Considering that I’m the person who overshares about absolutely everything, I find it slightly ironic that I have been dragging my feet on writing this particular post.
So, I should start, as my kids always say, with the Good News. And that is that I’m O.K.
I have trouble with some of the bigger details of this story, except for the beginning of it. The details of which are the most vivid. So that’s what you’re getting next.
Get yourself a cafecito and sit back. We’re going to be here a while. Also, don’t you think it’s funny that we Cubans are the only people that suggest having the strongest coffee in the world in order to relax? Just an observation.
Let me continue…
The Bad News and hence the title of this post is that I’ve had One Bad Year that started the day, June 6, 2018 to be exact, that I found a lump in a place where lumps do not belong. I thought that I had grown an extra rib at the top of my ribcage and just under my right breast. Like you do. (I know you’re rolling your eyes right now. Stop it immediately and let me explain.)
Denial, being strong and quick, and happens to run deeply in my family, jumped right in: “It’s probably nothing. You probably just grew an extra rib. Don’t even mention it to anyone.”
Because that’s a thing that happens in Denial Universe. You grow an extra rib all stealthlike and it’s nothing to worry about. (I know. Shut up.)
But the Cuban por-si-las-moscas side of me decided to tell a close friend that I meet with for coffee regularly. Like I just said, “por si las moscas.” (Literally translated: “in case of the flies.” Loosely translated: “Just in case.”)
“It’s probably nothing,” I said to her, because I am, apparently, a puppet minion of Denial.
She looked at me knowingly, and wisely said, “Let’s call your doctor right now and make an appointment. Just to make sure.” (Which in good Cuban translates to “por si las moscas.”) She definitely didn’t buy my “new rib” argument.
Also, if you’re ever writing a story like this, the big tip-off that something is weirdly wrong is how many words you have to put in quotes because Denial makes you sound pretty crazy. But that’s not important right now.
My doc thought “Maybe it’s a cyst, but you’re overdue to have a mammogram, so let’s get that done.”
So I marched over to our local Women’s Breast Clinic to have that overdue mammogram. Which seemed silly when obviously I had just grown an extra rib, so what was the big deal?
And that’s where the trouble began.
Of course, the very lovely fake-poker-faced technician didn’t reveal anything could even be wrong.
“Let’s do an ultrasound,” she suggested, in the same voice you’d say, “hey kids! Let’s play a game!” As if that’s what they do with all their patients in order to make the next procedure fun for all.
She called the doctor in. Who then proceeded to check the place where I had grown that extra rib and whose brows furrowed when she did. She then ultra-sounded side B. (I think it was indeed at this first appointment that I began naming body parts as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Don’t judge.) Dr. Furrowy Brow’s brow got furrowier. (<–is that a word?)
She brought back Fake Poker Face Tech who said, in her best Kindergarten Enthusiasm Voice: “Let’s do a 3D mammogram!” The only response to this much enthusiasm is, “Oh! Could we?”
Denial would not even let me entertain the thought that anything could be remotely wrong with all this quickly escalating peering into my chest.
After the 3D mammogram, Dr. Furrowy came back in, this time with a new serious faced person. She told me “something-something-something calcifications.” And “something-irregular-something else.” And “broke-out-so-let’s-discuss-treatment-options.”
Wait. What? Did she say, “calcium?” Like something to do with milk? That’s an odd thing to say.
I somehow went temporarily deaf at this point. So, I requested she speak to me plainly.
“You have malignant bi-lateral breast cancer and will need to follow up with biopsies to determine treatment options.”
“No,” I replied, very calmly, “my people don’t get breast cancer.” I mean, I had to set that record straight immediately.
Dr. Furrowy got even more furrowy and as an added bonus, gave me a look of pity as she read the diagnosis and translated it for me.
Suddenly, everything changed.
I heard it all again at a super slow speed in a distorted monster-under-the-bed voice:
“I h a v e b r e a s t c a n c e r?”
Wait. Did she also use the word “malignant?”
What universe was I now in? Apparently I didn’t grow an extra rib. It was breast cancer. I started to slowly absorb this information.
The only word for cancer I had was “stupid.”
Eric and I stared at each other stupidly for a while until the tears began. I had (stupidly) thought I could handle it all on my own. But as we prayed together, I made the difficult (for me) decision to accept help, emotional and otherwise. And to trust my people.
I know how it sounds as I write this. But there’s that part deep in my lizard brain that thought I really could just handle this quickly and quietly and not bother anyone with it. Damn. Cuban woman fortitude goes deep.
