(Because there are no photographs of me with a bald head, I am borrowing a photo of Robin Roberts, newscaster on ABC-TV and one of my personal heroes. Robin’s elegance, strength and fortitude through her two battles with cancer is an inspiration. Her contagious smile says to me, ‘everything’s going to be okay’. We love you, Robin! Thank you for showing us how well it can be done.)
Four months after Wall Street crashed, in late January 2009, I went for my annual mammogram and ultrasound. Every year I have a routine ultrasound because I have ‘dense’ breast tissue. Dense breast tissue is 4-6x more likely to become infected with cancer as well as being so much harder to analyze.
As I was leaving for the appointment, a friend of mine jokingly said to me, “Don’t worry. You’re only in trouble if they tell you that you need to watch ‘the movie’.”
The tech kept going over the same spots on the ultra sound. The radiologist came in and looked at the screen. She saw two suspicious areas. I have chosen this practice and pay out-of-pocket for my annual screenings because if they do see something, they biopsy it the same day. Good thing! She did a needle aspiration of the first dark spot and we watched it collapse on the screen; it was only fluid. The second spot, however, required a core biopsy where they clip small pieces of tissue to be analyzed. This takes several days. As I was leaving the doctor looked at me very sincerely and said, “I don’t like how this looks and I’d like for you to watch a movie.” I knew then that I had it. Breast cancer. The look on her face said it all. I saw her again as I was leaving the office and she said simply, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” Not exactly warm and fuzzy but, as it turns out, pragmatic and true.
In that window of time between my biopsy and the cancer confirmation, I had a realization. Here was my test. I had spent the last seven years analyzing, studying and learning; trying to make my mind healthier. Could I have, in fact, developed a skill set for trauma management? This would be another long haul but I would conquer it. If it was positive, I was ready. I was not going down. I was strong and resilient and while it was a scare for me and was going to be another incredible scare for my children, we would get through it and be better for having lived it.
Of course, like death, a cancer diagnosis (or any life-changing experience) has a grieving period. There is no going around the stages; a person must actually go through all of them. But if what I knew to be true was now in fact the case, I would pass through the stages more quickly with my new skill-set of understanding and self-awareness.
Like it or not, things always move forward they never stay static. No matter the outcome of the pathology, it was detected so early that in my logical mind I knew I would be fine. This didn’t stop the phases of grief from coming but it did make them less scary and much shorter in duration. I had a positive attitude from the start and (effortlessly) stayed that way throughout the duration of my treatment. Once again, how could I stay down with all the love and support that was being showered upon me everyday. The power of prayer and positive thinking really does work.
I got confirmation for a positive malignancy the following Monday. My dear friend, Cindy, who had been right beside me since Ted’s death, happened to walk in unexpectedly as I was hanging up with the doctor. Thank God! She accompanied me to all my appointments as moral support and to be my scribe when I couldn’t trust myself to remember the specific details.
My first dread after the initial shock was that it was going to be like 9/11 all over again…and I had finally just finished thanking everyone! The drama of being a 9/11 widow now diagnosed with breast cancer would be almost too much for people to believe. I did not want to seem unappreciative but I just wanted to hide. Once again, people were so generous and thoughtful in wanting to help me. Friends brought us dinners for weeks. I was so tired of receiving and so compulsive that I made a heavy loaf of Amish Friendship Bread as a thank you for every family that brought us dinner. I was grateful, gracious and appreciative but I just couldn’t receive anymore.
Boy, was I lucky. They had found my cancer VERY early. I had Lobular breast cancer that is normally extremely hard to detect. It is not a solid mass or calcification. It is a clear jelly-like substance that looked like two stacked cysts on the ultra sound. Normally Lobular presents like a more highly concentrated area blood vessels. It is also a type of cancer that has a lot of legs or tentacles so tumor size can be misleading.
I joke now that while I didn’t dodge the bullet, it did just graze me. And while it is not a joking matter, I also knew it could have been so much worse. It was Stage 1 meaning the tumor was less than 2cm in size and I would only need a lumpectomy. They successfully removed tissue the size of an egg to gain clear margins because of the tentacles.
After surgery I bluffed having the flu to buy time before telling my young sons. My surgery was in mid-February and Billy was still suffering from the night terrors that had plagued him since the prior August. He continued to wake up each night and sleep on my couch. Thankfully, he was given a small but meaningful part in the school play that winter and in early March he was finally able to snap out of it.
By late March, after I’d had time to digest the whole situation, Billy found out I had cancer when the ‘wig lady’ called one Saturday afternoon and left a message on the answering machine. He understandably freaked out. But by then I was able to give him examples of many other moms we knew from town who had had much more serious cases than mine and were now fine. He was able to handle the information and I am so grateful that we could buy him the time he needed to help keep his reaction in perspective.
Lobular is on the aggressive side but even though they had caught it early, my surgeon recommended that I have chemotherapy because my children were still so young (I was 48) and why take any risk with re-infection?
