Fighting Cancer On My Terms

Even though the very thought of cancer can put you into a hysterical Chicken Little tailspin, rest assured, the sky is not falling. Immediately, you picture armies of malignant, malformed cells, coursing through your body and taking it hostage. But that’s not exactly what’s happening.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, words couldn’t even begin to describe how I felt. Here are a few inadequate ones: shocked, terrified, angry, panicked, numb, and perhaps the biggest: helpless. I was afraid this thing was going to do me in. But I took a deep breath and decided very early on that I would face cancer on my own terms.

Now, I’m not talking about putting my health in jeopardy. Everything I did was with the approval of my medical team. But it gave me a sense of power; a sense of control. And I think that’s what saved me—convincing myself that I was a badass instead of a victim. I found that, in an uncontrollable situation, it helped enormously psychologically.

Back up to when I had a funky mammogram (and sonogram) right before spring break 2013, and my first impulse was to curl up into a ball, cry and cancel our family trip out west. I couldn’t get an appointment with a breast specialist until a few days after we were to return, but I was in such a panic I wanted to drop everything and worry that it was cancer. Meanwhile, I hadn’t even had a biopsy yet.

My very practical husband reasoned that if it wasn’t cancer, fantastic; but if it was, I’d really need a vacation. Peter was right. Somehow I managed to enjoy myself as soon as I left my home ZIP code. We had an incredible trip visiting friends and family in L.A. I reveled in their healing hugs, explored Joshua Tree (which was on my bucket list), and even revisited Graceland Chapel in Las Vegas, where Peter and I had tied the knot 18 years earlier (it was wild being there with our teenage son). I dutifully resumed my worrying when we got home—it was right where I left it.

Cathy with her family and friends

After my April appointment with the surgeon, he scheduled an excision biopsy—meaning he took out the entire, small, 1-cm mass. Dr. S said he was 75% certain it wasn’t cancer just by the way it presented itself, and wanted to take out the whole thing so I’d be done with it.

P.S: It was cancer. Then my whole world fell apart. But just temporarily.

Even though the very thought of cancer can put you into a hysterical, Chicken-Little tailspin, rest assured that the sky is not falling. While it's normal to immediately, picture armies of malignant, malformed cells coursing through your body and taking it hostage, take comfort in the fact that that's not exactly what’s happening.

Despite how helpless you feel, you do have a choice: in selecting your wellness team, but also in selecting your attitude. I was lucky that Dr. S gave me options: a lumpectomy followed by chemo and radiation, or a mastectomy with a chemo chaser. Even though I was only Stage 1, my “margins” still weren’t clear and he’d have to remove more tissue, including my nipple, because it fell within the affected area.

Peter and I did research and decided that a mastectomy would be best for my particular situation. Dr. S agreed when I asked what he would recommend if I were his wife or daughter. Plus, thanks to the health insurance labyrinth we had to navigate along with this news, our HMO would pay for reconstructive surgery with a mastectomy but not with a lumpectomy, even for someone with half a boob and no nipple. Go figure.

Dr. S had originally wanted to do the mastectomy the Wednesday before Mother’s Day. I asked if we could hold off until the Wednesday after. The reason? I wanted to spend one more Mother’s Day with Lefty intact. I also didn’t want to spend the second Sunday in May emptying surgical drains and zooted out on Vicodin.

Cathy at Edgy MomsBesides, I had been invited to take part in an “Edgy Moms” reading the day after the proposed surgery date. I was honored to be on the roster and couldn’t fathom missing this big event. And if putting off your mastectomy so you can read about motherhood isn’t the definition of being an Edgy Mom, I don’t know what is!

Mother’s Day 2013 was a bittersweet one but it gave me the opportunity to make peace with what lay ahead. I would have been even more resentful if I had to miss events like the reading. As it was, I was already pissed off with every woman who didn’t have breast cancer. So, when I had a mastectomy five days after Mother’s Day, I was prepared—physically and mentally.

Post-surgery, I was fortunate that I was given the choice between two types of chemotherapy. My oncologist said that I could have a weaker strain for six months and might not lose all of my hair (gee, thanks!) or I could have a stronger cocktail of TC (taxotere and cytoxan) for three months and definitely lose my hair. Hmmm…three months of hell versus six of purgatory. I opted for hell. Again, having a say in it not only gave me the illusion of control, but helped my morale.

An infection caused by my reconstructive tissue expander, and emergency surgery to remove it, delayed my chemo start date. I, in turn, asked to put off my first infusion for another week—for a theatrical debut. My oncologist considered it and agreed.

So, my treatments began the day after my play “Moving Pictures” premiered at the Rosendale Short-Play Festival upstate. The unbelievable experience of seeing my work performed (three times!), having an emotionally-bolstering weekend with friends who ventured 100 miles north of New York City to celebrate with me, nurture me, cook for me and sing me healing songs amid fragrant, towering pines did me an incredible amount of good. If it’s ever possible to be ready for your first chemo infusion and steel yourself for a cocktail of debilitating drugs coursing through your body, I was ready.

Luckily, cancer waited for me. I am now two years post-surgery and 18 months post-chemo. Yes, it was nightmarish, but I lived to tell the tale. I honestly don’t know how I would have coped if I didn’t approach cancer on my own terms. I’m blessed to have hand-picked a medical team who was willing to listen to me and was confident that waiting a few days wouldn’t make or break me. And it made all the difference.

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