This is the sort of shit that happens when you are diagnosed with breast cancer and your daughter is only eight months old.
Spoiler Alert: the psychological and physical pain that comes afterward never seems to end.
All of Your Friends
All of your friends are holding their relatively newborn babies, but your doctors are telling you not to lift anything heavier than ten pounds. After all, you’ve just had a lumpectomy and dissection of 29 lymph nodes (2 of which were positive) on your right side. But, what are you supposed to do when your baby is holding her arms up to you, demanding to be picked up? Your doctors do not tell you what to do about that shit!
In the years to follow, you will have an untold number of hospitalizations as a result of cellulitis infections in your right arm (thanks Lymphedema). You’ll never be able to write on the blackboard again without discomfort (because of course you are a teacher). You’ll never again be able to drive a stick shift, go bowling, or grow your fingernails. And you’ll forever carry a bottle of Doxycycline in your purse, because of course you’ll be able to tell when an infection is coming on. Paper cuts from grading papers becomes an endless opportunity for infections.
All of your friends are excited about their baby’s first birthday and want life to slow down so they can savor it, but not you. You want life to fast forward so you can breathe a sigh of relief the minute you take your newly minted adult to vote (not for a Republican, of course) because you have survived your legal responsibilities and, more importantly, not orphaned your child–or at least not left her to be raised by your ex-husband who cheated on you while you were going through chemo.
Yeah, that sort of shit happens.
All of your friends (even your shitty ex-husband) are announcing the news of their second child, but not you. Nope, you’re having your tubes tied because your tumor was estrogen positive, so it’s too dangerous to have another child. Nobody will talk to you about harvesting your eggs (no matter how unlikely you are to go that route) and you’ll hurt because your weren’t even given the choice. That shit will happen.
All of your friends are getting pregnant with their third child (even your shitty ex-husband), but not you. Nope, instead you’re getting Zoladex injections under the skin in your stomach every month to stop your period, because of course yours came back after chemo. So despite the onset of osteoporosis, you do what you gotta do, because estrogen is bad for you. I guess the bright side is no more cramps!?
All of your friends are getting pregnant with their fourth child, but you’re having an oophorectomy (ovary removal) since estrogen and the parts that make it could cause the cancer to come back apparently, despite all those Zoladex injections.
The only cool thing about this is that you get to learn some Greek.
Oophorus meaning egg-bearing, of course. They take out the ovaries through your belly button, and you will never have to worry about birth control again. The uncool thing about this is that the oophorectomy will affect your sexuality, which they didn’t really prepare you for. Isn’t that some shit? But, your first priority is surviving for your daughter, so you do it.
All of your friends are leading their seemingly perfect lives, when you notice your right breast is hard and shrunken and looks like the skin of an orange from the radiation which you forgot to mention before (chemo, strangely enough, was a piece of cake for you). You also still have a lot of pregnancy fat because your child is only a toddler, and chemo and depression have made you gain a lot of weight. You remember your daughter asking you why you had those “owies” (caused by radiation) on your neck and chest at the end of that phase of treatment (why did YOUR daughter have to see that?), and indeed those wounds cause you to have to be pushed in a wheelchair (no doubt by some sexy underpaid North African) through Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris from one gate to another on your way to Morocco (you go there as a reward for getting through treatment since it’s your favorite place on earth). So you decide to get that breast removed because, every time you look at it, you’re reminded of the excruciating ordeal you’ve been through. You don’t want to think about it first thing for the rest of your life.
You think the 2002 mastectomy, tummy tuck, reconstruction, and reduction will be the final step in your so-called breast cancer journey. You even have a couple of post-divorce, post-mastectomy, post- tummy tuck, post-reconstruction, post-reduction boyfriends who are cool with the situation and even tell you your breasts are beautiful (!) when you were convinced you’d be alone for the rest of your life because this whole thing is too hard to explain to anyone. However, in October of 2016, you feel a tugging in your left abdomen. You think it’s a kidney stone, but your housemate says that’s not where they occur. You go see a plastic surgeon, and she tells you the mesh (which you didn’t know you had) from your last surgery has disintegrated. You schedule more surgery to replace the mesh and also to make your breasts more symmetrical.
The surgery goes as planned, but, about a week and a half afterwards, you are on the way to your friend’s house picking up a pizza when you start to feel sick.
You start crying in the car because you can sense this is serious.
You start to shake and shiver, your teeth chattering. You spend the night at your friend’s because you are too weak to drive the ten minutes home. You go home the next day, obviously delirious because first you think you’ve misplaced your debit card, but then you find it. Your housemate says you look gray, but it doesn’t even occur to you to go to the hospital. Seeing your surgeon the following day, and the next thing you know, you’re back on the operating table, and they’re removing your mesh. It turns out you have a staph infection. You stay in the hospital that weekend, and you stay on antibiotics for a month. You blame yourself for getting the staph infection, but they assure you it wasn’t your fault.
You are now recovering. Your breasts look great, but your abdomen is already starting to protrude a little. You will have to have another surgery to replace the mesh, probably in the summer of 2018, because you will not be able to get time off from your teaching job till then. This time your surgeon will put a mesh made of either cow or pork products under your fascia where it is less likely to get infected than in the previous surgery in which an artificial mesh was laid immediately under the skin of your abdomen; your Jewish friends who are more religious than you are are hoping for the cow product. This surgery will take place almost exactly 20 years since you were first diagnosed with breast cancer on August 31, 1999. You will possibly have the body you’ve always wanted (with the exception of not being able to get rid of the calves given to you by your German-American paternal grandmother) when you are eight years away from being 60. Will it even matter at that point?
You are exhausted by the unfairness of it all.
But, in the meantime, you try to soothe your spirit with some cutting edge anti-depressants, a new Mojave Sand-colored car, an upper blepharoplasty, and continued diet meds that have brought you down 62 pounds from your post-breast cancer induced high.
Twenty years. Breast cancer does not end when you finish treatment. You carry it with you for the rest of your life. And it is not fair. This is some of the shit you have to deal with.
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