“If the cancer has spread to your brain, it’s not like you would die in a week, or a month, or even a year.” These are the words of “encouragement” I received at my radiation oncologist appointment this past Monday. My heart dropped through my stomach, through the floor, and then through the planet. Didn’t I just go through a double mastectomy followed by four months of brutal chemotherapy? How could the cancer have possibly spread? I literally held back the vomit, but at the same time I kind of wanted to spew it all over this man who was giving me this news.
It has been four weeks since my final chemo session and I am now currently on my self-imposed “summer break”—that precious period of time I have between chemo and radiation. After my final round of chemo I had to sit through the pain once more that only chemo can bring. I was down for a few days, and then I busted full-force through that cloud of chemo and headed to Nashville to attend a fundraiser for a program that helps breast cancer survivors get back on their feet after treatment. It was quite a remarkable experience to meet several women who had been through this same turbulent journey that I am currently on. It is funny how when I meet a breast cancer survivor there is this instant bond that develops. It is powerful and it is real and it is unlike anything I have ever experienced before. I value meeting women who have been through this, and their words of hope, wisdom, and support have become so very precious to me.
After my trip to Nashville, I drove myself eight hours to Washington, D.C. (and then trained to New York City) where I visited family and dear friends of mine. I was so excited to be done with chemo and feeling well that I literally did not want to waste a second. The trip was wonderful but exhausting and that exhaustion showed via my blood work when I got home and visited my oncologist’s nurse practitioner the following day. I was supposed to have my implant exchange surgery two days later and the meeting was scheduled for her to see how life post-chemo was going and to answer any and all questions I had (I just love a good Q & A). I shared with her some concerns I had been having both physically and emotionally and we worked through those as best we could. Then I had some blood work done that would hopefully give me the green light I needed to be able to go ahead with my implant exchange surgery. Since it had been three weeks since my last round of chemo, I figured my blood work would be phenomenal. Wrong. It was actually awful. My white blood cell count was extraordinarily low and my oncologist was very concerned with my upcoming surgery, the state of my white blood cells, and the risk of infection. The oncology nurse then told me something I was extremely unprepared for…I had to get another shot to boost my counts. UN-BELIEV-ABLE.
After every round of chemo, as if that wasn’t tough enough, I had to go in the following day and get a shot to help with my blood counts. The shot is, in many ways, just as bad as the chemo because it makes your bones ache and your body sore all over. It starts in the back of your neck and then, ever so sneakily, spreads throughout your body. I hated those shots and when I said goodbye to chemo three weeks prior, I was sure I was saying au revoir to the brutal day-after shots as well. When I heard I would have to have another one of those shots, I was upset, scared, and honestly pretty ticked off. I just didn’t want to feel like crap again. I had felt like crap every day for the last four months and I was just done. I had served my time. I didn’t want to remotely endure that again and I was just speechless and shocked that I had to go through that again. I got the shot. Headed home. Laid down. I was ticked.
That evening, the bone aches reappeared and I freaked out. It felt like I had had chemo all over again and I had a complete nervous breakdown. I felt as though I was back in that chemo era of my life that I had so safely and securely packaged away and shipped out weeks ago. The pain was agonizing. I soaked in the bathtub for hours to help with the pain and just cried. I felt as though this was a monumental setback, like I was never going to get back on my feet and stay there again. Every time I picked myself back up, it seemed as though something else was right there waiting to just knock me right back down. I feared that the next day would bring more bone aches and the thought of spending more days lying around angered me so, so much. Well, the next morning did not bring aches! I went back in to the oncologist’s office for yet another blood test and my white blood cells had cooperated! Full steam ahead to new boobs! I was elated!
The following morning, I woke up at 6:30 a.m. (I was previously unaware that there was even that hour in the day. I am NOT a morning person to put it extremely mildly.) I headed to my plastic surgeon’s office. In the days leading up to my implant exchange surgery I asked my mother whether or not I could wear my wig into the operating room. I explained to her that there was something so pathetic in my mind about not only being bald, but also being cut open all at the same time, and I did not want to be both. Picturing myself bald on the operating table made me really sad—like there were just too many strikes against me or something. I settled on wearing an adorable hat one of my friends sent me recently. It is green and has pink flowers on it and is adorably cute. I figured that a girl who wears flowers on her head into the OR could never be viewed as pathetic. Turns out the hat was a hit. All the nurses just loved it and I feel as though my friend could start a real moneymaking venture with these adorable hats.
My friends asked me before the implant exchange surgery whether or not I was nervous. I answered no, for two reasons: 1) surgery seems to be my hobby these days much like stamp collecting or bird watching to others, and after a double mastectomy anything else is really a breeze, and 2) I trust my plastic surgeon with my life. The man is the absolute best and he has pulled me through some really dark days and he has also made me waffles (that story is for another day), so in my mind I was all good. I headed to surgery without an ounce of fear. I was ready to get rid of the rocks that had been on my chest since my surgery in October, and I was VERY ready to get my port out.
