I was going to die of breast cancer, but now they're going to try and save me. Aren't I lucky!
I spent a long time in fear. I was all alone there. I have stepped out of the everyday and spent time with my death. Now I am back in it, everyday life. Gonna try to not die quite so soon.
It's reasonably cool right now, and I have the door open, it's humid though and it's supposed to be beastly today. Really beastly hot and humid, it will feel like +40. But these days it cools off at night, every night, no matter what, and it's dark when I wake up at 5:00am, so it's not so bad.
Yesterday I had my consult with the oncologist. My oncologist. I have an oncologist and a cancer team. Yesterday’s cubicle woman is his assistant and my go-to person if I have any questions, she will always know where he is and can always get in touch with him. The receptionist is actually my bookings assistant. She will book all of my tests.
He was mad that nobody did anything about the MRI recommendations three years ago. He has emotions. Mad is one of them. His face turns red. None of the follow up tests were done. This lump was identified back then. He was impressed that I decided it was a problem myself, and then lied and cheated my way back in for a mammogram on my own. "Good for you”. He was proud of me. "Keep it up" He's going to do all the tests that should have been done before. The ultra sound, the bone scan, and also additional tests. He read where the radiologist said it looked like cancer to her, the doctor did a physical exam with expert hands and said it looks like cancer to him too, so they are proceeding as if it's cancer even if I haven't had the biopsy yet. I have two full weeks of tests ahead of me, including a genetics consultation.
The tumour itself proclaimed the accuracy of her touch, for it had felt something too. Only a patient can judge whether the doctor understands a tumour correctly with his fingers.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward,1966
This doctor is young and bright. He's intense. Already a success in his career. You can feel it just being in the room with him. This is his thing. He's too aggressive for me. I get why the other doctor didn't order the extra tests (sort of) I fell through the cracks, he was just a normal person doing his job, just missed one file of many stacked up on his desk. I should've pursued it on my own, made those doctors do the tests. But also MRIs are famous for false positive results. And if I had done that then, would I be here at this good hospital now? Would I be sitting in this room with this superstar cancer doctor? No.
That is the thing. I would've been still mucking about with the private clinic who did not do the follow up, or I'd be at the other hospital which is okay, but not that great. Not like this place.
The hospital atmosphere is different on the cancer floor. It's less crowded. I'm not part of the masses getting routine tests anymore. I am somebody special. I'm in a different place, apart from the herd. I see the effects of the pink ribbon campaigns. There is more money here. Not just money for all these tests, and not just how specific the tests are, and how much more advanced the treatment has become, but also money for more comfortable waiting room chairs, electronic ipads attached to every third chair to keep you from getting bored. You don't see that sort of stuff until you get onto the cancer ward, and especially the breast cancer clinic. I am in a whole new medical world.
Here is the thing, it's so weird. Here is the so weird thing.
I've been feeling just happy. Ever since I walked into the clinic, they're treating me like a cancer patient already, I have the full team and I haven't even had the biopsy yet. This is bad news. This is scary news. My husband was more scared. I am comforting him, reminding him that people have cancer and they get treated and they recover. Look at yourself, look at our cameraman, look at your cousin, look at my brother. And I am happy inside.
They think I have a bad one. I know that. But not hopelessly bad. That's what they think right now. I feel like I am below fifty fifty in their minds, but that I could still make it.
He found a lump on my lymph node, in my armpit on that side. They are going to biopsy that too. Additional test.
His face, his tone of voice, his attitude, all shouted that, negative mammogram or not, his fingers told him a mastectomy wold be needed.
Rose Kushner, Breast Cancer, 1975
It's growing, and it might have spread, probably spread, and he's calling it at four centimeters. At five centimeters thirty percent are alive at five years. So by the numbers that's where I am. I think I was at seventy percent by my own guesses and the mammogram results at the beginning of the week. Down to fifty fifty now.
This week has been up and down.
So why do I feel so happy? It was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders when I talked to the doctor yesterday. I was relieved. I was happy. I just had this irrational happiness inside me.
The best seem to have a sixth sense about disease. They feel its presence, know it to be there, perceive its gravity before any intellectual process can define, catalog, and put it into words. Patients sense this about such a physician as well: that he is attentive, alert, ready; that he cares. No student of medicine should miss observing such an encounter. Of all the moments in medicine, this one is most filled with drama, with feeling, with history.
