It was November 2010. Two months before my 39th birthday. My @metrotoronto
horoscope that day read: “You were born to reach the top of your chosen profession. So start climbing.”
In the middle of my workday, climbing to the top of my chosen profession of course, I went to my doctor’s office to renew a prescription. My actual doctor, let’s call him Dr. D (because that’s what I actually call him) wasn’t there that day so I saw the doctor on duty, let’s call her Doctor XX (because she’s a woman and I can’t remember her name), who did a routine breast exam before writing the prescription. While she was palpating around she felt something and had me feel it too. Something small, hard, round, like a pea. Textbook right?
Dr. XX reassured me that it was probably a cyst and it was likely to shrink or clear in a week or two. But days past and then weeks, and it wasn’t shrinking. Not even a little bit. And then, out of the blue, my boyfriend,@mattpeacock13, noticed the little lump. I hadn’t planned to tell him. If it turned out to be cancer, I was going to make an excuse to break up with him. I mean, who would ask a brand spanking new boyfriend to deal with Cancer Girl. But there it was. He reassured me that he wasn’t going anywhere. I replied that I wouldn’t give him the choice.
Dr. XX was there again for my follow up. She told me there was still no reason to worry, it could be a lot of things other than cancer. I cried anyway. She took pity and sent me immediately across the street to the hospital for an ultrasound and mammogram to set my mind at ease. I called my best friend to meet me for support. As I waited in the hallway with him (men aren’t allowed to wait in the actual waiting room) I told him I was sure I had cancer. He crumpled up the package from the bagel he’d brought me and tossed it at me. We played paper bag catch for the next hour or ten while I waited.
After what seemed like forever, I was squished in a machine for a mammogram. The results came back negative. Time to double check with an ultrasound. Once on the ultrasound table, it took the doctor less than a minute to tell me that the lump I’d been obsessing about for two weeks was a lymph node that had floated down into my breast and that it was absolutely nothing to worry about. I was ready to jump up and kiss him on the mouth when he said he was seeing something else in a different part of my breast. He was 99% certain it was nothing, just a little cloudiness showing up on the ultrasound, but that he’d recommend a biopsy to be 100% sure. I was halfway between elated and terrified again so I charmed him into performing the biopsy right there on the ultrasound table. *KAPOW!* – a biopsy is done with an enornous needle and sounds like a shotgun. He looked at what came out of the enormous needle and said I should go home and not worry, from what he could see I was almost positively cancer-free.
I walked back into the hall and hugged my bff. I didn’t have cancer. We had a beer. I went home that night and told my two sons I was sorry I was acting weird for the last two weeks I thought I had cancer but I DON’T. Then I did the “I don’t have cancer” happy dance. Literally. They were unimpressed. I’m a terrible dancer. Like, worse than Carlton.
I returned to Dr. D’s office for a completely unrelated reason a week or so later. I needed a referral for my son. After 20 minutes waiting alone in his office, I was getting pissed. I mean, it’s a referral. Just write it. Eventually he walks into the room looking serious. He has my file, not my son’s. He blurts “You have cancer.” (well you knew this wouldn’t be an “I don’t have cancer” story). Well fuck. I don’t speak. He continues “listen, I wouldn’t want to be sitting in your chair but if I had to be sitting in your chair and be told I had cancer, I’d want to be told I had breast cancer, it’s one of the ones we now understand, and typically the prognosis is good. I’m going to refer you to the breast centre.” I called my boyfriend and told him to break up with me. He didn’t.
One of the few cool things (I call them #cancerperks) about having breast cancer at 38, is that everyone on the breast cancer ward calls you young . 1 in 8 women get breast cancer in their lifetime. Most are over 50. So good right? Younger people have more healing power I figure. No such luck. I soon learn that if you get cancer under 40, it means it’s more aggressive cancer. Also, you have a lot more time for it to kill you. But at least you get fast-tracked into surgery.
I had a surgery decision to make now. There was cancer in my right breast for sure but 7 biopsies (*kapow* *kapow* *kapow*….) on the left side later and it was still uncertain whether there was cancer in both. Christina Appelgate chose to get a bilateral mastectomy – removing both breasts – because she knew she was BRCA gene (the “breast cancer gene”) positive even though she only had cancer detected in one. Testing positive for BRCA gives you at least a 70% chance of breast cancer in your lifetime. I had tested for the gene but wouldn’t get the results back until well after my surgery was scheduled. I decided to get a bilateral mastectomy. First, because I was reasonably sure I’d test BCRA positive (I wasn’t but didn’t know that for months) and second, more importantly for me, because I figured that if you have to get one new breast, you might as well make the other one match.
