Healthy choice

Life is about choices.  We face them everyday.  Some of my hardest choices have been about cancer treatment.  Is it aggressive enough?  Is it worth the side effects?


When I was faced with my surgery options, I was frozen.  I was numb.  I was terrified.  You name it.  I had never imagined what I would think when faced with the prospect of a mastectomy,  but I didn’t expect that.  I had some first-hand observations.  My mom had a mastectomy back when I was 4 or 5.  I used to play with her prosthesis,  and the need for it was not a mystery to me, even at that age.  And that’s perhaps why the idea so petrified me at the last minute.


I followed my doctors’ advice.  In the end, they told me I was a candidate for a lumpectomy,  and left the decision up to me.  I went with the lumpectomy.  It made sense, or so I told myself.  After all, it was an easier surgery with less recovery time.  I likely wouldn’t need additional surgery.  And most importantly – I didn’t have to make the hardest decision of my life.


Was it the best decision?  I don’t know, although I try not to second guess myself.   It still was a legitimate decision based upon the information at the time.  What I couldn’t have guessed at was the reality.  I couldn’t have foretold that I would have to undergo a second surgery a week later to remove more lymph nodes.   I would not have predicted that I would end up with an incision that would split open, and not close up for nine months.  It never would have occurred to me that I would end up with a fist-sized lump of scar tissue underneath a 2″ X 4″ scar that hurts constantly and is a great predictor of rain.  Or a breast that shrank a size smaller than the healthy side after radiation.


I won’t say it’s bad, but my radiation oncologist refers to me as “the scar”.  My plastic surgeon put it even more baldly, “What the hell did they do to you?”  I’m really not concerned about the appearance, but I’m tired of it aching and hurting.  And the nerve pain that it causes periodically in my arm.  And the fact that it feels like one big lump, such that all my doctors tell me that they can’t feel if anything else is there.   When I first went for a consult with the plastic surgeon,  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, if anything.   As I have followed up with him, my reaction has surprised me.  I told him to reduce the mangled side as much as he can, as well as evening out the good side.  I told him that even a mastectomy was on the table, if that was what it took.


The ease of that last statement shocked me.  I’ve changed so much in the last two years.  Losing my breasts is not the worst thing that can happen to me.  I’ve met so many women who have faced this decision so much more bravely than me, and I realize now it’s not the end of the world.   I understand how important the rest of me is.  And I know what a warrior my mom was, and I want to think I have a bit of that badassery in me.


So tomorrow is my surgery.  Currently, it is a bilateral breast reduction that will hopefully make me more comfortable and pain free, as well as giving me peace of mind by removing some extra tissue.  But I’m prepared for any outcome now or in the future.


My choice.  Because I’m not ruled by fear.


Are you my mother?

Today as I write this, my mother would have turned 72. This is tragic given that we lost her to metastatic breast cancer when she was 30. I’ve often wondered over the intervening forty-two years what she would have been like. Would she be proud of us? Would we be close, and talk, and laugh?


Would I find that I am like her?


The honest truth is that I have no idea on that last one. The six-year-old me only knew Mom. The person who put band aids on skinned knees, broke up the bickering with my brother, and told me I really had to go to sleep because she just saw Santa Claus landing on the house next door. I didn’t get to know Mom the person, but I know she had to be amazing.  How could she not be?  She created my universe.


All the years I was growing up, I tried and failed to feel her presence. Anyone who knows me, understands that I don’t believe in ghosts and spirits in the traditional sense. But I do think that when someone has had an important place in your life, they become a part of you mentally. I know this was true with my grandfather. He was there every day for me, and after he passed away when I was 25, I still felt his presence. I think of him when I hear an off-color joke that I know he would have appreciated. I think of him when I eat baked beans, one of his favorites. I love to reminisce with my brother about all the crazy adventures we had camping with grandpa. He was colorful, and lively, and I love how much I am like him sometimes.


I don’t have those memories of Mom. The memories that I do have became hazy with time, as has her presence. Its not that I don’t remember her, it is just that it is like a dream.  You know you had it the next day, but there isn’t always clarity.  Much like watching an old 13-inch black and white tv with an old rabbit ear antenna, the picture is sometimes a bit scrambled.


It’s a part of my life that I have hated.  I look at pictures and don’t know what they mean.  I ordered a copy of my birth certificate about ten years ago, and was fascinated with her signature.   Up until that point, I don’t recall ever seeing her handwriting.   I’ve clung to scraps of stories to get insight into her nature.  But it’s like watching a movie of someone else’s life.


When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I thought about mom a lot.  As I began to work through my emotions, I began to wonder what her journey was like.  I tried to imagine going through cancer with two young kids, and my heart broke.  As I have come out the other side as a survivor, I count myself lucky because I know how it can turn out.  And how it may turn out in the end.


As I was struggling last week with what I wanted to say in mom’s memory, I received a message from one of my most dear friends and fellow breast cancer warriors.  She said during a recent meditation she had felt mom’s presence, and that she was proud of me and the work that has become my passion, educating the world about breast cancer.  And I suddenly realized something.


For the first time in many years, I feel mom’s presence beside me.  I have a glimpse into what she experienced, and for the first time in a long time,  I embrace that we have shared the same path.  I share something with her that no one else did.  And even though it is a horrible, ugly disease, I think that we share a common goal – to fight for all those who are afflicted.   Because I want everyone who has metastatic breast cancer to understand one thing.  Your children will not forget you.  They will love you always.  They will always look for more insights into who you are.  And hopefully one day, we will find a cure for metastatic breast cancer so no more daughters and sons have to spend their lives looking for a connection.


A cure.


For me.  For you.  For us all.