It was four years ago this week -- the week of my birthday -- when I first went to see my gynecologist after having found a large lump in my right breast. I put my brain on standby mode and went in for an examination. She took a look and immediately sent me for a mammogram a few blocks away.
As I walked over to get the mammogram, I remember it being a beautiful soft sweet spring day. The day seemed a little brighter at the edges the way I imagine it might if you're losing your grip on sanity. The air, I think, had never smelled sweeter. It felt softer than gossamer on my arms and hands. I remember all of this like a snapshot of the last moments before I knew I had cancer.
After my mammogram I was brought in to see the radiologist who was setting up my slides on his computer screen. He pointed out the mass in my right breast. Yes, he said. That looks like carcinoma.
That was the beginning of my second life. Like millions of people before me I had become an unwilling resident of Cancer Land. I had to quickly learn a whole new language and learn how to function in a whole new world. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I was referred by my boss to a surgeon at Sloan Kettering and she accompanied me there for a consult. The doctor was terrific. Gentle. Straight up. Smart. She answered every question. Drew diagrams. Talked about next steps. In my case that would be a lumpectomy after I underwent some tests to see if the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes.
We did the tests. It had. Sloan Kettering was marvelous. Every doctor and nurse and attendant was kind, attentive. They were all experts in how to interface with someone who underneath was a screaming banshee of terror while trying to keep a straight face.
At this point, my surgeon sent me for a bone scan because she was concerned that my cancer may have already metastasized. After a rather dramatic test where they insert a needle into your spine (but they knock you out first because you can't move during this), I had to wait a day for the results. The results of this scan would tell us if I had stage four metastatic breast cancer.
I was working in my office trying to keep my mind off all of the events I've just described above when my cellphone rang. It was my surgeon. The surgery at this point was already scheduled in case there was no metastasis.
The doctor told me as gently as possible that the cancer had already spread to my spine and therefore she was recommending me to an oncologist. I gripped the phone, sobbing, trying to write down notes as I could hardly see my pen or the page.
Meanwhile there was a bright coppery smell of fear in the room; not from me but from my boss. She too was crying. When I hung up she sat there and said over and over what am I going to do? I went cold.
What was SHE going to do?
That's when my world split wide open and became people who get it vs. people who don't get it and never will.
We had an event that night that I was expected to manage. There was no suggestion that perhaps I should take the night off and go have a drink or meet a friend. I went off to do the event and turned my emotions off for a few hours. That's a handy trick.
All of the above events within the space of a couple of weeks. The following week I went to meet with my new doctor, the oncologist. The good news. The bad news. It was a slow moving cancer. There would be no surgery. She would put me on an estrogen blocker and monitor me ever few weeks. I'd have PET and CT scans at several intervals a year so we'd know what was happening to the tumors. And so it went. I started my second life.
But I still at that point had to wake up every day and remember I had cancer. That took some time to get used to. And I had to tell my mother, herself a breast cancer survivor. I couldn't do that on the phone so I flew down to Florida to visit her for a long weekend with only a few days notice.
My mother took it well and by this time I could talk about it without crying. I told her that in my mind it was a chronic condition. Like diabetes. Something I would need to deal with and manage the rest of my life.
Speaking of Life. When I first met with the oncologist she explained there were no predictors for my cancer treatment. I could keep going for five years. Or 20. Immediately in my head I decided I would live for 35 more years. Since that was four years ago I have 31 years to go.
I flew back home from Florida in a daze after the strain of telling my mother about the situation. Keeping myself on an even keel during that was kind of like on a tightrope hundreds of feet in the air. It was, frankly, the hardest conversation I've ever had in my life.
The very next day was payday at work. To my astonishment and horror, my paycheck was 25 percent less than it had been two weeks before. I was frozen. Scooped out like a shell.
When I finally screwed up the courage to ask why the vast discrepancy in remuneration I was told the company's insurance policy had increased because of my situation. I knew this was a lie but didn't have the strength to fight back. I had been there almost exactly two years.
I know what you must be thinking and I thought the same thing. How can this be legal? Well the answer is, it is not illegal unless you have 15 or more employees. It's just immoral.
Thus at a time when I'd just been handed the most serious medical diagnosis of my life I was forced to put that news aside and try and find another job right away. And of course I was terrified. I had cancer. Cancer that would never go away. Who would hire me?
There is a certain kind of luck that occasionally kicks in when you have no way out. You think about something hard enough and the Universe delivers it to you. I didn't sleep. I thought constantly about how I could find another job. Meanwhile I overheard my boss scheduling interviews for who would replace me.
I found a job -- and amazingly quickly. And it was not just a job to get away as fast as I could but a great and interesting and creative job with people I knew and respected. I took the job and gave two weeks' notice. I was terminated immediately that same week. I was paid out the two weeks' notice. I counted myself fortunate and beat feet out of there. I had two weeks off between one job ending and the new one beginning. I couldn't afford to go anywhere, so I slept late, took long walks, went to the movies, and attempted to clear out my brain of the toxic residue that had built up since my diagnosis two months before.
It's now four years later from that horrific time. I fully expect another 31 years of fantastic, colorful, creative, beautiful life. I love my job. I wake up thrilled every day to go to work. I'm also writing a book and a one woman show about my experiences in addition to several other projects including a young adult novel about a kickass girl coder one hundred years from now.
Cancer has changed my life in every conceivable way. What I had considered important became not so much. Other things -- family, friends, long summer afternoons, laughter -- suddenly became extremely important. I've met so many wonderful inspirational people on this journey and I know I'll meet many more before I come to the end of my road in 31 years.
I have a lot to do before that happens.
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