Annals of Internal Medicine, Michael LaCombe, 1993
This was my first, you probably have cancer talk. This was the first person who said, this is probably cancer, we're so certain that we're going to proceed as if it is cancer. I should have been sitting formally on the other side of a desk, fully dressed, getting the news in a well rehearsed speech, instead of sitting on the examining table in a hospital gown and sock feet. I should been shocked and devastated. Instead I was happy when he caught my eye, stopped writing down all the tests, stopped being so excited about going into battle with the cancer enemy, acknowledged that this probably wasn't what I was expecting and this wasn't the ideal way to find out and then said, "I'm never going to lie to you. I'm always going to be upfront and just tell you stuff." I can trust him. I am happy.
Why? Because I already knew it. I already knew that this is some kind of cancer. And I know it's on the move. It might've been this super slow growing thing for a long time, but things have been happening in the past six months and it's on the move. Time to do something about it. I would die for sure if we don't. I knew that. I knew that already. I knew that this summer. I knew that when we were camping and I was having my shower at Rushing River campsite. I knew that when we put Moose's ashes in Lake Superior. This tumour is growing now. I will die if it's not stopped. I knew that part already.
So, no he didn't shock me when he said it. I was happy and relieved. We're going to try and stop it. There is this whole medical world out there that's on it, and they're going to try and help me stop this. I'm not alone anymore. I'm not for sure going to die anymore. It’s only maybe now. Only fifty/fifty. And that's why I was so happy. That's why I was so relieved.
Because for me it wasn't news that I have cancer and was on the path to dying. The news is that I have cancer, and I also now have this whole team that's going to try get rid of it.
This is like when my tooth got infected. You suffer alone, you have pain and then you say, okay this is it, my body can't fix this itself, I need help. And the dentist gives you serious antibiotics, and he pulls the infected tooth and that's it, that's the kick start your body needs to get over that hump. And then your body can take over from there and save itself.
It's like that but on a really big scale.
So I'm really happy. I'm happy and relieved. I'm not alone in my dark and growing fear. My secret is out. And I have a whole team of smart professionals that are on my side. And yes, I am benefiting from that entire pink ribbon campaign and all the money that's gone into that. This is not your mother's breast cancer - even if it turns out that it is your mother's breast cancer. It's not going to be treated the way they treated your mother's breast cancer.
It's crazy, I can't wait to tell everybody. I was going to die of breast cancer, but now they're going to try and save me. Aren't I lucky! It'll be a crap six months, maybe even a whole crap year. But then I might live! I might live for a long time after that. And they'll know, and I'll have this team and I'm really happy with them. I like this hospital. I feel good about it.
I think I was going to die. In a year or two. I think that's what would've happened. I think I have started to die already. And maybe we can turn it around. And maybe, when he said they have new, targeted treatments these days, that they don't always do that full chemo make your hair fall out thing, and they don't always do radical surgeries. Who knows, even if it's an aggressive one, if it's the right kind of aggressive it still might only be removing the cancer itself and then targeted treatment. And maybe even only targeted treatment and no surgery at all. That made me feel hopeful and happy.
I'm relieved that it's not those days, my mother's days when you went in for a biopsy and didn't know if you would wake up just fine, or with one boob or even both boobs gone. Barbaric. And those days are gone. That's what I know, that's what I know of breast cancer and I was happy and relieved to discover that, that's not what's going on now. Thank you to all the women who fought for this change.
Perhaps we will soon see the day when the good old American practice of combining surgical biopsy in a single stage with mastectomy will join the Halsted on the dusty museum shelf.
Rose Kushner, Breast Cancer, 1975
My husband and I went out for dinner. We had a nice dinner together. I had fish and chips. It was okay, I introduced my husband to mushy peas as a side for fish and chips and he liked them. I had a glass of cider. But I didn't stop to get wine or booze on my way home. I almost did. But then I didn't.
Here is the crazy thing, I'm back to wanting to take better care of my health again now too. Do my bit. Saving this body that is my temple. For me, yes, but also for my husband, kids and grandkids. My sister. My brother. My friends who love me.
