I wasn't really shocked when I found out I had breast cancer. I had worked with so many women who had heard those words that it didn't seem that strange. The cancer was small, tiny actually, and I had found it myself. Don't give me too much credit for the self-examination that we're all supposed to do but don't do often enough. The tumor was on the right side, just beneath the underwire of my bra, and provided a constant though minor irritation. It was a 0.3-centimeter pebble missed by mammogram, or about one-tenth of an inch. The diagnosis: ductal carcinoma in situ. That means it was confined to just one place. My oncologist said I was lucky, blessed even. A lumpectomy, not too disfiguring a surgery, and a mere annoyance of five weeks of painless radiation. No chemotherapy. "Baby cancer," I was told by a fellow patient. Okay, I can do this. My life still flashed before my eyes. Who would raise my children? Would my husband remarry within a year? Finally: Why me?
• • •
Five years of daily tamoxifen pills plus two years of getting my groove back later, an MRI shows something about an inch away from the first one. A benign cyst? Even better, scar tissue? No such luck. Another DCIS. My oncologist said I was twice blessed, as it was much like the first tumor. Only this time no lumpectomy. A radiated breast is not to be zapped again, so mastectomy is the preferred treatment. And while we're at it, why not just take both? That was a decision made by my doctors and myself due to my particular situation and family history.
It was one of the most horrifying moments of my life. My mother and sisters were frightened — for me and for themselves. As I was contemplating my next decisions about breast reconstruction, I discussed the various possibilities with anyone who would dare to ask. Some friends were supportive but clueless. Well, at least they'll be perky, was one response. Or if I chose the "TRAM flap" reconstruction I would get a tummy tuck to boot.
Others were supportive but distant. "There but for the grace of God go I," they said. What does that mean anyway? God blesses the virtuous with good health and early, treatable cancer and turns his proverbial back on the rest? I've never believed that God micromanages. That's when the anger came. And it spewed out all over for a while. I was ultimately in this alone. It was me who lay in bed at night unable to fall asleep, and it was me who woke up in the morning knowing it was not a dream.
When it was time, the cavalry came. Neighbors and friends came out of nowhere helping with meals and cards and flowers and dog walks, and I couldn't have done it without them. And there were discussions I needed to have, those that are too difficult to have with the people who love you most. They can't go there. Maybe they shouldn't have to.
Once, when in a women's group, we were discussing some of the daily fears of living with the cancer imprint. A woman had spoken of one of her friends who, in trying to relate to her fears, said, "Hey, I could be hit by a truck tomorrow." The woman responded, "Sure, but it's not an 18-wheeler coming toward you at 100 mph with lights on and horns blaring."
I'm well more than a year out now and continue learning to live in the moment. I've been told that breast cancer is the best one to have. There are millions of women out there who would beg to differ. Cancer is cancer. Early detection is helpful but certainly not a clear indicator of success. I make gratitude lists and meditate and say "it's all good" even when I don't believe it. I still yell at my kids too much and complain about things I can't control. I try to walk the walk and talk the talk and I hope I am there for other women who need to do the same. I'm not sure when or what my next blessing will be. I just hope I'll be ready to receive.
Christine E. Healy has a master's degree in social work and is an oncology social worker in the Psychosocial and Palliative Care Department of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.