My surgical oncologist, the amazing, sensitive Dr. C (she’s the best, tweet me at @luckyjodi if you want her full name, hint: it starts with a “C”), recommended I postpone reconstruction to be “safe” rather than have immediate reconstruction. If you get immediate reconstruction and need radiation, it might mess up your new boobs. On the flip side, the immediate reconstruction gives the best and most natural results if you don’t need radiation.
Dr. C admitted that a recommendation for delayed reconstruction was typical in Canada, where we tend to be more conservative, whereas in the US immediate (like during the same operatiom in which they take them away) reconstruction is more common. Recognizing my struggle, Dr. C ensured that I met with every specialist I could to help me evaluate the chance of success with immediate reconstruction. I liked my odds and my sister gave me a straightforward “I’d do it” so I gave the thumbs up to replacing my old cancerous breast/s with brand new silicone filled ones immediately after surgery. Arriving at that decision made me feel instantly relieved. I had control over something and I actually kind of liked the idea of brand new breasts.
After surgery I woke up high as a kite on morphine. It wasn’t easy to come out of that surgery facing the aftermath, but without the reconstruction it would have been 1000x harder. I later learned that Dr. C gave my sisters and my boyfriend high fives while I was in the recovery room. The surgery had gone well and by all early accounts I wouldn’t need radiation because it didn’t look like any cancer was near my chest wall nor metastasized into my lymph nodes.
Many months after my reconstruction decision, which perhaps is not the best one for everyone, but was definitely the best one for me, I learned that out of the nearly 45000 mastectomies performed in Canada last year, only 8% had reconstruction. Many because it wasn’t offered as an option, even if it was a totally viable one. If not having immediate or any reconstruction is a woman’s personal decision, I have total respect, but if it’s a lack of awareness about the options, I think women need to understand their options better.
I thought I was out of the water decision-wise after the surgery, but now I had to choose whether to go with the post-surgery recommended course of 6 rounds of chemo, 3 weeks apart. As “insurance,” in case a microscopic cancer cell had escaped into my blood stream. I didn’t want to go through chemo. Remember, I was “born to be at the top of my profession” and I was supposed to be “climbing” there.
But how terrible would I feel if I turned down the “insurance” of chemo (reducing my chance of recurrence by 12% statistically) and then didn’t get a chance to see my sons grow up because of it. So I decided to go forward with the 18 weeks of treatment even though I was worried that, as a woman in business, showing people I had cancer (hard to hide when you’re bald or wearing a wig and lose your eyelashes and eyebrows) would make me look weak and a liability.
I didn’t have to worry. My boss soon proved to me that cancer need not change the way you are treated or perceived in the workplace. He continued to trust my ability to perform while giving me all the room I needed to rest and heal. His support helped me “come out” in the business world, to show other women that a cancer diagnosis is not the end of the world, or your career.
Chemo sucks. Don’t get me wrong. But to be honest I thought it would be even worse. I didn’t throw up. Well except for the night I combined chemo with way too much wine. I did lose my hair. I did lose almost all my eyelashes. I did lose almost all my eyebrows. Ironically I had to get my lip waxed anyway halfway through my treatment. The worst parts for me? How fuzzy your brain gets on chemo. Especially the week after a treatment. I could barely focus. I couldn’t remember common words.
The best parts? Falling in love again with someone who stood by me the whole time even though he’d only known me a short time pre-diagnosis. He was awesome. We played with a bouncy ball while chemo pumped into my veins. He made other patients smile. He made me laugh. He made me feel not-so-ugly. He went about building a new life with me as if cancer wasn’t a thing. And my kids were amazing. And my ex came around and went from bitter and resentful to understanding and empathetic. And my colleagues were supportive and trusting that I’d come out of this better than before. And my direct reports, the managers – @christindal, @hailbail, @robynpayne, and diane who isn’t tweeting, who had to carry me when my brain was cotton candy, made me look good and took care of things when I couldn’t. And my sisters, @lifeafterreason, @theycallmevice were my rocks. And the whole entire rest of my family rallied around me in person or online. It made it almost easy.
I’m 8 weeks after treatment and the odds are very, very good that I’m totally and forever breast cancer free. But if you are just starting this journey here are 5 random insights I want to share…
#1 Hot girls get breast cancer. You’re in good company. Think Christina Appelgate, Sheryl Crow, Kylie Minogue…
#2 Real hair wigs are worth every penny. Don’t let anyone convince you that the synthetic hair wig at half the price will do. It won’t. It gets fuzzy and awful and looks bad.
#3. Eyelashes have a purpose other than batting at boys. Who knew? Wear sunglasses when riding a bike during chemo or bugs and dust will make them tear up.
#4. During chemo, when your brain is fuzzy, like really, really fuzzy, remember some people feel like that ALL the time.
#5. Don’t take your horoscope literally. But do keep climbing.