I showed up and went through all of the pre-op rituals that are now second nature to me. Friends of mine showed up in support with latte in-hand for my mother and everything seemed normal, happy, and calm. I was doing fine until the nurse said, “O.K. let’s walk back to the OR.” Hmm…ok… this was new. I had never walked myself into an OR before. I have always been wheeled into an OR with an anesthesiologist trailing behind while basically pumping my veins with drugs as we spoke. Instead, I walked into the OR, placed myself on the table (that looked surprisingly like a lethal injection gurney) and waited. I was on the table for several minutes and that is when my blood pressure peaked. I had a little too much time to think about what was about to happen to me on that very table and I was eventually just begging the anesthesiologist to go ahead and take me out, PLEASE!!!!!!
Next thing I knew I was awake and in the recovery room and asking to pee. So basically I was back to my old self. I walked to the bathroom with a nurse’s assistance and after that my plastic surgeon came to see me. He took my hand and let me feel where the once rock hard “boobs” had been. But they weren’t rocks anymore! They were soft and felt like… BOOBS! I started to cry and thanked him profusely in what I am sure was an extremely melodramatic fashion, but I was just so relieved. What a long road it had been to get to this moment. It had been months where I just felt as though I had these weird, foreign things hanging off my chest and it was just so nice to be “back to normal,” or as normal as I ever will or hope to be.
The days following surgery were surprisingly easy. I was not sure what to expect. I had asked survivor-friends who had gone through this surgery about their recovery, but I knew it was different with each person. The only real pain I ever felt was some back pain. I took a pain pill the day after my surgery, and then one the following day and that was all the pain pills I needed. I was so grateful for such a quick, painless, and easy recovery. But then, of course, something else went wrong. Roll with the punches, Abby. Roll with the punches.
I woke up three days after my implant exchange surgery with blurred vision. I figured it was probably due to the anesthesia, or the meds—nothing to be too worried about. I figured it would go away in a few hours. No big deal! Well, it didn’t go away. The following morning it was worse and when I looked in the mirror, my left pupil was fully dilated while my right pupil was not. Great, now I look like a bald madwoman. Just perfect. At least I have fabulous new boobs.
This was the day of my “simulation” that I had scheduled with my radiation oncologist. Basically this is the time where my radiation team makes an initial plan on where they are going to “zap” me (this is actually a technical term—that is what the nurses in his office call it). It was an oddly bizarre experience. The nurses placed me on this table underneath a cat scan machine and placed a “blue cocoon” around me—that is what I call it. The blue cocoon was this blanket that they wrapped around the back of me that I am supposed to rest in every time I come in for treatment. After they situated me just right, they let the air out of the blanket and it became a stiff cocoon that they will store with all the other patients’ cocoons. Weird right? I thought so.
Before my simulation, I sat down with my radiation oncologist and mentioned my vision problems to him. I explained that it was not going away and showed him my crazy eye. He said it could be the meds, it could be an aneurysm, and it could be that the cancer had spread to my brain. That is when he gave me the uplifting words of encouragement that even if it was brain cancer it wasn’t as though I would die in a week, a month, or even a year. Well then great! What are we worried for?! My mom and I both went quiet after he gave us this news and my entire body just shut down. It was just more than I could handle. Way more. He told me that we needed to schedule an MRI of the brain to see what was going on. I asked if we could please get this done today because there was really no way I could deal with not knowing for more than a few hours. He scheduled my MRI for later that afternoon.
For most of the day I was very quiet, which is very unlike me. I kept to myself and just tried to work through the situation I was in. I found myself begging God that it be anything other than brain cancer. To find yourself rooting for an aneurysm kind of places life into perspective. The MRI took about forty-five minutes. Being in a tube with a cage over your face and not being able to move an inch gives you a lot of time to ponder your situation or to pray. I chose prayer. I just prayed over and over to please, please, please don’t let it be that the cancer has spread. Please, please, please just give me good news. My mom and I stumbled back to our house after the MRI and just sat there waiting and fighting back the overwhelming urge to throw up. My plastic surgeon called to check on me and my mom explained the situation to him. He said he would make a call and try to expedite the results. The phone rang about an hour later. The test came back negative, no brain tumor, no brain aneurysm, and it was most likely a side effect of one of the many meds I have been on. I just sat there and cried and cherished that moment. I had not received a ton of good news lately, and I wanted to just soak that moment up for all it was worth. You’ve got to focus on the positive, I figured, and that is just what I did.
My birthday is tomorrow and I find it needless to say that this birthday is a very special one. Six months ago, sitting in my surgeon’s office being diagnosed with breast cancer, I was unaware if I would have the privilege of seeing this birthday. My situation sheds a whole new light on the value of life and the value of each birthday one has the opportunity to celebrate. I am just so thankful to be where I am and to have come this far. I am also so grateful for all the people I have met along the way. I am so grateful for another year of life. I am smiling as I write this because I just can’t wait to see what this year has in store for me.