by Kathy H. Ely
I got the news in the car, on the way home from a 4th of July beach getaway. I had tried my best not to think about the impending diagnosis over the holiday weekend, pretending that the body inside that summer bathing suit was just fine. With my mom and daughter in the back seat, I struggled to hold my reactions in check when my wonderful doctor said the not-so-wonderful word, “malignant.” I know the reason that I am sitting here today is that he got me into the surgeon and oncologist in short order; I was in surgery two weeks later. Thus began the year-long journey to get this monster out of my body.
I still feel like one of the lucky ones. Yes, my cancer was invasive, but contained within the breast. Yes, it was triple negative, meaning that they were able to contain it but it does not respond to any of the after-surgery drugs so effective for the mop-up operation, to rid us of errant cells. So, to be sure—yes, I wanted to be sure, to see my grandchildren—we headed into six rounds of chemo followed by 28 days of radiation. As my smart oncologist reminded me, we are treating the whole body at this point, not just the breast. He was equally calming and sensible when he responded to my question about the “frozen skull caps” being used in Europe during chemo to avoid hair loss. Ah, yes, but those areas, he said, are then open to those errant cells. So logical.
So off I went to see Dee-Dee at Amy’s of Denmark wig shop, widely known as the place to care for my inevitable bald stage. This marvelous woman, reminiscent of Cher in the early days, told me, without pity, without drama, that, yep, three weeks from your first treatment your hair will begin to fall out. No worries, though, we’ll take care of it! She was right on. One of the more dramatic moments was when my best buddy, Anne, went back with me right at that twenty-day mark so that Dee-Dee could shave that now-sticky, unwanted falling-out mass from my head and fit me for my new look. It’s not that I wept for the loss of my locks, though I’m no Sinead O’Connor. It’s that I wanted to have some sense of normalcy; I wanted to go back to work, to my daughter’s soccer games and graduation, and not have stares. (I did rock my little beanie at home, though) More than once I smiled when acquaintances told me how much they liked my haircut. Best two grand I ever spent.
Yes, I did gloss right over that chemo, the worst part. But really, again, I felt nothing but lucky. I did feel nauseous after, had that awful metallic taste in my mouth, still can’t stand the smell of rubbing alcohol, which evokes the stick of the needle in the port. My feet got cold as they pumped the poison in, and I couldn’t stay awake to read all the magazines I brought for the three-hour drip, but mostly, I just went home and stayed on the couch til I got back to normal. I felt like I spent six months on that couch, though it was really only three. Radiation felt like a breeze after that, just go in every morning, put on the silly robe, get into the weird futuristic machine and let them zap you. Again, lucky…didn’t burn, didn’t chafe, the room had pretty pictures and lovely, kind technicians.
And all the way through my co-workers, my friends, my amazing family were there to prop me up. (I could write lots about my oh-so-caring husband, but that’s another column.) I had doctors who gave me the details I craved, without emotion but enough understanding. So I’m here to tell you my story, five years and five months and counting, cancer-free. I did have a little melanoma recently (if you can have a “little cancer,”), dealt with in short order, or so they tell me.
Did I say chemo was the worst part? No, the worst part is the stone cold fear, the fear that something that doesn’t even hurt is trying to kill you. And the fact that the feeling doesn’t go away, even though I join in on the pink T-shirt “survivor” celebrations—I passed my five-year mark, I’m cancer free! But we wait, we wait for the other shoe to drop, for them to say, “I’m sorry, it’s come back, and this time, we can’t help you.”
But I’m fighting against that day. So to the doctor who acted as though I was a hypochondriac for getting the ultrasound after my gynecologist and I found another lump, I say, "You’re the idiot!" You, and the insurance guy and clueless doctors and actuaries who say, “No, no, wait, we’ll watch it,” “statistics say you don’t need a mammogram.” What I know is that no one knows the day that that little cell, that little invasive cell, breaks out of the breast and travels to the lymph nodes and beyond, even if we are watching. So I say to all of my strong women, Do what you need to do. Feel yourself up, get your tests, and stay around to play with your grandchildren.