The time came when I needed to tell the kids. I thought getting the diagnosis was awful. Telling it to my kids was the most difficult and emotional part of this for me. When I heard each of their voices on the other end of the phone, I would just melt in a puddle of tears. Each conversation was met with quiet. I hated that. I wanted to make this whole ordeal better and easier for them to handle.
But now they lived in a world where their mom had breast cancer. It felt like a really mean trick to play on them. I made a decision right then that cancer would not define me and that as much as possible I would try to keep my sense of humor through this One Bad Year.
The wonderful revelation in all of this was that I had raised four champions. I am proud to report that I gave birth to four magnificently empathetic, capable, and brave people. And they rose to this occasion, taking turns when they needed to, driving me to appointments, making dinners. All the things that used to be ordinarily simple that had suddenly become complex after the stupid words, “breast cancer” were spoken into our world and had turned it upside down.
The next few months were a blur of biopsies. (Not fun.) And MRI’s. (Also not fun.) And meeting with an oncologist. Denial kept trying to take back the reins. “It’s probably nothing.”
But appointment after appointment and test after test revealed that yes, indeed I did have bi-lateral (both sides) breast cancer and yes, indeed it was malignant. And I would need surgery to cut out the malignant parts. “Parts?”
The wisest advice I received (besides the one from my friend who made me call my doctor originally) was to take someone with me to all appointments because I would not be able to register what they were telling me.
Eric held my hand through the needle biopsies which were as awful as they sound.
Lucy took it upon herself to take me to the oncologist and ask all the pertinent questions. She had the wherewithal to tape all the things the oncologist said so she could accurately report back to the fam.
Adam and Alysha, who were 3,000 miles away in Alexandria, Virginia sent us a monthly subscription to Butcher Box, so that we wouldn’t have to worry too much about shopping. It was hardest on Adam because he was so far away and felt so helpless.
Amy brought Sebastian to me almost daily. And when they weren’t able to visit, we face-timed and said goodnight via smartphone.
Jon took me to appointments no son should have to take his mother to.
And my friends.
People, I have the best, most wonderful friends on the planet, who stayed in my face and made me feel loved right when I wanted to hide and feel sorry for myself. Prayers went out for my recovery all across the nation, in the UK, and in Africa. I count myself blessed that the people I have chosen to surround myself with are not only loving and loyal, but many of them are faitthful prayer warriors.
If you’ve read this far, I’m grateful. I’m just now seeing how long this post is. Not apologizing. Just observing.
The title: One Bad Year was what my friend, Jana (the one who made me call my doc and to whom I will be eternally grateful) said to me when I told her I had malignant (<–I really hate that word) bilateral breast cancer. “Well, you’re probably going to have One Bad Year. Prepare yourself for that.”
And so it has been.
I had what is called a “lumpectomy” where they remove only the cancerous cells. In other words, no more extra rib. Go figure. That was on Side A – It’s easier to follow along if the players have a name. Side B was just starting to break out, but it was everywhere. “Like lint in a shag carpet.” That paints quite a picture, doesn’t it?
So, I had the first surgery on August 15th, 2018. Surgery was around 6 hours and when I finally came to, I couldn’t walk. I could barely speak. And the pain was stupid. My brain was not able to try coming up with any other descriptive words.
I was barely coherent. Yet these barbarians wanted to send me home immediately. With drains coming out of some of the favorite parts of my body. Where are we? Medieval England? Would there be leeches and bloodletting next?
I talked them into letting me stay the night. Eric slept on the little pull out couch right next to me. What they never bothered to tell me was that they had injected a dye into me that would eventually come out in the best way your body knows to expel liquids. And that it was BLUE.
I don’t want you to picture me sitting in the bathroom, but for this particular scene, that’s where I found myself. Expelling a deep blue liquid. Think Star Trek Romulan Ale.
I wanted to tell everyone and yet, share this with no one. Because there are some things that should be kept private. Eric was the lucky one present at the time of this cataclysmic discovery. And now I’ve shared it with you all. Aren’t you the luckiest?!
I’m going to leave you with that visual for the moment and I’ll tell you the rest of the story in a day or two. Just writing about it this far has left me feeling some kind of way.
If you were really paying attention to my blog and to my social media starting in the summer of 2018 and continuing on into 2019, you will have noticed that I kind of disappeared from my own feed during this time.
I want to stress that I’m O.K. right now, but I still have more story to share. Thanks for hanging in here this far. Let me reiterate that cancer is stupid and I learned that it really helped to keep a sense of humor through what is a terrible, terrible ordeal.
More on the rest of my treatment in a day or two. If you were trying to follow a timeline, at the point of the Blue Romulan Ale situation, I’m only 4 months into my One Bad Year.
Stay tuned… Life is still in session.