Once it was discovered that I did in fact have cancer of the left breast, and that it had spread to at least one lymph node, the game was afoot. I was now officially a cancer patient, dutifully subjecting myself to endless tests, procedures and appointments.
I remember thinking how surreal it all felt talking to the nurse navigator. On learning of my diagnosis, she handed me a bag filled with all kinds of goodies to take home…magazines, books, catalogs, a seatbelt cushion for after surgery, among other things. I felt like I was at some kind of twisted birthday party with really bad party favors. Seriously, I was thinking that this was all a really big crock of shit. Cancer is big business that makes people very rich. I resented being patronized and made to feel like people earning billions of dollars from this whole process “cared” about me and wanted to give me free stuff out of the kindness of their hearts.
But I digress .. after my biopsy I had a bone scan and a chest CT scan at the end of March to make sure that the cancer hadn’t escaped the lymph nodes and spread. Thankfully, it hadn’t. At that point, I was so numb from the shock of the diagnosis that I truly would not have been surprised if they had told me it was metastatic. I was steeling myself for that reality. Next stop surgery.
On April 4, I had a double mastectomy with left axillary node dissection. Lumpectomy was not an option for me because there were diffuse areas of calcifications throughout the breast in addition to the tumor. I chose to remove the right breast as well, even though it was healthy, because I couldn’t live with a constant fear of recurrence. I just wasn’t that attached to my boobs.
I went home the following day with an ace bandage wrapped tightly around my chest and 4 drains resembling hand grenades protruding from my body. I waited patiently for the call that would tell me what “stage” my cancer was at, hoping that my connections in the pathology lab would expedite the process.
All of my imaging studies had picked up 3 enlarged lymph nodes under the left arm. I knew from talking to the pathologist that I could have up to 4 affected nodes and still be stage II, so having only 3 would be good news.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait long for that call. The phone rang shortly after 2:30. I held my breath as the surgeon started to speak. “We got all of the cancer..we removed 16 lymph nodes and 8 had tumor cells in them…” What!?! I’m sure he said something else but I stopped hearing him at that point. 8 nodes??? How could that be? They only saw 3! I went upstairs, closed the bathroom door, and cried. Eight nodes was a world of difference from three. It meant that I had Stage III breast cancer, not Stage II. It doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but for all of you who have spent countless hours researching survival statistics, as I have, it meant to me in that moment the difference between being at my girls’ weddings and perhaps not even seeing my youngest finish elementary school. I wiped my eyes and went back downstairs to find my kids. I sat between them on the couch and just stared at them and ruffled their hair as they chattered away about the silly innocent things of childhood. And I truly appreciated them, maybe for the first time.