So I feel happy, unreasonably happy. And I understand it because I was mentally adjusting to dying. I felt it, and I felt like I was going to die from it. And now I'm not so sure. I may get a really big reprieve out of this in the end. I might actually get that alternate life that I can almost taste just on the other side of this, and enough time to have that life too. So I'm happy.
My other choice was to continue this life for the next year or two and then be done. And that would not have been the end of the world either. I've had a good life. And it still might turn out that way. But now I have a chance at something else. I might have this big second chance.
And it's a bit like when I had all those back problems and had that life, almost an old woman's life when I could hardly get around, when I couldn't ride in a car from Calgary to Banff, when I couldn't really travel anymore, where I could barely get down the block, barely drive a car, it was hard work getting from the couch where I watch in total envy when people simply stood up from their chairs on All in the Family. I had that life. I was dying from that life, and then I quit it. It was a big trauma. But I got this whole new, other life out of it.
I got interesting work, I traveled the world, I had good lovers and big romances, and I met my husband and I have had a whole life here with him. I lived in the Arctic. I saw Shakespeare at Stratfford, the real Stratford in Britain. I lived in the Philippines. I traveled to Norway. I travelled to Germany for work and all the men sang love songs from their countries on my birthday at the back of the conference bus. I would never have had that if my old life had not been destroyed I would never had had that new one. I feel like something like this could happen now.
I kept the best of my old life. My kids. My family. My good, real friends.
The historical conditions that once allowed a doctor to declare that the truly happy never get cancer have shifted such that we are now asked to think about breast cancer as a route to happiness.
Pink Ribbons, Inc. Samantha King, 2006
And what else? Yesterday I went and got my eyebrows done. At the spa at the end of the street, just past the laundromat. I felt proud of myself for doing that. Just doing it, on the spur of the moment, doing my eyebrows. And the irony. Here I am doing my hair and eyebrows, spending good money on that when it's very possible that I could go onto chemo and they'll all fall out. Human nature, eh man?
I booked the ticket to take care of the grandkids as soon as I got the first bad mammogram. No, that was the good one, where the technician said, "you have a gland, do not be alarmed." Before the recall. Now we are alarmed.
I will meet with this doctor in two weeks after all the tests are done. We'll know then, we'll have the information and we'll talk about a treatment plan. That will be the week before I'm scheduled to leave. I'm worried about having big stuff happen right away and leaving them in the lurch, and also hitting them with sudden bad news all at once. Think about how to soften that. Maybe simply tell them that I had a bad mammogram and they're doing tests and we'll know the week before. Leave my ticket as is until then.
That's probably okay. Just a bit of a heads up.
And I have personal disability insurance. And government insurance as well. I could qualify for some kind of employment insurance for this too. You'd think I knew this was coming all along, all those years that I've been paying into this insurance, no matter how broke I was I still scraped together the money for disability insurance. I hope it works out.
I think my life will change. For sure.
And partly - I admit it. I like being the centre of attention. I like all these hospital people being nice to me for a change. I like my husband feeling like he has to be nice to me. That makes me happy too.
I spent a long time in fear. I have stepped out of the everyday and spent time with my death. I stepped out on my own and went into the dark place where I could die, was going to die. I mentally spent time there and was okay with it. I was all alone there. I was the only one who knew what was happening. I stepped out of the everyday then. Now I am back in it, everyday, life. Gonna try to not die quite so soon. And I have a whole medical team on my side.
So I am happy and I want to call everyone and tell them this great news.
But none of them have been through the, dark part, she could die phase yet. It will be bad news for them. And that will bring me down too. It will take me back to the sadness of death. Death itself, that notion that we all die and it sucks. So I need to manage the way I handle that, the way I give them the information. I need to let them know how to take it too.
In the meantime, I have today. And things to do, but not really. Basically I'm leaving the next two weeks free, free to drop everything and run out and get a test when they ask for me. That's my schedule for the next two weeks. Starting today. Things will only start up today. I suspect that there won't be any tests for today, but you never know. But it could start as soon as tomorrow. I would be surprised if I don't have any tests tomorrow. Next week for sure. This is a window, a chance to catch up on some of the my office work while my husband is off on a shoot for the day, while my oncology team is setting up my testing regime.
I have an oncology team.