For weeks – the 10 year mark has loomed in front of me. And given that I’m not exactly the ‘isn’t it always a happy day today’ kind of girl, I’ve had mixed feelings about it. I’m not even sure that I want my survivor-date to be the anniversary of the day I started a month or two of being so wasted on zanax so that I could make it through each day and just breathe (and nod out – cheap date that I am) while trying to process the idea that I had cancer. Breast cancer. Cancer? Family history made me familiar with massive strokes and heart attacks brought on by too much schmaltz consumption but…cancer? Not in my vocabulary.
You know those moments you never get out of your head? In the complete haze of the day (waiting 3 hours before I was seen and then an in-office biopsy and waiting more and then some more with a husband who could only gamely try to look like its all going to be ok), mine is the older lab tech who came in and said, in the oddest almost-jocular fashion: “Well, the good news is it’s the ‘garden-variety’ type.”
I chewed on that for years. Through all the hurry-up and wait. Through being told that this found lump was much bigger than it ended up being. Through finding out that this medium-sized lump was much more aggressive than they thought it would be. Through making choices about keeping one breast, loosing two breasts, or getting my plastic surgeon and breast surgeon to forget that they hated each other and agree to a massive lumpectomy and resizing me bilaterally. Through the start of the chemo – head in a bucket mid-night because someone didn’t take me seriously when I said I get easily nauseous and having to have a friend secretly watch our young daughter overnight so I could be rushed into Manhattan to be rehydrated and given more serious anti-nausea drugs and then rushed home so the school morning was as if we had been there all along. Through the shaving of the head (bless my dear friend Lisa for being my witness). Through all my conflicted feelings about wearing a wig. Through the second set of chemo and the vicodin-glazed afternoons to calm the shooting pains in my legs while I stood in open houses pretending to work (bless my dear friend Janice for making me pretend). Through an office colleague saying to me on the street: ‘wow, you know you lost weight and you look good’ while I was only ½ way through treatment. Through the real blessings of my family and some steady friends who came over and pretended that I could really play scrabble and concentrate on the game. Through the 5 ½ weeks of radiation and all the bubbling blisters and the determination to be done so that we could drive my daughter to her first summer at the camp I loved. Through the wonderful trips we’ve taken and the sideways glances at every airport as I stand with my lymphedema sleeve and glove on my right arm – oh, and the quick learning curve to never ever put it on before you go through tsa screening lest you be thought to harbor something evil within the elastic compression sleeve. Through the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding fight with my new health insurance company when they call you on your birthday in the middle of breast cancer awareness month to inform you that, essentially, all those pesky breast cancer survivors were costing them too much money at Sloan Kettering and that they were going to eliminate the hospital and doctors as a choice– oh wait, all my care is there now. (won that particular battle).
10 years have not gone quickly. What happened to me has happened to many survivors of trauma: I saw so many other people like me. Or maybe what I really saw was that I was exactly like so many other people. Walking slower down the street. Watching tv and thinking you’ll just scream your bloody head off if you have to hear the word ‘cancer’ for the 10,247th time that week. Feeling utterly determined to move forward. Feeling utterly exhausted when you can’t always do that. Feeling that your life – the progression of your life – was taken unfairly away from you and feeling that your life is something really different and new and possible even as you embrace the joy of the everyday life. Tamping down the at-least twice monthly fear that you’re done-for because your left pinkie is aching or you have a bump on your arm that turns out to be a bug bite. Trying not to be so angry. Hoping no one will notice your vocabulary work-around when the chemo-fasia of your brain doesn’t allow you to access words in a timely fashion. Trying not to notice that your belly is somewhat bigger than your boobs. Trying to sing too soon and having to lay down on the floor of the studio winded from one song. Going through a somewhat secret bout of DCIS two yeas ago (oh boy….non-invasive!) and being treated to a teeny lumpectomy and finding out that you were getting rewarded with even more radiation but realizing you were not going to sink to the depths of despair and were actually able to believe your incredible new breast surgeon who held your hand kindly and said “I really mean it that this is a blip on the radar”. Finding out that you can sit with a newly diagnosed friend and give thoughtful advice to help them on this path – the oddly-best of which involves the importance of ‘colace’ and how to jettison the ‘friend’ who wants a ‘staring role in your illness.’ Finding out that you can sing again – and, in a weird gravitas kind of way, far better than before .
It wasn’t a secret-gift…it was cancer. Fucked-up mean-spirited screw-with you cancer. But with the gift of whatever the pros had to throw at me, because that’s what they had at the time, I have survived and I have chosen to love my friends more, hug my family all the time and accept that I am happy to be the big personality that I am. If you see me being too still – too quiet – nudge me, ok? I was in a bad way a few months back til I just stood up and confessed – quite out loud – that I realized I was sitting around ‘waiting for something bad to happen’. And pissy peevy get-over-yourself girl that I am, the saying it was the banishing of it and I have to remind myself to ‘sing out, louise’ and remind myself that it really has been 10 years. I work very hard to daily remember a version of Lisa’s Grandma’s wise advice: ‘Don’t borrow worry.’ (I work at it…rarely achieve it tho).
A few weeks ago I was on the stage at City Center and sang – it’s not solo work but it’s been hard and very rewarding work to be part of an amazing group chorale –and in two weeks it’s Carnegie Hall with the same group. I have a daughter who is the light of my life and a husband who is shockingly kind and steady. I aim toward the big sing again with incredible teachers holding me up toward the light. I am surprised when I realize that people don’t look at me now and think: oh, you had cancer. I have friends who I work to become a better friend toward. Family who are surprisingly resilient And I have myself. A very different myself. I know what matters. I suffer even less the fools and the bullshit. I love the genuine. I still wear mostly black.
I’ve survived 10 years. Now off to work on the next 10….