Shhhh…I Have Cancer
A close up look at cancer treament
I am young, and I keep fit through rowing and cross training, so my diagnosis of breast cancer was quite a shock. I have no history of cancer on my maternal side, and I don’t smoke, drink heavily, or eat in a way that would say, “Hey this can give you cancer, make sure you load up your plate!” I had also made sure to have my exams regularly and had nothing to be concerned with only fifteen months earlier at my last mammogram. So when I received the call from my doctor, with no fewer than four people around my desk at work, I was stunned and instantly scared. I will say that I must have the poker face of poker faces because not one single person around me knew anything was up or that I had just received devastating news.
I kept this charade up for four agonizing weeks at my work. Honestly, I didn’t start telling everyone because those that I had told cried, which made me cry, and let’s face it – mascara eyes are just not the “in” thing. Plus, as I have come to realize, this was my secret—and I not only wanted to keep it, I needed to keep it quiet. The quiet was keeping me sane, and the unknown next steps that I was certain everyone would inquire about were just that – unknown. In all, eight people knew what I was going through. We employ over 200 people at the office I work in, and I am busy and interact with over 80 of them on a day-to-day basis. That I had confided in eight seemed too many at the time and now seems so small. I’ve come to realize that shouting from the mountain top is my new survival mechanism and laughing at the beast that used to reside in me gives me more power than it ever could have had. I do not care who knows, just as long as their knowing makes them or their loved ones get that mammogram regularly or get checked right away if they feel something different from one day to the next.
My cancer was not something I could “feel.” I did not have a lump or anything noticeable. It was noticed on a mammogram by an observant technician whom I have never met but owe my life to. My cancer was diagnosed as Ductile Carcinoma In Situ – DCIS for short. What this all means is that my cancer was in the milk ducts of my left breast. I had read where breastfeeding can cut the risk of breast cancer down. Well, my son didn’t know what formula was – he had breast milk exclusively for the first year of his life. Once I had made the decision to stop, I was left with a lump of sorts on my left breast, on the outside edge. I had this looked at several times by different doctors over the 20 years since and even had a sonogram done on it. The conclusion was that it was a blocked milk duct and nothing I needed to worry myself with. They were right, as my actual cancer formed on the interior of my left breast.
I did something that doctors advise against – I googled “DCIS” and tried to teach myself med school from the hot-button topics of Google. What I did read did comforted me, but it also helped lay out the very scary treatment options. I could potentially have a lumpectomy: The area of the breast with the infection could be removed, and plastic surgery could be done later after pathology reports were read, or I could have a mastectomy and remove the entire breast and tissue. Twenty years ago, there was no question as to what a woman “should” do, but now, science has shown this cancer can give you a choice if found early enough. I thought about the options and weighed them against my personal feelings and how this had come out of nowhere in just 15 months. I decided I would be more aggressive than this silly cancer. Armed with this information, I was off to see the surgeon.
This man was wonderful. He had humor and a great accent – as I discovered later a mix of Russia (he grew up there), New York (where he came to at the age of 18) and Texas (Think about these blends and then try and say “Ya’ll” with that combination of accents.). His routine was to check the area of concern showing on the mammogram against the size of my breasts (I was barely an A cup). His news (in a twangy “Rusyorkex” accent) did not surprise me (remember, I am a Google doctor at this point): “Well, you won’t have much left if we do a lumpectomy. I think a mastectomy with node biopsy is in order.” I took all of that in, and then, as calmly as I could, replied: “Can you take them both off? While I am certain I will like you, I really don’t want a long-term relationship with a cancer surgeon. I want to have to make this decision once and would like to do all I can to make sure this doesn’t show up in a year or two on the other side.” There was silence in the room as he stared at me for a moment and then replied (classic): “You just stole 20 minutes of my presentation!” Laughter – my first in over 24 hours filled the room.
So, that was how I made the most difficult decision I’ve yet to face. I decided to quit hiding things and I quietly started sharing my diagnosis with my rowing friends. Like I already mentioned, telling others caused them to cry which in turn left me in tears. I was strong, but we all have that area of softness, and when I watched one of my closest friends try to hold them in, I allowed myself to cry first. She and I had rowed at an international level together, and every boat we were in together won gold. This bond we have is never going to fade.
The friends we have in our lives can be the most incredible supporters, and telling them can help you come to terms with hearing something you never thought you’d hear. The friendship that I have with the rowing community is larger than I knew and stronger than I realized. I like everyone I row with – I like winning, and I try to lose graciously (ok, not really!!). I don’t put out excuses for my performance; I try to accept that I didn't train right or well enough for the race, conditions, or competition. I like knowing that I give it my best in each race, and I took that same mindset into fighting cancer – I am giving it my all, plus both boobs! I admit my struggles have been present, but I am using my athletic mindset to help me forge on.
As I end this entry, I realize I started this out by sharing with you how I kept my story in, and in pieces, how it came out. There is no right way to tell anyone you have cancer, and there really is no way to share it without showing or causing fear. Being scared doesn’t make any of us less focused or determined. “Cancer” is truly an ugly word, but parts of your experiences with it can be both amazing and beautiful. I have had this happen on my road and can tell you of the conflict, the pain, and confusion, but this journey has given me something I would never have realized without my diagnosis: I have the absolute joy in knowing that I have chosen some remarkable people to share my life with.
If you are on your own journey with the “C” word, it is understandable that you may be quiet, secretive, and scared. Speaking openly can be incredibly scary, but knowing you are possibly easing someone’s fear (including your own) with your laughter can be the strongest medicine in your fight. As a doctor (University of Google, Class of 2013), I feel it is only fair to prescribe everyone with a good dose every once in a while. Laughing at or with that which scares us most can sometimes offer the best treatment.