The best of the worst
“The most beautiful words in the English language aren’t ‘I love you,’ they’re, ‘It’s benign.’ — Woody Allen
At one time, I understood that quote by Woody Allen but didn’t appreciate it. Now, I appreciate it and wish I didn’t know what it meant because I didn’t get to hear those words from my doctor.
A year ago, my doctor told me that I had invasive ductal carcinoma in my right breast. Invasive, because the cancer had spread out of my milk duct and into the surrounding tissue.
Later, after the lumpectomy, I would find out that it hadn’t spread beyond that immediate area; that’s the good news. The bad news is that I had HER2+ breast cancer, an aggressive form of breast cancer; treatable, but aggressive. It meant chemotherapy, radiation, and a year of Herceptin treatments to target the HER2+ breast cancer cells.
A year after diagnosis, I am still in active treatment. Though you wouldn’t know it if you were to look at me.
There are several ways to handle devastating news. My first reaction to finding the lump was to ignore it. It wasn’t the right time to have a long-term illness.
I ignored the lump because we were going away for a week-long vacation with our children. When we came back I decided to face my fears and make an appointment with my doctor. I started to doubt the seriousness of the lump and texted a friend who pretty much told me to stop effing around (as only good friends can) and make the darn call. I did.
Now here we are, a year out from that appointment with a breast cancer diagnosis, a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation in hand. Or is it in breast? (Okay, that was bad. But as I’m a cancer patient, I figure you’ll forgive me for bad jokes).
Three days later I was sitting in the exam room with my gynecologist telling me that I needed a mammogram and a breast ultrasound. The next day, I found myself in the waiting room awaiting a biopsy a couple of hours after my mammogram and breast ultrasound came back inconclusive.
That’s when the fear kicked in; when the doctor who looked over my images told me he wanted me to have a biopsy as soon as possible.
That’s when the fear kicked in. When the doctor who looked over my images told me that he wanted me to have a biopsy as soon as possible. Fortunately, there was an opening a couple of hours after my initial appointment.
I sat in the waiting room trying not to overthink or become overly anxious but to no avail. I called my husband who simply texted back, “In a meeting, can I call you after?” I texted back and told him I was going in for a biopsy. I received an immediate text back, “Cancelling meeting, will come to you.” And he did.
Too anxious to pray coherently, I did what I always do when I am in need of prayer and can’t seem to do it myself, I texted my sisters-in-law; four of the most faith-filled women I know. In times of concern, they are the ones who will drop everything to respond, to say an immediate prayer, or provide a saint to call upon. They are role models in how they live and share their faith.
…in times of terror, while my faith doesn’t leave me, I tend to freeze up and allow the doubts to creep in…
My sister-in-law asked St. Agatha to intercede for me. A friend gave us a novena to pray.
I’d like to think that I am as strong in my faith as these women. I’d like to think that I lean on it. But in times of terror, while my faith doesn’t leave me, I tend to freeze up and allow the doubts to creep in; to wonder if God does love me or wonder how He will protect me. I wonder if He is there. Please forgive the doubts and questions of an imperfect Christian.
However, no matter how often I have doubted, God has shown his grace to me and has reminded me several times in my life that He is still in control, whether I want to believe it or not.
It’s hard to deny His handiwork when I’ve seen it firsthand, especially in the case of my diagnosis and treatment. You see, everything fell into place in such a way that I cannot deny that God was watching over me.
When I went for my “big” haircut in preparation for losing my hair during my chemotherapy, my beautiful and big-hearted stylist cut off my long locks and donated them for children who needed wigs. She said, “God is not done with you, yet,” when I told her of how well my appointments slipped into place, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
- When I made my initial appointment with my doctor, he had one opening for the week when usually it takes weeks. After agreeing that there was indeed a lump in my breast he scheduled me for a mammogram the next day.
- The only opening was at another medical facility more than 20 minutes away. We couldn’t schedule a breast ultrasound because there were no openings for several weeks. He put in the referral and suggested I ask if they could fit me in after my mammogram.
- When I arrived for the mammogram, they said that there would be an opening the next day at my home medical facility leaving me with three appointments in three days.
- However, after my mammogram, the technician misread the date for my ultrasound and walked me directly to the next exam room. After a brief and hushed disagreement between the techs, they took me in for the ultrasound.
- It should have been my first clue that there was a concern. The doctor who viewed both the mammogram and the ultrasound recommended a breast biopsy and there just happened to be an appointment available just a couple of hours later at the same facility.
- Later, I was told that they didn’t do biopsies in the health center I go to for my regular appointments. If they hadn’t taken me in that day, I would have needed to make another appointment and make the drive back to the one that was further away at a later date. Confused yet? I was! It was a lot of information that day. Because of the doctor’s immediate referral, everything was done the same day. If that wasn’t God’s hand on everything, I don’t know what is. It’s too serendipitous to think that there wasn’t divine intervention involved.
- During a meeting with my breast healthcare team, my oncologist (it’s still weird to say I have an oncologist) shared his doubts that my lump was less than 2cm. If it was 2cm or more I would need three cancer drugs over the course of six months. If it was less than 2cm I could get away with 2 drugs over the course of three months. The initial measurements before surgery displayed the lump as at least 2cm.
- The surgeon called me after the lumpectomy and told us the good news, 1.9 cm and no lymph node involvement, which meant the cancer hadn’t spread. When sharing the results he told me that he hadn’t been hopeful because the sentinel lymph nodes he pulled out were swollen and angry looking. Nonetheless, the biopsy of those nodes did not show any cancer.
- I was diagnosed with breast cancer 6 weeks before our state shut down. I was the last appointment to receive a port before the health facilities postponed elective surgical appointments. I was sitting in recovery when I overheard the doctors tell the nurses to begin postponing the appointments. I was literally the last elective surgery before the shutdown.; though I don’t consider port surgery elective.
- Five weeks later I was sitting in the infusion chair. Our state had already been shut down for two weeks. And there I was, getting the first dose of chemotherapy out of twelve.
And through it all, while I may have doubted or didn’t understand why this happened to me, God stood by me. There is a good chance that if any of those appointments had not happened when they did, I would have had a harder road to travel. My cancer could have spread, the lump could have grown larger, I would not be as close to finishing my treatment as I am now.
There are still days where I am in disbelief that I have cancer. I am in disbelief that I’ve had a lumpectomy, been through chemotherapy and lost my hair, that I almost died (a story for another day), and that I’ve been radiated. It feels like it happened to someone else. It’s surreal.
Maybe the chemo fog has been a blessing because I can’t clearly recall the worst of how I felt.
My memory is not as sharp and it takes me longer to share my thoughts as I fumble for words, concepts, and ideas. My hair has grown back in wild and unmanageable chemo curls. I’ve started running again, putting in longer distances that I haven’t seen pre-cancer, but much slower. So much slower. Everything is slower. My words, my brain, my gait…everything.
I’ve been calling it the best of the worst; the best scenario in one of the worst pieces of news I’ve ever received.
I am grateful that I’m still here, even though I’m not the same as I was before this all started. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to spend more time with my children, though I’m sad that they had to walk this journey with me during the pandemic.
I’ve seen God’s grace and goodness, even in the middle of a cancer diagnosis and treatment during a pandemic. So I won’t complain. Instead of leaning on my faith, I’ll lean into it more and appreciate the grace set before me.
Peace be with you.