I met Oncologist Rosemary Fiore whose first words to me were, “ stay skinny because tumors live on sugar.” Her next question was, “Do you drink alcohol.” I was very happy to say that I did not. I can’t imagine trying to quit a daily wine habit after getting a cancer diagnosis. So between the trauma of 9/11 (they say tumors take 6-8 years to grow) and my staple diet for most of my life being peanut M&Ms, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream and chardonnay, I couldn’t tell you which was the culprit. I was scheduled for four rounds of Citocen and Taxol, 3 weeks apart. It was not the most intense dose (I was able to skip Adriamicyn because my lymph nodes were not involved) but Dr. Fiore said it would be about a 7 on a scale of 1-10.
I lost my hair on the predicted 18th day after the first round of chemo in late April. Often with chemo the patient receives a booster shot of Nulasta within 72 hours of the infusion to increase the development of red blood cells. This causes some aching within the bone marrow and varies for each person. The first two days after each treatment I actually felt energized. I remember washing both cars the day after my first infusion. On days 3-9 I just felt ‘low’. As they say, it feels like the flu: achy, lethargic and rundown. I felt like crying yet I didn’t cry. I felt tired but lying down didn’t help. I felt toxic, poisoned and just kind of wrong.
I was able to do my daily chores. On Days 3-9, I got the kids fed and off to school. I would lie down and read, rest or watch television. I could still handle dinner, the clean up and bedtime. On days 9-21 I felt completely normal. They say the effects of chemo are cumulative. I did not find this to be the case. Each round was the same for me. For people who endure longer durations of treatment, I’m sure that may be true, but overall, my experience of chemo was easier than I had expected.
I did experience ‘chemo brain’. Chemo Brain is a real syndrome where you actually get ‘dumb’; forgetting words, processing slowly and not being able to remember one thing to the next. It does pass for most people however 25% of patients can have lasting effects.
Being bald was the weirdest part. I had two types of ‘hats with hair’. One had a thick headband that came low on my forehead and was cut in a cute contemporary bob. I bought it on the Internet for $75. I also had two different colored baseball caps with ponytails attached. I wore them with natural colored elastic headbands that created ‘fringe’ in the back of my head and people seemed not to notice. Of course anyone who knew me knew because I wasn’t a blonde or a red head and those were the colors of the ponytails. We have to remember that people don’t study each other. They are also usually 5-10 feet away. My ‘rig’ worked well. Anyone who didn’t know me didn’t seem to know the difference. I never wore my wig or adopted the scarf look.
At home I would take off any headwear and go bald. My children were great and said I looked beautiful. It made me love them and feel so proud. I think that is the strangest part of the cancer/chemo experience is that you look sick but you feel fine; at least most of the time. Oddly as well, you lose all of your body hair including your eyebrows and eyelashes so you look even sicker. It is the social awkwardness that I found most difficult. No one knows what to do with you. It’s very odd. I finished my last infusion in late June but could not go out in public without a hat or wig until September.
I completed 33 rounds (M-F for 6 ½ weeks) of radiation by early November and closed the door on my cancer treatment after a 10-month duration. I did not find radiation to be anything more than a daily 15- minute appointment. I was able to exercise each morning before I went. I did not feel fatigued at any time beyond what I would consider normal.
It was now Fall 2009 and the U.S. economy was in enormous trouble. Our accounts had been hit very hard. I needed to go back to work. So with my ½ inch long hair and swollen body I started classes to learn the new and innovative field of solar energy. Having been in radio advertising sales for 15 years prior to children going back into sales was the logical fall back position.
I was the only woman in the room of 20 men; engineers and contractors who didn’t know what to think of me but I didn’t care. It was fascinating to learn a new industry and product. I was always interested in acquiring new knowledge and I loved the chance to learn about and be a part of this cool, new, pro-active, sustainable green energy source.
Solar sales turned out to be very complicated and involved on many levels. The financial puzzle with the government incentives matched with the logistics of building a properly aligned array(s) to face toward True Asthmas (South) was much more difficult that it sounded. Many interested customers were unable to install a system because of the way their houses were built on the property.
I pursued solar sales for the next several months. It was a very difficult sell. The economic outlook for the country was still bleak but it had stabilized with the government’s TARP bailout of the Wall Street Banks. I scrutinized my household budget and trimmed anything I could. If we were very careful, I could stay at home for the time being but I would have to go back to work in the future.
By spring of 2011, both the NJ State and the Federal incentive programs for solar energy had run out in less than two years from what was originally designed as a five-year plan. The solar industry in NJ came to a screeching halt.
My last thoughts are this: In our society, there is only one word for cancer no matter its level of severity. I joke that my level of cancer should be called ‘cancer-light’ because while I had all the treatments and experienced all the phases I was never fighting for my life. As the Eskimos have 125 words for snow, so should we for cancer because so many cancers are totally treatable. Maybe this could help us turn the volume down on our fear.
While having cancer was not something I ever wanted or needed to experience, it turned out to be one of the greatest gifts of my life. Again a struggle, challenge or trauma rendered an even deeper insight, a more profound understanding of the courage, strength and resilience we are born with as human beings should we choose to see it. Again with gratitude and humility, I am that much better for having lived it.
So, can you develop a skill set for trauma management?? The answer is a resounding and absolutely positive YES!