PinkState: The Waiting Game

Because it’s October and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’ve shared several articles recently regarding my own experiences — past and present — with breast cancer and the cancer screening process.  (Read: Now Is the Time and When 0 > 1.)  As I noted in that second post last week, there was an issue with my mammogram, later confirmed with a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound, and I needed to undergo a biopsy.

The biopsy was this past Friday and, truth be told, fairly uneventful. A slight sting when they injected the lidocaine, some pressure and — sorry for the faint of heart — a loud “pop!” (kind of like when you get your ears pierced) when they inserted the biopsy needle. I could see it on the screen to my right and noticed just as the doctor said it — the mass appeared to be collapsing around the biopsy needle. That was a good sign — it meant that, in all likelihood, the mass was essentially just a cyst and not cancerous.

After the procedure was completed, the nurse (with whom I chatted quite a bit before we got started with the procedure and learned that she was working in Labor and Delivery at the hospital where I had my daughter in that timeframe — remarking on how we may have crossed paths) had to apply some pretty heavy pressure to the incision (that was a little uncomfortable). Eventually, the bleeding stopped and she Dermabonded the incision site, then sat me up and sent me on my way with my instructions — take it easy the rest of the day, no heavy lifting or strenuous activities. (Note: This did NOT keep me from tending to the shelter doggies the next day — I just made sure to walk the gentler ones and worked a bit slower than normal sweeping out their kennels.) I do have some bruising (as expected) but no residual pain.

Today, I got a call from one of the other nurses — good news! The biopsy results confirmed the tissue was benign and I am not staring down the barrel of a second cancer diagnosis. Though I wasn’t sweating it overmuch, I am relieved and I am thankful. And yet, I know that I am one of the lucky ones — there are many people who got a less pleasant call today, who will be referred to an oncologist and have to map out a treatment plan — one that must be cautiously navigated even while COVID drags on. There are people who are watching loved ones take a beating from this bear of a disease and feeling helpless because they don’t know how to defend them from it.

So, please, if you’re due for a scan, make that call and schedule it. Don’t put it off. Be vigilant and proactive — and urge your loved ones to be, too — so that if you’re forced to do battle with the Big C, you have the advantage of catching it early and an even better chance of kicking its ass.

I’ll leave you with the last entry I wrote following my own battle seven years ago — y’all take care of yourselves.

I know the world didn’t stop when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. But for a little while, it seemed as though everything slowed down drastically. And a lot of it receded into the background, leaving me with the sense that I was inside a bubble of sorts — where colors were sharper, feelings were duller and all that really mattered was attacking each step in the process with a smile and my mental pen at the ready to check it off the list.

It helped me quite a bit to write about it all. Recounting the detail demystified the experience, and finding humor in it when I could defanged it. I had every intention of continuing with that through my radiation, but as I entered that phase of treatment, I suddenly found myself avoiding my writing. Not because the experience was so awful — more like…it was so mundane. Or I was.

From the week of Thanksgiving through the middle of January, every weekday morning (except the holidays), I got up early and headed over to the hospital for my 7:30 appointment. Sometimes already ready for work, more often, still in sweats and with my hair wet. I got to know the technicians there pretty well, and certainly wasn’t worried about looking my best for them.

Most days, I wore my ladybug bracelet and brought my pink unicorn “Chernobyl” — both gifts from my friend, Ann — with me. (Chernobyl usually sat quietly in my purse, but I appreciated his presence nonetheless.) I’d park in one of the “Cancer Patient” spots (I quickly got over my aversion to that), hurry in past the valet (who always greeted me with a smile and a hello.) Past the reception desk, with a quick, “I’m here!” to the receptionist, into the dressing room, where I’d select a robe and gown. I’d change into them quickly, then stuff my top and coat into a cabinet, and wait for one of the techs to come fetch me. They had blankets in a warmer and I took them up on the offer on the coldest of days. Back to “the vault,” as I came to think of it, where I’d doff the robe, lower the gown and recline on the table while they lined up my various markings with the machine to make sure I got zapped in the right places. Then the techs would leave the room, and the heavy vault door would close and seal. The machine would whir and do its zapping. And then the techs would return, help me up, help me re-robe (almost always with a static-electric shock — it became a game for Kevin and me to see if we could avoid shocking one another), and send me on my way.

My boob developed a noticeable tan line — a solid dark square which framed it. Eventually, the skin on my chest became sensitive and itchy — like a heat rash or sunburn. Lotion helped, but I was glad once I knew I was in the home-stretch. I had tired days, though not too bad. In the evenings, I fell asleep on the couch in front of the TV frequently — often with my head resting on David’s shoulder. He didn’t seem to mind, and I’m grateful he was there to hold my hand through it all. I don’t think I’d have handled it nearly so calmly, or maintained a positive attitude nearly so well, had he not been there with me.

During the first few weeks, the days ticked by slowly. From Day 1 to Day 10 seemed like a month. Day 10 to Day 20, more of the same. Then suddenly, I realized I only had ten days left. And I felt the world speed back up. The light at the end of the tunnel began rushing toward me, and I had a brief feeling of anxiety — what would I do once the routine was gone, and “cancer patient” was no longer part of my identity?

I’d start getting back to normal, is what. On my last day of treatment, I rang the bell at the nurses’ desk. I hugged Kevin and Pam and Kara goodbye and thanked them for their good care of me. I waved goodbye to the receptionist and the valet, and walked out of my cancer cocoon into the sunshine.

The next day, I marveled at the joy of watching my daughter board the bus — something I hadn’t done in almost two months. I didn’t realize until that moment how much worry I’d carried with me each day, leaving the house before her and hoping she’d manage to get herself out the door and on the bus without my prodding. (She did!)

I resumed getting ready just for work, and not the hospital, too. I gave Chernobyl a place of honor on my dresser and stopped carrying him around with me. I changed my Twitter bio to include “#BreastCancerSurvivor”. My tan line receded — it’s barely visible now — and my energy picked up. I suddenly found myself tackling chores I’d been avoiding, and getting organized.

I’ve now been done with treatment almost as long as it lasted. And life is pretty well back to normal,, though it’s a new “normal.” I look at things differently. People, too. I feel like my experience, as relatively not-horrible as it was, afforded me a brief glimpse or two behind life’s curtain, and helped me refocus on what’s important. It shaped me and became an unexpected part of who I am and, as strange as it may seem, I’m grateful for it.

Today happens to be Triple Negative Breast Cancer Awareness Day. Triple Negative is an aggressive form of breast cancer — one which doesn’t respond as readily to conventional treatments, and tends to strike younger women. I posted a link about it earlier today and a friend relayed to me an acquaintance of hers has had it spread to her brain. She’s a young mother of four, and the prognosis is bleak. So, please, say a prayer for her tonight, if you would. And for all those affected by this disease. My encounter with it wasn’t so bad, but I know the love and prayers sent my way did wonders. So, thank you — you helped me never lose sight of just how very blessed I’ve been.