I was 42 years old, working as a freelance video producer so I only had catastrophic health insurance. My girlfriend at the time was a Physician’s Assistant and volunteered for a weekend gig at a free women’s health screening clinic. She’d been after me for a while to get my 40 year old mammogram. I kept blowing it off due to cost. The opportunity for a free one sounded good so I headed in. A week or so later I got a call from the clinic who did the free screening. They had found something and wanted me to come back in. “So that’s how they make their money!” I suspiciously exclaimed.
Another round of ever so comfortable mammograms later, the Doctor explained that I had what they called ductal carcinoma in situ, fancy words for little teeny tiny dots of cancer that were clustered in one area of my right breast. They assured me that it was a mild form of cancer and readily treatable with great success rates. But first, I needed to have a biopsy.
I forgot to mention that I’m a bit of a control freak and anything medical freaks me out, big time. In fact, one time when shopping at the medical book store with my PA girlfriend, I stopped to peruse a book on skin disease. I nearly fainted and had to sit down in the middle of the aisle and catch my breath. Perhaps I get it from my mother, who used to faint every single time she went to a hospital; whether it was a procedure on me or her, smelling salts were always a given.
So the idea of more annoying medical procedures was literally shocking to me. Really? I have to do this? I endured a horrific experience that resulted in a week long wait for results. They had found stage 2 breast cancer in the margins around the little tiny specks – I had two different kinds of cancer and had to have yet another biopsy. I couldn’t believe it and wasn’t sure how in the hell I was going to cope. A dear friend of mine bought me a small video camera and tasked me with recording a documentary about what it means to have breast cancer.
It was a brilliant way for me to turn the lens to objective reporting, thereby allowing myself to disassociate as much as I could (considering the circumstances). I showed up at my next appointment, camera in hand, shooting my POV as they showed me a chart of my chances of being alive in 5 years: if you take Tamoxifin your chance of survival is 58%; if you take Tamoxifin AND radiation that goes up to 62%; but if you go for the grand slam of Tamoxifin, radiation and chemotherapy your odds go up to 68%. In my mind that was a no brainer.
The first thing I did after making this decision was to go out and have my hair dyed red. I thought that was an appropriate color for what was in store and I was looking for comic relief anywhere possible. My first chemo appointment was horrific. Small veins run in my family and I had never been allowed to donate blood at blood drives because of it. Why they didn’t give me a shunt, I’ll never know. I had three nurses in tears as they continually tried to find a suitable vein. Once the IV was in place one of the nurses showed up carrying a huge needle with red liquid in it. My eyes widened as I noted she was carrying the syringe with those big blue hazmat gloves. “Oh, this stuff is like battery acid,” she offered. One big tear drifted down my cheek.
The next morning, I sat straight up in bed and yelled, “WHAT was I thinking?!! I am NOT going to do that again!” I turned to my girlfriend and said, “Will you tell my mom?”
Over the next 4 months I somehow managed to get up the nerve to go three more times. The side effects were awful and my energy zapped. My hair started falling out a couple of weeks in, but I had cut it super short so it was just small tufts. My ‘sideburns’ stayed the longest so I could hide my baldness under hats. I lost my eyebrows and after a traumatic first time, ended up loving shaving my bald head. Once the chemo was over I did 35 days of radiation but got so good at it that I could run in the door, get it done and be on with my day in under 15 minutes.
A few months after my treatments were completed I heard from a former co-worker. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was beginning the process I had just undergone. We got together and I told her what to expect. She braved through it, looked way better bald than I did, but suffered some side effects from the Tamoxifin and opted to stop taking it about a year later. I have no idea what, if any part, that played in her prognosis but two years later it had metastasized to her lungs and bones. A few months later she was gone.
Of all the things that happened to me during this phase of my life (and yes, this one was a phase), losing my friend Renee was the hardest for me to comprehend. She was so alive, so healthy, had recently found the man of her dreams and had a young daughter who needed her. I was absolutely stunned that this sickness we both had experienced really did have the potential to be fatal. I think my disassociation had worked so well that I had not allowed myself to comprehend the reality that cancer kills. My entire focus had been on surviving. And I’m sure it had been Renee’s as well. Not once did I ask myself ‘why me?’ but when Renee passed I really wanted to know why her.
It was then that it really hit me. It’s all just a crap shoot. This thing called life. Each of us makes a personal choice each day of how we’ll approach it. Some may choose to lean in while others may choose to lean back. Either way, none of us has true control. We have to just do what we need to do to survive. The only thing we truly have control over is our individual perspective and how that makes us feel. I happen to like to feel good. So when people ask me how cancer has affected me, I have to say that I’m thrilled to be here today and I am going to make the most of it. And tomorrow I plan to do the same.
In fond memory of Renee and in celebration of those who have endured,
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