Today. One year ago today. One year ago today I was scared. One year ago today I was scared I would die. One year ago today I was scared I would die soon.
One year ago today was the culmination. The snowballing of fifteen days of sadness. Fifteen days of grey under my eyes. Fifteen days of both wanting to collapse in a heap under my covers and also never ever wanting to close my eyes again for fear I would never see their little faces again. Fifteen days of trying to figure out how, if heaven was my destiny, it could possibly be better than the earthly life — where I got to feel my boys, kiss my husband’s lips, hug my parents, hear the fullness of my sister’s voice over the phone, taste the wine from a bottle poured in the presence of my truest tribe, and actually breathe the Nebraska air into my lungs.
It was the worst three weeks of my life. Wrought with anxiety so severe that I could barely drive, eat, or be, I found myself in almost constant loneliness even when others were in the room. I would cry when my person would leave me to go be a productive member of society for the day. I wanted to take my child out of school and run away with our fivesome to the ocean or the mountains… Somewhere that had different air. I would simply go through the motions from morning to night. I would bargain with God, “please don’t let this be and I will…” fill in the blank with one of a million different offerings.
In that 15 days, I had 1 breast exam.That breast exam lead to a mammogram. That mammogram lead to more pictures. Those pictures lead to an ultrasound. The ultrasound lead to a biopsy. That biopsy lead to the finding of DCIS, or as I quickly learned, aka stage zero breast malignancy. That diagnosis lead to another biopsy a week later. That biopsy lead to a “we need to look at this another way…”
And on the 18th, with flaxen shoulder-length locks, a red sweater, and because of the joy-suck that is anxiety — ten pounds lighter than I’d been 15 days prior — I walked into Nebraska Medicine to meet my “team.” But up until that day, I didn’t know exactly what this team was for.
Would it be DCIS or had they determined it was more? When would I have my breasts removed? Would I die?
I was so uneducated on breast cancer at that point that I believed it was a death sentence. I believed that if they told me I was stage four and it was everywhere, I might as well take my kids out of school, travel the world and say my goodbyes.
And then he came in. “I’m Dr. Tandra,” he told us. I can’t fully remember if I’d already met Dr. Wahl. Or Dr. Thayer yet. Or the geneticist. It was literally 8 hours of a revolving door of my team, coming in. My team. I need a team, I realized.
He told me about cancer. He told me about my cancer. I held Adam’s hand as I mustered up the courage to ask the question that had weighed me down for three weeks. Fifteen days.
“Wait. What stage am I?”
And the response, “oh, based on the biopsies and lack of lymph involvement, 1a or 1b.”
I breathed. I let out a huge breath.
He talked more, “we got it early… Breast cancer is curable… You will live a great life…”
I loved him immediately. Maybe because he gave me information I liked. Maybe because I knew that he was just the Dr. we needed. Caring, kind, wickedly brilliant, witty, and wanting to help me.
At some point I met Deb… The angel I’d been speaking with on the phone over the last 15 days. My “nurse navigator.” We hugged. I cried. She told me I was going to be okay. That no matter what the outcome, I would be okay. She told me about her sister with stage 2 and lymph node involvement. Still kicking and thriving, cancer-free, 25 years out.
I met Dr. Thayer. The hilarous, beautiful, moxied, insanely astute, empowering, and positive. She could have been talking about spaghetti on a plate… I didn’t care, I just loved being in a room with her.
And Dr. Wahl. My radiation oncologist. The guy with great hair to accompany his great personality. A whiz “kid”;), more stoic than the others… But incredibly present and genuine.
Each of them answered each and every question I had. Each of them talked to me about their “multi-disciplinary” approach — every breast oncologist in the Nebraska Med system had weighed in on my results, my treatment plan, my life.
I knew. I knew after that day that the first 15 days were an anomaly. They would not be my life with cancer. They were the grief. The fear. The unknown. On overdrive.
I knew, because of my team, that this would be hard. This would be life-changing. That I was too young for this. That I was going to have to be strong. But it was okay to break down. I knew that they would not just treat the tumor. They would treat me. The whole person. With therapist recommendations. With reassuring statistics. With the best research and treatments that anyone else with my cancer was receiving.
I left with a million words in my head that I wanted to pour out. I wanted to pretend they didn’t need to be there.
Triple positive. Estrogen. Progesterone. Her2. Carboplatin. Taxotere. Perjeta. Herceptin. Tamoxifen. Aromatase inhibitor. Angiolymphatic invasion. And on and on and on.
Adam and I left and came home. We shared the news with my in-laws. We shared the news with my parents. And siblings. They cried. I was cried out, I think. I think my tears had finally run dry. At least for that day.
But I knew that day, it would get easier. Who would have thought that getting an actual diagnosis would make life easier?! But we had gotten through one of the hardest parts for that time… The unknown. The gathering stage. The thinking-I-was-dead-tomorrow.
My diagnosis changed after that. After my sentinel node biopsy revealed two positive lymph nodes. I became Stage 2a. But my treatment didn’t change.
I still contend today, that the first FIFTEEN days were the worst. The darkest. The saddest.
But then. We had a plan. Starting today, a year ago, we had a plan. And I wouldn’t be dying of cancer… I’d be living with it. Treating it. Kicking its ass.
There have been more ups and downs throughout this last year than I’ve ever known. More extreme emotions than I’ve ever felt. More living than I’d let myself remember to do before. BC… Before Cancer.
And today I say thank you. Thank you to Nebraska Medicine for the day it got easier. Thank you, Dr. Wahl. Thank you, Dr. Thayer. Thank you, Dr. Tandra. Thank you, Ann and Deb. And a big thank you to Catherine (from Southeast Nebraska Hematology Oncology in Lincoln). Thank you to everyone — FAMILY, FRAMILY, FRIENDS, STRANGERS –who has helped make this easier. Who has carried me this past year… Through meals, gifts, thoughts, PRAYERS, blessings, childcare, coffee, time, and so much more. Thank you for making cancer livable. Survivable. THRIVABLE.
I couldn’t have done this without you.
And to Adam, I am out of words for you. But thank you for being my person. For loving me — bald, boobless, bionic-boobed, sobbing, lying on the floor in a heap, filled with toxins, filled with emotions — you chose to be everything you are and I applaud you for choosing awesomeness. It could not have been easy.
It got easier… It gets easier. If you’re going through hard the “easier” can appear at the most unexpected times… On the most unexpected of days. The easier can come wrapped in something horrible. You just have to grab onto its tail before it gets away. And ride it until you’re ready to stand on your own.
It’s here. The real Cancerversary. And I’m alive. Cancer-free.
It’s a good day to have a good day. It’s a great day to be alive. And it’s a great day knowing that though life will feel hard and heavy… It also, can get easier.
I hugged my oncologist a year ago today. I told him thank you. Thank you for telling me I wouldn’t be leaving my boys. Thank you for letting me know that in a year’s time I’d be sitting on my couch enjoying a warm mug of coffee, and being so full of gratitude for this life. And today, I say thank you again. Dr. Saxena, Dr. Tandra, Dr. Thayer, Dr. Wahl, Deb, Ann… You took a chance on an unknown kid. And I love you for making it easier.