So spoketh Yoga Chickie.
And so it was done.
Five years ago tomorrow, I was wheeled into surgery with all of my parts intact and then wheeled out of surgery some six hours later with little bags of salt water where my boobies used to be.
Don’t feel all bad about it. Don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t excuse my sometimes bad behavior because of it, not that you do. It just is something I had to do, something I always knew I would be willing to do if the circumstances arose that gave rise to the choice.
Such circumstances arose on August 3, 2002, when la dee da, I was showering in the luxurious master bathroom of the charming Victorian house not far from the beach in Westport, which the husband and I had rented for the second half of that summer, and my soapy left hand stopped cold on a thickened area deep under the skin of my right breast. At that moment, it was as if a door in my mind had opened, and I was peering in at a dream I had had the night before, a dream which I had completely forgotten until that very moment. In the dream, I found a lump in my breast. And then another. And then another. That day in the shower, I found only the one lump. But every doctor whom I met with after that felt the second one. The third lump was detected only upon a full dissection of the breast by a pathologist in a cold, brightly lit lab. It was two and a half centimeters. And yet it somehow managed to hide from view and from palpability. They called it “occult”.
I have never been one to wait on any health worry. Found a freckle I had never seen befoe? Call the dermatologist and get seen that day. A little breakthrough bleeding? Go to the gyno and get a pap. But this time was different. I knew. I just knew. I knew that a trip to the doctor would not alleviate my worries. This time, I knew that a visit to the doctor would be the beginning of a long and terrible journey, one with which I just could not get myself on board just yet. I still had a couple of weeks left of my wonderful summer. I had friends to entertain. I had towns along the shoreline to explore on my bike. For the first time in my adult life, I decided to put the health worry on the back burner, if just for a couple of weeks.
The day I got back to the city, I was on my doctor’s doorstep. She laughed at me. I wasn’t sure why then, but now I think it is because she knew too. And it upset her. And so she laughed. I don’t forgive her for it. But I understand it. I took her referall to a radiologist, and then I never saw her again. The first radiologist I met with was stern. She found two lumps and had no comment to make as to what they looked like to her. Looking back, and knowing what I know about the way cancer appears on scans, versus the way benign masses look, I guess this meant that she knew that they looked bad and she did not have the people skills to talk candidly with me. Instead, she called me in to meet with a different radiologist a day or two later for another ultrasound and a fine needle aspiration.
The second radiologist was kind. He knew what he was dealing with, but he hoped it would turn out otherwise. When he came in with the results of the FNA (the results are almost instantaneous – a smear of tissue on a piece of glass, a quick look at it under the microscope, done), he looked stricken. The word he used was “suspicious”.
“Does that mean it’s cancer?” I asked, not knowing where the words were coming from.
“Yes,” he answered.
I cried. My mother was with me, and she cried. We were told that a lot more tests had to be run on my tissue before we would know how to proceed, but in the meantime, here was a list of breast surgeons that they recommended. Mom and I went to a nearby diner on the Upper West Side, ate pancakes that tasted like sawdust and went down the list of surgeons.
The fact that all of their offices treated me like a celebrity in front of a velvet rope did nothing to ease my anxiety. I would rather have been given the cold shoulder. Instead, I was told that special spots were reserved on the schedule for patients like me, and when did I think I could get the biopsy results to their office?
I saw a breast surgeon that very afternoon, but only because my sister had a connection. He was her colleague (she is a hospital administrator), and he did not want to believe that I had cancer. He insisted on having his favorite pathologist read the results of my biopsy, and until then, he instructed me not to assume the worst.
Nevertheless, when he called me a day later, catching me in the croissant shop around the corner from my apartment, his first words after, “Lauren, are you somewhere where we can talk?” were, “Well, it’s what I was afraid of.” None of it is the kind of stuff you want to hear from any doctor calling you from Fire Island on the Friday before Labor Day. This doctor had compassion and a wonderful reputation, but for my surgery, I chose a doctor at a hospital with which I was most comfortable: Columbia Presbyterian.
All of the cancers in my family have been decimated at good ole Columbia. Of course, at the time, there was only my dad’s first cancer (prostate) and now, mine. The husband’s testicular cancer and my dad’s second cancer (non-smoker’s lung cancer) came later. I have the rather dubious distinction of being the first member of my family to have chemo. But I was the second to have radiation. The husband beat me to that punch by a few months.
So, where was I?
Oh yeah. So, yada yada yada, I had a double mastectomy five years ago tomorrow. Compared to the chemo, the chemo-induced and surgery-enhanced menopause, the Herceptin (life saving drug, but man, those side effects really suck), the surgery was a walk in the park, or more aptly, a stay at a spa. I had a room for a week in the VIP wing of Columbia, down the hall from Sunny von Bulow, or where she used to be. There was afternoon tea each day, and carpeted walkways on which to stroll for exercise and to see the panoramic views of the Hudson River. Yeah, it cost a pretty penny. But for all we knew, well, let’s not go there, alright? I was lucky to be able to afford to heal in style; let’s just leave it at that.
I was visited by friends, given candy and trophies (for bravery, of course!) and books and Diet Peach Snapple. I was visited by Rabbi Lincoln from Park Avenue Synagogue, a high honor, that. I played on my computer, and I stretched my arms, which I had been doing since I woke up from the anesthesia, much to the chagrin on my plastic surgeon. He wanted me to have range of motion, but he didn’t mean for me to get it back that day.
Anyway, I don’t think I ever allowed myself to think about what might happen if the surgery was not a success. I just kept on. As I slogged through the months of chemo, I don’t think I ever allowed myself to think about all of the awful possibilities, such as the disease reappearing DURING chemo, or right after chemo, or a year after chemo, and so on, until one year turned into two, which turned into three, etc. There were moments, when I heard something terrible about someone else, a woman whose surgery was never really successful because the cancer was too close to her chest wall, and the surgeon could never get adequate margins (she passed away within a year of diagnosis), or a woman whose cancer spread to her lung and bones while she was still on chemo (she also passed away within a year of diagnosis). These stories took my beath away. I felt the fear course through my body until it felt as if my teeth were trembling. But I tended to push the thoughts away as soon as the initial shock wore off. And so time went on, and that’s how I got here, to this day, without ever really internalizing that I might not have made it to here, to this day, and likewise, without ever really internalizing that there was no other option EXCEPT to make it to here, to this day.
And so it is that I am here and full of gratitude and awe because the truth is, I don’t know why it is. I am just really really happy that it is as it is.