It was June 29, 2007 that I heard my doctor say, “Coral, I’m sorry, it was positive. You have breast cancer.” I was lucky in that it was caught very early–Stage 0, DCIS, no micro-invasion. Chemotherapy was not required, but the recommended radiation did not make much sense to me, so I opted to kick breast cancer’s butt before it had the chance to kick mine. I decided to have a mastectomy of the affected breast.
On October 18th, 2008 I “celebrated” the one year anniversary of the mastectomy of my right breast. Throughout the process, starting with my diagnosis and ending with the final reconstructive procedure, I’ve written about my thoughts, feelings, and fears. And so I share my “Walk Down Mammary Lane,” marking that anniversary…
It was this time one year ago today, I was on my way to University of Washington Medical Center, facing head-on the decision I made to have a mastectomy after my diagnosis with early stage breast cancer. I didn’t sleep that much the night before, but had written a few hours before I left. It’s interesting to go back to read what I was feeling over this past year, not to revisit or rehash old wounds (pun intended), but as a way to see how I’ve grown and evolved, or to remind me of what I’ve learned as I am able to share it with others.
So, I begin today with a walk down Mammary Lane:
“This morning in the shower, I was soaping myself down, and simply started to weep. I couldn’t tell which was warmer…the water, or the tears streaming down my face. I really do like my breasts. I’m grieving the upcoming loss of my right. That seems so damned stupid, but I feel as if I’m losing an old friend.
“In about 9 hours, I will be at nuclear medicine for the sentinel node mapping, and then at around 10:30 a.m. PDT, my surgical oncologist will begin the removal of my right breast. The plastic surgeon will then be called in to place an expander under the chest muscle to begin the preparation for the future DIEP Flap reconstruction, to take place hopefully in January or February. I will be staying overnight in the hospital and will be sent home on Friday, barring any complications, and will be in initial recovery mode for 1-2 weeks according to my plastic surgeon.
“So, this journey starts out on a new path tomorrow…uncharted territory. What lies beyond? I don’t know. But I do realize that this is a road that has been opened to me. And I have always enjoyed an adventure, so I keep telling myself! I doubt that I will sleep much tonight. I’ll likely be holding a conversation with the right old girl. I suppose that it won’t seem too strange me carrying on a conversation with her. Men have been talking to them for years. Maybe now…someone will notice I have eyes. “
Oh, how I would have liked to have forgotten about that sentinel node mapping! There I was lying on my back with Dr. Doogie Howser jabbing a needle into my right nipple to place radioactive dye, under the careful watch of an East Indian version of Marcus Welby, M.D. (I know I’m showing my age with this description of the two doctors! You’re showing yours by knowing exactly who I’m talking about!) I can think of better ways to spend my last memories of having a nipple! True to my bantering nature, I was pulling out all the stops, trying to joke around with Dr. Doogie and his other sidekick interns, but no one seemed particularly amused, let alone interactive. I remember hearing my Mom’s voice in my brain saying, “If they can’t take a joke, F$*% ’em!”
The less they would respond to me, I seemed to turn it up, trying to lighten the situation. I seem to remember blurting out, “You’ll really need to develop a sense of humor when you grow up to become a real doctor!” Though I heard the nuclear technician giggle, and later tell me that I reminded her of her favorite aunt, I knew that my nervous talking and joking had stepped beyond appropriate. I fought back tears, kept unnaturally quiet, and faced the rest of the morning with not much more than necessary responsiveness. I also apologized later to the doctor for my foolish comment.
The reality –I was scared. I don’t like being out-of-control.
There are several stages I go through to compensate for those fears. The first is to over-analyze, and over-prepare. I want to know all the angles so that I’m not taken off-guard. I know that I can “wing it” fairly well, but the more I have rehearsed a situation in my head, and can identify most of the “what ifs,” the more prepared I am to deal with the results, mentally having gone to the nth degree in the possible scenarios.
Secondly, I cope by going into “performer mode,” trying to joke around with everyone around me. I allow others to see steely determination, flavored with ballsy confidence, and peppered with ribald humor. Of course, not everyone appreciates it. Some will try to ignore it, others are blatantly annoyed by it, and some are intimidated by it. Yet, there are many who are openly amused by it, and find me charming, witty, funny, and “courageous.”
Thirdly, when I realize I have made a fool of myself with some people, and sometimes have to apologize, I withdraw and become very introspective; this also is the stage when I no longer feel like I can be “on” or handle being strong and resilient. It is when I’m hardest on myself, when I allow myself to weep, and when I make a decision to finally share with a select few that I truly am afraid, and share the most vulnerable me.
Vulnerability isn’t easy for me, because like so many other people, I’ve had several situations throughout life where I’ve not been able to count on others to be there when I need them the most. Because everyone comes with his or her own history, fear, and vulnerability, there are times that you look around and those closest to you have scattered and you don’t know where else to turn.
So I’ve learned to try to handle crises alone, though not always most effectively. If I’m honest with myself, I have to take some of the responsibility for it, because I show the tough part of me dealing with the tough stuff; I retreat when I become fearful.
But back to October 18, 2007…It is the day I choose as my “cancer-free” date. It is the day I entered into partnership with my surgeons to take control where we could, and sharing the fears and hopes of the outcome. It is the day I began to take life much more seriously when necessary, but less seriously to enjoy it more. It is the day I started to open up to those who are there to partner with me, and start to let go of that which holds me back from the things I want to accomplish in this life, and the person I want to be. It is a day that has changed my life and how I try to live it, and I hope to become a better person for having gone through it.
One year later, do I miss my breasts as they used to be-old, sagging, unscarred? Yes, I must admit that I do. I miss being able to feel the sensation of my skin. I miss the appearance of a nipple. And should I ever become physically intimate again, I’ll miss the pleasure derived from a lover’s caresses.
But I have no regrets for the decision I made to have a mastectomy, in spite of the changes and challenges. I know that I did the right thing for me.
And though I can no longer hold on a conversation with the old girls, they never did talk back much that last night anyway. It’s a wonder that I ever thought some men were brilliant conversationalists.
But maybe then…I wasn’t really listening.