Before every chemo round I either meet with my oncologist or a nurse practitioner—they trade off. I secretly think they trade off because I am too much to handle, but perhaps it is standard practice. This meet and greet before chemo is designed for the medical professional of the day to see how my body and I are dealing with the chemo treatment—to discuss what side effects I am having, is it better or worse than last time, am I taking my B vitamins, how is the pain management going, etc. My mother and I have begun to treat this time as a question and answer period that will last until we are completely exhausted of any questions we may have. Before my seventh round of chemo, (which I just completed thank you very much), my mom and I were in full-on interrogation mode. Our motto that day was to leave no stone unturned. It was a nurse practitioner week, which signaled to us that we had all the time in the world to probe this poor woman with questions about my cancer, treatment, and pretty much anything else our inquisitive minds could come up with.
First, we spoke with her about my upcoming radiation because, as if four months of chemo aren’t enough, I am facing seven weeks or so of daily radiation. I know what you are thinking, parrrtayy!! I have spoken with a few survivors that equate radiation’s effects to a sunburn, but as I consistently point out, that sunburn comes without the beach or the good time. Lovely. The nurse practitioner mentioned the weeks I have between chemo and radiation. For me, it is going to be like a summer vacation. I don’t have to go to chemo, I don’t have to see doctors, I can just be me for a second and brace myself for the radiation. Plans start forming in my head. Can I take a quick jaunt to Rome or London? Perhaps a cruise to the Bahamas? I have a friend there I want to see. I text one of my best friends asking if a road trip to Florida is a possibility? I just want to get out of here! No offense, Ohio, but I just want to be a young woman, in her twenties, who isn’t concerned about the location of her giant pill bag, or the condition of her wig, or hot flashes in public when sweat starts streaming down her face, or where her granny bra is located at that particular moment. Basically, I want to feel less than ninety-five years old. Anything younger would be an improvement.
The nurse explained to me that the period between chemo and radiation is generally just to rest up and get your “exchange” on. What is an exchange you ask? An exchange, my friends, is going to be one of the best days of my life. An exchange is when my plastic surgeon is going to take out these horrid expanders that have been in my chest since last October, and replace them with implants. Silicone implants thanks for asking. For those of you who have not kept abreast (abreast, get it?!) on breast reconstruction lingo, I will give you a brief lesson. I had simultaneous reconstruction with my double mastectomy. I had a choice. I could have had reconstruction with the original mastectomy surgery or I could have waited and had reconstruction when all the treatment was said and done. This would have left me completely bare-chested for about a year. I figured that waking up without my boobs would be traumatizing enough, but to wake up with absolutely nothing would send me over some sort of I-feel-like-I-just-had-a-sex-change-operation-edge. So, with my simultaneous reconstruction, after my general surgeon was done with me in the OR, my plastic surgeon tagged in (I picture them high-fiving) and slipped an expander in on both sides to prepare for my implants. For the record, expanders suck. You can feel them, they are hard as rocks, and oh, ya, did I mention you can feel them??? So, when my nurse told me I am going to be able to swap those bad boys out for implants before radiation I was like, hello Real Housewives of Beverly Hills here I come!! We scheduled a tentative date for the exchange surgery—a week before my 29th birthday. The exchange is scheduled sixth months to the day from when I was first diagnosed. Hold the gift cards, people, I am getting implants for my birthday. This could all work out quite nicely.
Last week I went in for my final appointment with my plastic surgeon to see if I had been “pumped up” enough. With the expanders you have to keep pumping them up to expand them and prepare the skin for the implant, hence the term “expanders.” Or as I like to call them, “Air Jordans,” or “Puberty Take Two.” I have been pumped up probably five times, and at this point I really feel like there are my boobs first and foremost, and I am just hanging off of them. They are enormous! They literally get in the way of my daily tasks. Due to the fact that my boobs are taking over my body I figured I was finished being pumped up, and sure enough my plastic surgeon agreed that I was. When I started all of this last fall I had grand aspirations of getting a bigger cup size—of coming out of all of this with a little extra something just because I felt as though I deserved it. As I was telling my plastic surgeon this originally, with that hungry look in my eye for giant boobs, he leaned over and promised my mother, “I won’t make her look like a porn star.” Darn, but ok. My mom looked relieved. So after all is said and done I am going to end up around the same size I was to begin with. Isn’t that something? It was a long, hard road to end up back in the same place, but at the same time I am worlds away from where I began. These boobs will never drop, and these boobs are cancer free. Cheers to that!
