“i have the biopsy results. it’s not good.” i was careening up I-280 with the windows down on a sunny northern california afternoon, heading to the appointment to get my biopsy results. the nurse practitioner, irene, from the ob/gyn office called me. the week before, she was the one who confirmed my lump was something she “didn’t like the feeling of” and referred me to get a mammogram immediately.
my d-day, diagnosis day, was one year ago today, august 7.
when irene’s call came in and she got right to the point, i pulled off to the nearest exit and parked on the on-ramp. in the pit of my stomach, i already knew the news but thought hurdling through space at 80mph while hearing the words “you have cancer” probably wasn’t what we’d call “safety first.” she explained the diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma and ductal carcinoma in situ. i scrambled for a pen and scratched down then-foreign words. and that’s all she said, really. nothing about prognosis, stage, treatment plans, or whether or not i’d live. just those three little words, “you have cancer” (oh how i wish it were the other, better three little words instead). she wished me good luck and we hung up. i sat tingling, flushed and confused. the noise in my head was a juxtaposition with the stillness around me. for those of you who don’t know I-280, it’s a scenic drive, with coastal hills, dry scrub sagebrush, deer, and sunlight. a warm breathe before the city, especially if the city is foggy.
when i could see through my tears, i started driving again and called my brother lucas. lucas was 1 of the few who knew about what we had been going through. we had to make a gameplan for how to tell my parents. i would be seeing mike in 20 minutes and wanted to tell him in person at the doctor appointment.
i found the lump on my own while in nova scotia working on my MBA. i’ll never know if because i was holed up in a tiny dorm room with only time and spreadsheets and case studies, i found the lump and then it started to hurt. or it started to hurt and because i was holed up in a tiny dorm room with only time and spreadsheets and case studies that i noticed it hurt. i called my doctor the next morning, and she made an appointment for the day after i got back to san francisco, 2 weeks later. the office recommended that if anything changed, to see a doctor immediately in canada. after finding the lump, i jotted off a quick email to mike who was mostly off email that week. when we finally talked, he said, “don’t ever share news like that again with me in an email.” point taken.
the lump felt like my achilles heal. it was that dense. i could grab it and for awhile thought maybe it was just a tendon close to my chest wall or even a rib. because i could move it around, and because it hurt, the frantic googling i did indicated it was probably a cyst. but definitely could be cancer. but cancer usually didn’t hurt. so it was probably a cyst. none of this information prevented me from crying, snotting, howling alone in my tiny dorm room with only time and spreadsheets and case studies. for the next 2 weeks, i went about my business with my fantastic MBA friends, arinola and julia, walked the track, worked on assignments late in the library, ate weird fruit loop concoctions in the cafeteria, and cried when we departed our separate ways for the year. only i was also crying for something else at the same time. i went to illinois for a few days to visit my family. i pretended as though i would be fine, even though i sensed otherwise.
after irene referred me to get a mammogram, the earliest i could get in was 2 days later. mike took me to that appointment and i got my first uncomfortable mammogram experience, being stretched, pulled and squashed like i had never been. the tech was south african and made me feel emotionally comfortable, unbelievably, throughout it all as we talked about her continent and safaris and honeymoons. once the image was clear, i was whisked into an exam room. they wanted to do an ultrasound. it was here that i learned about a second lump that was actually larger and longer, but further recessed in my breast. i also learned some things, in retrospect, that should have confirmed the diagnosis without having to wait for the results. the technician was a breast cancer survivor herself, and she shared how amazing reconstruction is these days and how she had recently had her nipples tattooed on after a mastectomy with reconstruction. clue #1 if my brain was able to keep up with the facts swirling around me.
another doctor came in and informed us of the biopsy they wanted to do. they could squeeze us in later that afternoon. we thought at the time this is how things worked and they wanted to be on the safe side. but again in retrospect, they suspected cancer and wanted to move fast. mike and i went to ella’s, one of our favorite brunch places in the city; it was a quiet lunch and we tried to keep it light, reminiscing about all of our memories in that neighborhood and how incredible the chicken hash is (it is).
i have this medical condition called a vaso-vagal response. it’s triggered by all things medical. when i draw blood, get a shot, and sometimes even get an exam, i get sweaty, light-headed and can pass out as my blood pressure drops. when getting my wisdom teeth out, they had to stop the procedure because my heart rate and blood pressure dropped so significantly, so quickly. i can even have this response to someone else’s medical experience, when witnessing or even hearing about it (sorry, lisa, for that while we were at lauriol plaza in DC!)
