew I would not be good company, and cancelled. And when I got home, I of course consulted Dr. Google, and found out the words "indistinct margins" are a not a good sign. This wasn't likely to be a benign cyst.
I was able to book a second mammogram two days later, the day before Thanksgiving. Everyone at the breast center was very kind, and tried to be as reassuring as possible. They assured me it was very small, and there was no way I could have felt it during my self exams, so it wasn't something I had "missed." The second mammogram results led to an ultrasound, and that led to the recommendation that I get a biopsy, which they were able to do that day.
It's nothing if not disconcerting to watch a giant needle poking around in your breast, which, through the magic of an ultrasound, you can, as it's also what the doctor is watching as he directs the...specimen grabber?...into the tumor. When it snips off a bit a tissue, it sounds like a staple gun. He also leaves a tiny bit of titanium inside the breast, so the area of the tumor can be more easily found if new images or surgery are needed.
At this point, the doctor seemed pretty sure it was not a benign tumor, but couldn't tell me much about what to expect as far as treatment was concerned until I got the results of the biopsy, which, because of the holiday, would be the following week.
So, I went into Thanksgiving pretty sure I had cancer, but absolutely no idea what that actually meant.
OK brace yourselves because this part is a little gross. I had surgery on January 4th. I was nervous going in, because the last time I had to go under general anesthesia - the kind that requires a breathing tube, the whole works - I got really, really sick coming out of it. I told my surgeon this. I told my anesthesiologist this. Despite that, I wasn't given any anti-nausea drugs before the surgery. I'm not sure if any were given during the surgery. I do know what they gave me after the surgery didn't do shit, and I was vomiting for hours. Any time I had to move, I got nauseous. Wheeling me out of the recovery area and into a room, puke. Going to the bathroom, puke. Putting on my clothes, puke. And the added bonus was there was nothing to puke except bile which had turned blue because of the dye they injected into my breast before the surgery.
Once I got home, the puking stopped. Thankfully. But I still felt dizzy and queasy the rest of the week. I had the surgery on a Tuesday, and I didn't feel better until the following Monday. And I still get kind of dizzy just thinking about it all!
The surgery removed the tumor and some surrounding tissue, along with a lymph node, so I had two incisions. There was not a lot of pain afterwards and I didn't need more than Tylenol to control it. I'm happy about that because even though the doctor did give me the good stuff for pain, the good stuff usually makes me nauseous, and I didn't need any more of that in my life! I still have to wear a bra all the time now, even when sleeping, because it's really only painful when my boob is swingin' free. (Showering is probably the most painful thing to do right now, so I avoid it. Which means you should probably avoid me right now.)
A week later I got the pathology results from the surgeon: no evidence of cancer within the tissue surrounding the tumor, and no evidence of cancer in the lymph node. Clean margins and clean nodes. Huzzah! Finally, some good news! That meant there would be no need for further surgery, which is something I really, really didn't want to deal with again.
Those results did not change what my post surgery treatment would require, but I wouldn't know exactly what the timing of that would be, or what type of chemo I would need until I met with an oncologist, which I did on January 19th.
I liked her a lot. She was very kind, didn't rush through the appointment at all, was patient with my many questions, and even laughed at my dumb attempts at levity. I am getting a second opinion, just because that seems the smart thing to do, but unless the second oncologist says he has a secret miracle drug that will cure me instantly, I am sticking with the first oncologist.
Her recommended treatment plan is to start with Taxol + Herceptin for 12 weeks. The Taxol will be given weekly, and it will be combination of Taxol + Herceptin once a month. After the 12 weeks, it will be monthly Herceptin for nine months. I will also likely need a month of radiation after the chemo, and then many years of hormone centered medication to suppress estrogen and progesterone since my cancer feeds on hormones.
There is no good chemo. All chemo is terrible. It is literally poisoning your body in the hopes it will help you live longer. But from what the doctor said, what I've read, and what I've heard from people who have gone through rounds of it, Taxol is one of the less brutal kinds of chemo. I'm still probably going to lose my hair. It's still going to make me feel terrible. But I am hoping it will not be so debilitating that I will have to stop working completely or live a life of abject misery for three months.
When I first got the diagnosis, I had a difficult time dealing with it. I couldn't talk about it without crying, and I had a hard time concentrating on anything but the worst case scenarios. I felt like I was in a constant state of panic, and it was exhausting for weeks. But eventually, I felt calmer. Talking to friends who've gone through it helped. Therapy sessions helped. And getting past each hurdle helped.
Of course I am still scared. I'm terrified about the possible side effects of treatment. I am terrified of dying! My biggest fear is dying. If someone tells me they are not afraid of dying, I just don't understand that. Are they not afraid of anything? Because aren't most fears based in a fear of dying? Afraid of heights? Then you're afraid of FALLING AND DYING. Afraid of flying? Then you're afraid of CRASHING AND DYING. I don't understand!!
But that is neither here nor there, because I am not going to die. I need to believe that. I need to believe I will get through this horrible, horrible year, and come out of it ready to live many more years that are, hopefully, not as horrible. I didn't think 2020 and 2021 could get much worse, but here's 2022 knocking on the door saying, "Hold my beer!"
But somehow going through two terrible years feels like good practice for the year ahead. Social distancing, avoiding crowds, masks, sanitizing my hands constantly, that's all stuff a cancer patient in treatment should do, and it's all old hat to me now. In some ways, it's a good time to get cancer (it's never a good time to get cancer) because people around me are all used to these things too, and won't look askance if I continue to wear a mask whenever I leave my home.
I know it's going to suck. But I have supportive family and friends who I know will help me when I need it. I've lived a pretty great life so far, and if one terrible year of beating cancer is the worst thing to happen in it, I'll consider myself damn lucky.