5 years and 1 day ago, october 26, 2005, i met my husband for an early lunch at veselka in the east village in nyc, walked over to ‘toy tokyo’ to pick up a birthday present for my then-11 year old daughter’s friend, and went together to sit for what turned out to be a 4-hour wait at nyu cancer center to have the bump/lump that my gyn insisted was a plugged milk-duct examined – since it was ‘too big to be cancer’ (given that it showed up out of, essentially, nowhere) and since it had to be removed anyway. I waited for the breast surgeon with an unending parade of women. And waited. And, I might add, waited. Did I mention that we waited for 4 hours? Well, if I could just go back and know that those 4 hours were the beginning of the waiting and long days. Once in, it was another long haul. A new face and the negotiation between getting to know this surgeon very fast and finding out – almost by 7pm that night (after we made arrangements for our daughter to stay over at her friend’s house) – that trouble was not just brewing but here. the advantage of living in a big metropolitan city is having big medical centers available. within an hour a biopsy was drawn – then and there (the first of many long needles) – and an hour later a gentleman walked in … we understood that he was lab doctor who read the biopsy slide and stayed late to take care of it and talk to me … an older man with an easy lope … and said – in an oddly cheery way: “well, the good news is it’s a garden-variety cancer.” and then i don’t remember much after that. for months.
fast forward 5 years and 1 day. plow through the nights of my angry frustrated writing to a group of friends who were unprepared for the level of piss and wailing that came off my keyboard and, very nicely, encouraged me to keep writing as well as keep going forward. past the now-ex-friend who tried to tell me i should take the fermented magic beans as a cure for cancer; past the plodding through of multiple tests; the nodding off in the car from the xanax i took so that i could breathe through the anxiety attacks; through the haze of the surgery decisions – mastectomy…reduction…reconstruction…what about the lymph nodes…and through the surgery with it’s recovery-time marked by the memory of my wonderful brother-in-law visiting at my request (to lend some brotherly relief to my husband who was drowning in estrogen-based days and nights) and he gently washed my hair in the kitchen sink while my drains hung in my side pockets; past the extremely long haul of chemo including the mulitple-consults with other doctors (bless my friend lisa at sloan kettering who passed my test results along to the best of the best for 2nd and 3rd opinions … and who went with me when i had my head shaved free of hair before it fell out in clumps) from the night after my first chemo treatment (at st. vincents cancer center) when we had to have a friend come and stay like a stealth babysitter at our house because i couldn’t stop puking and had to be brought back into manhattan to the cancer center for new anti-nausea meds and rehydrating so we sneaked away at 11pm with daughter asleep upstairs and came back at 5 am with the realization that it was a whole fucking awful new world ahead of us; through the daily radiation (back at nyu) for which i was relieved to not be puking until my skin started blistering and i felt like someone took my fatigue level and wacked it with a mighty hammer way down under the ground; to the rebuilding – sprouts of hair; going back to work (which i did through the treatment but part-time and was basically held together by a few dedicated colleagues) and then realizing i needed time off from work (my favorite quote from that time: “but you just had all that time off”! …oh yes, that was a holiday); then back to work slowly and planning each day to try … try to move forward. a triumphant trip to paris a year later for my 50th and to prove to myself that i was, indeed, still here. dealing with the mild lymphadema that came my way when the 3 levels of lymph nodes were taken out in surgery meant and means wearing my compression sleeve and glove on every flight and suffering the looks of many at every airport we go to. way too much overeating to prove to myself that i didn’t have to deprive myself of anything. dealing with the chemo-brain changes that are subtle but oh so there … i call it ‘chemo-phasia’ … the inability to find specific words or names for at least 5 minutes into any conversation. 2 years later understanding that i could stop shoving every slice of pizza and cake down my throat and could actually lose weight and exercise and bought my wonderful ‘bertha’ – my gym-grade elliptical who serves our whole family now and worked slowly and methodically on losing 35 pounds so that i wouldn’t ‘survive cancer and die of a heart attack.’
and that brings me to this: 5 years and 1 day after i was diagnosed i think i am entitled to say – at least for today – that i have survived. i am a survivor of breast cancer. i asked my oncologist last week what it meant to be 5 years out and she said in her usual ‘oscar-madison’ way: “nothing…i’ll be seeing you when you’re 90.” meaning: stay vigilant. you are irreparably changed and, from what she implies, she and i will be bantering when we’re very senior citizens. it’s not all pink and rah rah out there. i am not a pink rah rah person. so don’t take this the wrong rah rah way but today i get to say to my anonymous readers, my friends, my friggin’ world-class dedicated doctors – each of whom have been amazing in their talents and their spirit, oncology nurses everywhere with their incredible spirit and ability to get any needle into any teeny vein, my family, and, mostly i think, to myself: i have survived and need to keep moving forward.