I asked my plastic surgeon how painful the exchange surgery would be, my wheels churning, thinking back to my mastectomy and how difficult a recovery that was. He assured me that the exchange was a walk in the park compared to my mastectomy and then turned toward the nurse in the room and said to her, “Well you can tell her from first-hand experience.” The nurse explained to me that she had a double mastectomy a few years back. Hers, however, was a preemptive mastectomy. I had heard of these infamous surgeries. Those surgeries not plagued with cancer being a part, no, the part, of the equation. She had a full-blown mastectomy before she even had cancer. She explained that breast cancer ran rampant through both sides of her family, and one day she decided that if there was something she could do to not have to go through all this, then she would. I couldn’t agree more. If I could have had a mastectomy earlier on, and avoided chemo and radiation, you could bet your bottom I would have done it with enthusiasm. She explained to me that it is, of course, a very personal decision, and not one that everyone would make. And then she said to my absolute surprise, “Wanna see them??” I couldn’t even really wrap my mind around what she was asking before her shirt was up and her boobs were out. It was like Girls Gone Wild up in my plastic surgeon’s office. There I stood with this lady I had known for all of forty-five seconds just staring at her boobs like it was no big thing. And they looked great! Hooray for modern medicine and gifted plastic surgeons. They looked like boobs. Wait, no…they looked like perky boobs! I can do this.
After we had discussed my “summer break” and my exchange surgery, and before she directed me back to the chemo room for round seven, the nurse practitioner asked me if I had any other questions. I did have just one more. As my chemo treatment portion of this fun-filled all-you-can-eat cancer buffet draws to a close, I have these glimpses of life after cancer. In a nutshell, after chemo, after radiation, after the implants, after everything, how do I live without the fear of the cancer returning? How do I go forth after this huge, forced intermission in my life without looking over my shoulder every single moment? I felt as though I was asking this woman what the meaning of life was because, I feared, there is no real answer. I have made it to this point without seeking professional help. Whoooaah, wait, correction: without seeking the help of a mental health professional. I have seen dozens of doctors since I was diagnosed, but no one to really help me not go crazy. Perhaps I need to speak to someone from this field, because after being on the front line I just don’t know how I am going to cope when I get sent home and stop fighting cancer every single moment of every single day.
The nurse spoke with me about seeing a nutritionist, seeing a therapist, going to a support group, etc. None of this really helped because none of it was really what I wanted to hear. What I wanted her to say was, “You will never have cancer again, go live your long life in peace and prosperity.” And then I would just pick up my yoga mat and be on my way. But that isn’t going to happen. That isn’t going to happen to any of us. Before all of this, that realization that there are no guarantees in life really would not have scared me. Now, after going through cancer it petrifies me. Not just for me but for my family and friends. My parents were eating Doritos with dinner last night (which I have not seen them do in probably fifteen years, but they were treating themselves) and I started hyperventilating and sobbing, begging them to stop eating the Doritos because I am scared of junk food, processed food, pretty much all food. I don’t know why I got cancer, so anything and everything is a suspect. If seeing loved ones eating Doritos sends me into tears, I only see an uphill battle from here. How do I deal??
A friend of mine from high school was diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time I was. For her privacy I will call her Sunny because that is her general disposition so it suits her well. I had my mastectomy months before hers so I was able to answer lots of questions she had before she went in for her surgery which was a little over a week ago (and she is doing great by the way!!). Helping her through this has been one of the most positive experiences throughout this entire nightmare. It helps me feel useful. It helps me feel as though this journey has a purpose. Sunny expressed to me all of her emotions, the same ones that I felt time and time again after I had been diagnosed, and she asked me how in the world I got through it. How did I not just lose my mind? Well, I explained, first and foremost I did lose my mind. The first week or so was an absolute nightmare. I cried for seven days straight. Literally. But then, I told her, there was this moment of clarity for me. This moment where I realized that this was the hand I was dealt, and this was the way my story is going, and there was nothing I could do to change what had happened. I have cancer and I can wallow and pity myself or I can stay strong and fight it. My breast cancer is real, it is happening, and those are my options. It is really as simple as that. So, after emptying my tear ducts semi-permanently, I vividly remember the moment where my world kind of stopped. A few days before my surgery, I was in the bathroom after I had taken a shower, and I looked myself in the mirror and stared at my naked body and my old breasts and said goodbye. I had been struggling internally all morning with the emotional heaviness of my situation. After much turmoil I said aloud to myself in a surprisingly stern voice, “Abby, you don’t have a freaking choice, so just do this.” That was my version of a pep talk but it worked. Fast-forward to today, approximately five months later, when I have new fears, those fears of life after cancer. There are new and equally scary unknowns that accompany that phase, with the cancer cloud trying to follow me wherever I go. When that cloud does follow me and plague me with new fears and doubts I am going to look up at that cancer cloud and tell it what I told myself in the mirror about five months ago—that I have been given this one life and I have no freaking choice, so I gotta just do this. And then, I believe, the cancer clouds will part and the sun will come out.