Ever have something in your life that doesn't seem too important for a very long time and then all of a sudden it becomes a very big deal? And every time you look somewhere you seem to see something that relates to that very big deal? It feels like you can't get away from it, no matter what you do, where you go, who you talk to or how you try to focus on other things. It can be a real pain.
I've been that way with breast cancer. My adoptive mother, Mama, had breast cancer twice -- once when I was six and again when I was nine. It made a lot of changes in my life, changes that I, the stubborn little brat that I was, really ticked me off. Mama had always taken care of my hair, washing and curling it, but with the radical mastectomies she couldn't do that so I had to have my hair cut short. In fourth grade I had three outfits, all gray and red, that I could mix and match. Mama had always made clothes for me at the drop of a sewing needle, frilly dresses and the like. The gray and red were definitely un-stylish, dull, boring and plain. Took me years to wear the color gray again. Most of all I remember the scars from her surgeries, the ugly, ropey red slashes that faded a bit but still remained visible to the end of her life when I was fourteen. I read her death certificate; it didn't say anything about cancer other than as part of her history, but I think the cancer killed her. Don't ask me why I think that, I just have thought it for all these fifty-plus years.
I didn't think about breast cancer for a very long time, decades even. I knew people who had had it, and some had done fine while others succumbed. Still, it was one of those diseases I never really wanted to think about. The memory of those scars and the lack of having her around for my high school and college graduations, my recitals and choral performances, my wedding, the birth of my son, and all the hundreds of other things girls do with their mothers still feels like a big hole. She died too soon, and I could never be the same after that happened.
Then came the day I found the lump. Like so many, I felt it but just didn't want to think about it. About three months later my doctor did an exam and he found it. He,packed me off to have first a mammogram and, when that came back looking kind of hinky, sent me for more tests including a biopsy, this time on both sides. From there I got the diagnosis -- a roughly two-centimeter tumor on one side with funny stuff going on in the other side. This required a visit to the surgeon. He read the films and the pathology report of the biopsy and gave me options: a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. His recommendation was the mastectomy, but also wanted me to think about doing a bilateral so that I could be more certain that what I was going through now wouldn't be something I would have to revisit in a few years. I decided on the bilateral and we set the date. I had about six weeks to get used to the idea that (a) I had cancer, (b) I was going to have to have surgery, and (c) I was never going to look or be the same again.
And wouldn't you know it, as soon as I got diagnosed it seemed like I was running into pink ribbons, public service announcements for mammograms, ads for cancer treatment centers, the whole schmear. It was like I couldn't get away from it for very long. I held it together; I did research, I learned to ask for and (hopefully graciously) receive help, I thought, I prayed, I worried, I fumed, I talked, I remembered. It was almost a relief to have the day of the surgery come and to actually be getting on with it. Now, four weeks later, I'm doing pretty well. I can work full days without getting completely exhausted halfway through it, I can do pretty much anything I want to do (and a few things I probably shouldn't), avoid things I really don't want to do on the basis of "recovering from surgery" and, in general, live fairly normally. I'm still waiting for the outcome of a few more tests like a DNA test on my tumor (surprisingly they keep stuff like that in case further tests are needed, and I never thought my tumor would have what amounts to a paternity test!) and then I start treatment.
Meanwhile I still keep running into things that brings the breast cancer back to my mind every time I turn around. It's bad enough looking in the mirror and seeing the ugly scars -- everything from thin red lines to scabby and swollen places -- as well as having lumps and bumps that are really not very aesthetic (of course, the original "bumps" that got removed weren't exactly things of beauty and a joy forever either). I still have aches and discomfort, not really pain, but enough that I'm not totally comfortable most of the time. I understand this will all change -- but dang, I wish it would hurry up about it. I just want to get my life back.
I went back to work one week and two days after my surgery. Since I work two 3-hour days and two full days a week, I had to try to pace myself to get through the days, sometimes coming home for a long nap in mid-day before returning to the office. And danged if the paper didn't start running ads with pink ribbons or logos or even ads printed in pink. For every ad someone placed that used the ribbon or logo, the paper would make a donation to breast cancer research. You know, I began to enjoy seeing those pink ads; it was like a personal message that people do care about stuff like I had, and they were willing to pay to help research potential cures above and beyond what we can do now.
Tonight on TLC I tuned into a show I really enjoy, God alone knows why, called "Say Yes to the Dress." It's about a bridal salon in Atlanta, the people who work there and the brides and their bridal attendants who go there looking for the perfect dress or dresses. Maybe I like it because it is upbeat and the staff seem like people I'd really like to get to know. For the last couple of weeks, though, there's been a teaser about a special program scheduled for tonight about the owner of the store who was breaking the news to her staff that she had breast cancer. Oh, d***. Can't get away from it even on favorite TV programs. Anyway, I watched it and from time to time I had eyes filling with tears although I haven't cried a drop over my own diagnosis and surgery or, indeed, anything else for a good many years. Lori ended up having a bilateral mastectomy just like I did, but she had immediate reconstructive surgery, something I haven't decided to do yet and may not. After all, as a 92-year-old friend of mine remarked, "What would you want to do that for? After all, you don't have a husband!" Now I know why we have boobs. I still get a laugh out of that anyway.
Once I got the diagnosis, it was like everywhere I turned I was reminded of breast cancer. It was like the universe (or God or both or maybe even neither) wanted me to pay attention and made sure I had to do that very thing. I still pay attention; I can't help it, because this stuff is part of my history now, hopefully my history, anyway. I can't say I'll never have cancer again. After all, I had basal cell carcinoma on my nose last year and the surgery left a big scar. Oddly enough, it's healed up so well I can notice it but others aren't all that aware of it. Maybe my chest area will be the same way (although I'm sure not going to have it out there in public like my nose is!). Maybe I won't look like Mama did, and maybe my outcome won't be like hers, I don't know. Right now it's just getting through every day, every doctor's appointment, every test and every look in the mirror. Still, it could be worse.
So I guess that now breast cancer has my attention I better think of some way to not only deal with it but do something about it, not just for me but for other people who may not have had the great support system I had to help me get through it, or who might be in that place of denial that I was. It's a pity that sometimes the only way to get my attention about something is to hit me over the head with a sixteen-pound cast-iron frying pan or the mental equivalent. Anyway, every time something happens that reminds me of Voldemort (my name for my cancerous tissue) or an ache or pain from a regenerating nerve or bumped swelling, I am aware of how far I've come in just three months. I'm grateful to be alive and I'm also aware of how much stronger I am as a person because of it.
It's quite a lesson -- and a helluva way to have to learn it. I'm looking forward to five years from now, seeing what's happened and what I've gained from all this. God willing, five years from now I'll be clear of cancer and moving on to bigger and better things.