i started to get worked up about getting a biopsy. i reckoned it was going to be painful, and the unknown is frightening. the doctor extracted cells from each lump with 2 separate biopsies, inserting little titanium biopsy clips as she pulled cells out. it does hurt, but perhaps the bigger issue is the loud pop the biopsy machine makes when it does its job. the tech held my hand and talked me off my sweaty fuzzy-headed ledge, and i didn’t pass out (meaghan – 1; vaso-vagal – 0). the doctor gave me her cell phone number and told me to call her over the weekend with any issues or questions. i walked out confused, bruised and with a few ice packs strapped to my breast.
we spent the weekend waiting for results. we went to a random italian restaurant in south san Francisco. we talked about the what ifs. we bought a lot of shit we didn’t need. we ate tacos with my cousin gus. we finally got me a smart phone. we called my brother lucas. we called my boss. we drank tequila. we drank wine.
on my test results day, mike was already in the waiting room and had this hopeful smile on his face when i walked in. he said, “i have a really good feeling about today. i woke up thinking that everything is going to be alright and we’ll get good results.” i lost it. i shook my head, “no” and managed to get out that “i already know, and it’s not good.”
we were shuffled back to see a nurse practitioner, sarah, and given the full run down of diagnosis. she had nice kleenaxes in her office. it was cheery. she gave me a heart-shaped pillow made by breast cancer survivors to help with comfort after surgery. and she was calm. i hate her job. she already made appointments for us at the surgeon and fertility specialist, both the next day. we talked about medical oncologists and what i would want out of one; sarah made us a list and offered to help set up those appointments too. we left, more floating out of the office to our car where we sat and cried. and shook. both wondering, will i live?
and you know the rest. but now you know the beginning, my cancer creation story as it were.
what do i wish today? well, i wish i never had cancer. i wish no one had cancer. sure there are silver linings, but they are not because of cancer, they are in spite of cancer.
i also wish that someone had told me these things, that i will: live through this. learn things about myself. lose some friends, gain some friends. work through the guilt and pain to get over letting go of said friends. be offended by comments. be amazed by comments. cry. find myself comforting others who are crying. recognize that i can’t possibly understand what they are going through, as they say the same thing to me. experience very long days full of uncertainty and fear and physical pain and emotional turmoil. cry. ask “why” and not get an answer and be frustrated and want to punch a hole in a wall to fill the hole in the pit of my stomach from the crater that cancer gave me. laugh. be cared for. feel better after caring for someone else. be exhausted. walk to not be exhausted. hate myself. love myself. be vulnerable, because i am vulnerable. push my body to the physical limits of what it means to be alive. then watch my body bounce back, sometimes quickly and other times slowly, or not bounce back. have a new understanding of “digging deep.” be determined to have more energy than is humanly possible. feel panic when i forget simple tasks or can’t hold more than one thing in my mind at a time. learn how to ask for help, fail at that, and try again. be grateful i have a good therapist. be grateful i have a good husband. be grateful. appreciate my creativity and willingness to dabble with ways to make myself whole. screw insurance red tape and bureaucratic processes to get the best care i can. be overwhelmed at the many professional and unprofessional opinions of what i should be doing. realize that i am only given one body in this life and i’m the only one who can take care of it. have a new depth of gratitude for meals that taste good, bowel movements that are normal, showers that are hot, and sleep that is comfortably uninterrupted. find a new community. feel uncannily alone. meet nurses and doctors who will make me feel like my life is worth saving. learn things about other people and their hardships. work on my listening skills. be confused because i inspire others. accept that i inspire others and work to be my best self for both them and me. have a life rich with experiences that are separate from cancer. live through this. live through this. live through this.
the question of, “will i live” is unanswerable. and now that i’m on the other side of the most intense treatments, i realize the question we had wasn’t “will i live” it is “how will i live.” how will i live? how will i feel? how will i put one foot in front the other? breathe in and out? go to the grocery store? find meaning out of my life? make the most of the time i have, even if that time ends up being 32 years long?
none of the medical professionals, therapists, friends or family can answer that. how i will live is one of the things only i have control over. sharing my cancer creation story is helpful for me today. all people and things have a creation story, the story of their birth, their generation, their people. i love creation stories, because they help illuminate roots and meaning. they help you trace how you got to where you are and articulate self-identity. they establish worldviews and the symbols into those worldviews. they also contain profound truths, but so plainly stated. so in a way, it’s only fitting that my cancer has a creation story, because i’m not the person i was on august 6, 2012. a new and different life was created on august 7, 2012. figuring out how that particular life will be lived is what comes now.