(Written a Few Weeks After Being Diagnosed with Cancer)
I first met the wretch I named “Bob” 5 weeks ago. Invasive breast cancer, a rare form of lobular carcinoma, formed a lump on my left breast that I detected 2 days after my 59th birthday. I named it Bob to make it seem less frightening.
As I was recovering from a bilateral mastectomy, a whirlwind of thoughts and feelings went through my head. I’m still processing what’s happened to my body on so many different levels. The scars Bob left will remain with me forever.
I feel grateful. I am fortunate to have had an invasive cancerous tumor cut out of my body. I’m thankful that I’m not a poverty-stricken woman living in a remote village in an undeveloped country, with no hope for treatment, perhaps without the knowledge that the lump on my chest would almost certainly mean I’d be dead within the year. And I feel grateful for all the love and support that has poured out and held me in a steadying embrace these past several months since I first met Bob and was instantly suspicious about his intent for an ongoing relationship.
I feel discombobulated. Today marks just 3 weeks since Bob was officially diagnosed as cancer, and my surgery is already 2 days behind me. That was a short time to process what’s happened to me. It still doesn’t feel real that the words “patient with cancer” apply to me.
I feel apprehensive. I wonder what my body is going to look like when they remove the bandages in 2 weeks. Although my friend bravely shared her scars with me, and I can envision what I will look like post-surgery, it’s still unfathomable that when they remove the bandages I will look like her, with a blank expanse of chest and no hint of remaining breast. “Flat chested” took on a whole new meaning when I saw my friend’s chest. And the lack of nipples made it seem even more desolate. It was like seeing a face without eyes, or even eye sockets. Just nothingness where so much existed before.
I feel a sense of loss. My breasts were the means by which I nurtured my first daughter for many, many months. They were the pillows on which both my daughters rested their heads when they were young and snuggled with me. My breasts were part of what made me a “hot chick” decades ago, and gave me some nice curves to fill a top or a dress, even as gravity worked its relentless forces on them. They formed part of my sexual response, and gave my husband pleasure. They filled with sensation when I was moved emotionally. When I clutched my chest in an emotional response to something, or put my hand over my heart for the flag salute, I felt their soft pillowiness beneath my hand, as if they were feminine receptacles for my more tender or deeply felt emotions.
I feel paranoid. I have a sense of looking over my shoulder, worrying that some tiny remnants of the tumor most likely remain in my pectoral muscle, where they were too deeply embedded to extract, and that I’m now relying on the skill of my radiation oncologist and radiation treatments to kill every last one of them, to be perfectly effective in their mission. I have to trust that the radiologist will do his or her job correctly. I have to trust that the radiation will do its job, and I will be declared cancer-free. But because this cancer is so notoriously difficult to detect on imaging scans, I will never feel fully confident in that “cancer-free” status.
I feel disfigured. I think that no matter how much my husband assures me that he will still think I’m beautiful, he will keep his sense of horror to himself. I think that I will shudder when I look in the mirror, so I will never look at myself in the mirror or look down at my chest again (at least until it’s covered with a large tattoo of tropical birds on jungle vines, like the vibrant poster that adorns my bedroom wall).
I feel weaker. I can’t lift my arms above my head. I can barely change position when sitting or lying down, without a strategically planned effort to avoid shooting pain. I won’t let my special-needs daughter cuddle with me, because she will more than likely inadvertently bang her head into my incisions and will come to the shocking realization that my breasts are gone—something I don’t think I can explain to her yet without causing her great anxiety. If it was fair weather rather than the dead of winter, I wouldn’t be able to paddle my beloved kayak. I know that I will heal and the pain will fade, that I will be able to snuggle and paddle and sleep comfortably again, but at this point, I worry that my body will never be as strong as it once was, and that I will never be able to move the same way again. I just feel too altered for that to seem possible.
I feel phantom pain. I’d read about it before, but it’s very bizarre and unsettling to experience it. Today and yesterday, I felt a stabbing pain shoot through my left nipple. Both times I started to put my hand over it to rub it, to make the pain subside, and both times I startled myself by finding nothing there.
I feel betrayed. It’s breast tissue gone crazy that forms these cancer cells. What did I ever do to my breast to make it want to kill me? I think of my left breast, the one that had the lobular carcinoma tumor bulging out at the top. It had been my “favorite” breast, the one that was marked by a cute little birthmark. But there was nothing cute about my breast after Bob invaded it.
I feel sorrow and regret. I felt so conflicted about my breasts as I lathered them up for the last time with the pre-surgical antibacterial soap that I was unable to look at them; I couldn’t say “goodbye” to them in any ritualistic way, such as gently spreading lotion over them or wrapping them up in my super plush robe and letting them be enveloped in softness one last time. I did clean out my bra drawer, and got rid of any bras that didn’t have openings for pad inserts that could hold foam prosthetics, but that felt like a coldly calculating thing rather than a farewell ritual. And now I wish I’d been a little kinder to them at the end. It wasn’t their fault that cancer invaded.
I feel a sense of morbid curiosity. I wonder what will become of my breasts after surgery. I know they were headed to the pathology lab for testing, but after that, were they just put in a surgical waste bin? It is strange to have part of my body floating around a cold laboratory, only to be thrown away in a few days’ time.
I feel tired. It has been such a whirlwind of diagnosis and prognosis and surgery, forming a professional relationship with an oncologist, and undergoing radiation treatments on the horizon. I feel utterly exhausted after the surgery.
I feel hopeful. I believe that I will be able to heal and overcome my negative feelings about my breastless body, and that I will come to embrace the changes that it will bring. I feel hopeful that the cancer won’t recur, that because everything happened so quickly, my surgeon was able to get it all before it spread, and that the radiation treatments will be my insurance policy. I feel hopeful that this Christmas wasn’t my last Christmas with my family, and that the lower survival rate for my type of breast cancer doesn’t apply to me, because it was detected so early. I feel hopeful that God will lead me through this cancer journey and be by my side every step of the way, and that when I ask Jesus to be with me, he will wrap me up in his strong arms and surround me with his perfect love and peace.