There are people you admire in life. People whose careers you follow, whose successes you cheer from the sidelines; they are actors, and leaders, authors and artists. Maybe you've met them or just applauded them from afar. I admired author Elin Hilderbrand long before I met her. When I did finally have the pleasure of meeting her, I was nervous, to say the least.
We were both appearing on a Boston radio program to talk books. I was concerned that meeting someone whom I respected would result in disappointment, as can be the case when the public person is very different from the private. Would my "idea" of her (cultivated from years of reading her bestselling Nantucket-based novels and watching her countless interviews) not match reality?
Needless to say, Elin did not disappoint. When we sat together, alone in the greenroom, she was filled with as much energy and enthusiasm as she displays in interviews and public appearances. She was, and is, effervescent. When I learned a year ago that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, I was shocked. What would this cruel and vicious disease do to a woman with such a spark, such a love for life? To say she was inspiring is an understatement. She handled these giant obstacles with grace and humor, strength and hope. She brought her readers and fans along on her difficult journey (through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). She continues to share her story, hoping to be the light at the end of someone else's difficult tunnel. Below is an extraordinary personal essay Elin has written on her journey through breast cancer.
#MAMASTRONG: ONE YEAR LATER
by Elin Hilderbrand
And here we are, one year later.
I have undergone five surgeries, I have lost three breasts, I have written two novels. This morning, I ran eight miles and spent 45 minutes at the gym after delivering my three children to school.
For those of you new to the story, I am a novelist who writes and lives on Nantucket Island - and last May, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. On June 13, 2014, I underwent a double mastectomy at Massachusetts General Hospital. The morning before my operation, I appeared on CBS THIS MORNING because my novel, The Matchmaker, which had just come out, also featured a protagonist who is diagnosed with cancer. I did not find out I was sick until months after the book was finished, and my segment on CBS THIS MORNING was mostly spent puzzling over this bizarre coincidence, or what Oscar Wilde called "life imitating art."
While on the show, I think Gayle, Norah, Charlie and I all wanted to make some kind of meaningful connection between real life and fiction. My character, Dabney Kimball Beech, handles her cancer with fortitude and elegance. That was how I had planned to handle my own diagnosis, but as I found out, things don't always unfold as seamlessly as they do on the page.
The operation was a big deal: two surgeons, six hours, and it included the removal of some of my lymph nodes. The tissue was sent out to California where someone in a lab would determine if I needed chemo or radiation. I was very lucky; I did not need either. Despite the presence of four tumors in my right breast, the cancer had been caught early. I endured the reconstruction process, which involved having tissue expanders placed under my skin where my breasts used to be. These expanders were like flat rubber balls and each had a magnetic port inside. I flew back and forth from Nantucket to Boston six times to have "fills," where the nurse practitioner would shoot a syringe filled with saline into the port. My breasts got bigger...and bigger...until I was a very healthy C-cup. (My original breasts had been about half an A-cup but as my surgeon so delicately put it, "They don't make implants as small as your breasts are, so you'll have to go bigger.") On September 30, 2014, I had the tissue expanders removed and implants put in.
Ordeal over. Or so I thought.
Two weeks later I developed an infection in my left breast. One minute I was fine, doing my eight-mile walk -- and the next minute I was being driven to the hospital. Admitted. And, shortly thereafter, helicoptered to Boston. The infection was Mrsa and the prevailing danger was septic shock. (At one point, my blood pressure was 78 over 44 and the nurse said, "This can't be right. This isn't high enough to sustain your internal organs." What not to say while taking your patient's blood pressure, I thought. She took it again, hoping it would be higher. Nope.) I was operated on and my left breast was removed. Again. I spent three months with one healthy C-cup and one nothing cup, flat to the bone. That was what I had always thought "breast cancer" would look like, and I'm not going to lie: I hated it.
I had the tissue expander put in again on the left side in a surgery in January and I spent the winter flying back and forth to Boston (through blizzards!) for six more fills. I spent something like 12 weeks on two different antibiotics. (One of them my pharmacist called 'last line of defense hospital-strength;' it was, I thought, the AK-47 of antibiotics). And on May 14, 2015, eleven months after my first surgery, I had the left implant put in. Again.
Ordeal over. Fingers crossed.
It might sound cliché, but this past year has taught me many things, three of which I will share with you here.
Twelve days after my double mastectomy, I traveled to do two events in Chicago. I did not cancel these events because to cancel these events would have meant that I wasn't well enough to go, and I was determined to be well enough to go. At my second event at a public library in Cook County, I faced a room filled with women eating brown bag lunches. In the front left of the audience were two women, one with no hair and one with very short hair. My eyes kept going back to them. I had drains in on both sides (hidden by my dress) and I was on narcotic painkillers; suffice it to say, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. When those two women came through the line to get their books signed the one with short hair said, "We have both had double mastectomies. Collectively, we have gone through 36 rounds of chemo and 64 rounds of radiation. We came today, Elin, to show you that you are going to be fine."
Lesson one: The women fighting this disease, women far sicker than I was, were doing it with strength and grace. It was both humbling and inspiring.
Lesson two came in the form of a text message from a woman who works at my local independent bookstore. She is a seven-year survivor with two grown sons. The text said something like: Elin, if I had my life to live over, I would choose the cancer again because of what it has taught me.
At the time I read that text I thought: No way.
But now, a year later, I think, yes. Because it was only in facing a threat that threatened my very being that I have learned what it means to be alive. Or, as a fellow Nantucketer who was recently found to be in remission said, "I feel grateful, even when I'm doing the dishes."
And back to Dabney and The Matchmaker. A part of me wants to rewrite the book now, after, so that I can really get it right. This is exactly what it feels like to be told you have cancer. This is exactly what it feels like to be betrayed by the vessel you have been taking such good care of for 45 years. But another part of me realizes that things generally unfold as they're supposed to, and that going through a cancer battle fictionally first was ultimately helpful. Dabney, in her perfection, gave me something to aspire to.
Lesson three was about what it really means to be #mamastrong. It doesn't mean smiling through the pain and holding back the tears. It means, for me, accepting support from my readers, my friends, my family and even my children. It means saying thank you and I need you and I appreciate you. It means passing along the loving generosity I have experienced this past year to the next woman and saying to her: I am here today to show you that you are going to be fine.
Elin Hilderbrand's latest novel, THE RUMOR, releases on June 16, 2015. Read more about Elin on her website.