I wrote this essay on December 4, 2006 for Orato.com. It still appears on this site in its original published format. Keep in mind that it’s a two-year-old story. My boys are not four and 18 months anymore. They are seven and five. It has not been two years since my diagnosis. It’s been almost four.
Two years ago, I told my two little boys—then four and 18 months—that I had cancer. I told them cancer meant I had a boo-boo in my boobie. I told them doctors would take it out, I would take medicine, my hair would fall out, and I would get better. They heard my words, translated them into their own meanings, and have been caring for me ever since that November day in 2004 when my life suddenly appeared anything but a guarantee.
My breasts have been abundantly front and center in my life for dozens of years. First they were too big—34 DDD—and I tried valiantly to disguise the bulk on my chest with large shirts, harness-type bras, and rounded shoulders to shelter others from my most obvious feature. Then came a breast reduction surgery to remove four pounds of dense tissue and to augment my waning self-confidence. Cute bras, tight shirts, and better posture became staples in my life. My breasts made me happy—finally—despite surgery scars, occasional numbness, and an eventual inability to breastfeed my babies.
My small, perky breasts made me happy for eight years. Then I found a lump in the left one—a hard, pea-sized lump that presented itself right beneath my fingertips one day while I was in the shower. It became my obsession for the days leading up to my official clinical examination. I touched it and maneuvered it and examined it until I was sure it was growing with each moment.
And so was born the boo-boo in my boobie—the boo-boo my family and friends and doctors predicted was nothing to worry about. The boo-boo that was in fact cancer—housed in a tumor 1.1 centimeters in size, which had not yet spread to my lymph nodes and was considered stage I.
I found my lump early, and my prognosis was good—in some ways. In other ways, I faced a not-so-good prognosis. I was young—34 years old—and tumors found in young women are typically aggressive. My tumor also contained too much of a certain protein that made it wildly aggressive. So for the 24 months that have followed my diagnosis, I have been receiving intensive treatment for a mass that appears treatable and at the same time threatens to take my life.
A lumpectomy took my tumor and four lymph nodes. Four doses of chemotherapy—given every two weeks in a dose-dense fashion— took my hair and my energy and my overall sense of wellness. It landed me in the hospital twice due to fever and a suppressed immune system and was cause for a blood transfusion during one hospital stay. Radiation took hours of my day—five days per week for seven weeks—and left me with temporary burns and ten tiny permanent blue tattoos. And then one year of targeted drug therapy took me back to the chemo room for every-three week infusions of a new wonder drug intended to block that same protein that made my tumor so deadly.
This whole journey, complete with stops for physical therapy, counseling, and treatment with an anti-depressant, is winding down. With surgery and treatment behind me, I have just one final counseling session remaining. And when the session ends and my case is closed, I will begin a new version of my life—free of constant medical intervention and with just a touch of monitoring.
I will visit my medical oncologist every three months for the next five years—when, if cancer has not returned, it will be safe to say I am in remission. For five years, I will also see my radiation oncologist every six months. For the rest of my life, I will receive a mammogram and ultrasound every six months, will report for a breast MRI once every year, and will conduct my own breast self-exams every month. And while there is no comprehensive blood test or can available to offer me peace of mind that cancer is not taking up residence in my body again, I will closely monitor every bit of pain and discomfort, every bump and lump that gives me reason to worry. And I will pursue it all—with a vengeance—so I can catch anything that creeps up on me with enough time to conquer it.
If cancer must enter my world, I will only allow it to stay for a short time-because I have a lifetime of joy and happiness ahead of me, and I cannot be distracted for long. I have two little boys—now almost six and three and a half—whose lives I must witness. They are the boys who propelled me through my darkest days and have touched me deeply with their unwavering love and concern and simple wisdom.
When radiation zapped every bit of energy I possessed and caused me to unintentionally fall asleep in my living room recliner, Joey—my oldest—would ask me when I opened my eyes, “Mommy, did you have a nice rest?” One day when I felt terribly ill, he said, “Mommy, you go to your bed and I’ll bring you a banana.” He worried that my port—or stone, as he called it—might hurt me and when I told him it did not hurt, he replied, “Won’t you be so happy when you can be on your own without cancer?”
I’m not sure Joey has ever really understood the magnitude of cancer. Still, he sensed I needed him during my battle with this mysterious condition. He assured me the day he and his daddy shaved my head prior to my chemotherapy fallout that I should not cry. “It’s only a haircut, mommy,” he said. “You are not going to die.”
He was right. It was only a haircut. And Danny—my youngest—may not even remember that my hair, now dark and curly, was once blond and straight. He has just recently started catching on to the series of cancer events unfolding in our household. A few months ago, he asked, “Why you keep doing that?”
“Doing what?” I asked him.
He replied: “Going to the doctor.”
I told him I go to the doctor so I can stay healthy.
Two years ago, I told my two little boys I had cancer. I told them cancer meant I had a boo-boo in my boobie. I told them doctors would take it out, I would take medicine, my hair would fall out, and I would get better.
This is exactly how it happened.