I was training for the 2003 Pittsburgh marathon. I ran in a four-person relay with three other friends. I trained all winter long. The marathon was a blast. The streets were lined with people cheering you on. In a relay race, even though you run by yourself, you're part of a team. One person runs a stage or leg, crosses their finish line and passes the baton, or in this case, a chip to the next runner in the relay. Well, running the Pittsburgh Marathon gave me the bug to run another race, so I began to train for a half marathon. On June 17th I ran with my friend Kathy around the lake at North Park. Three miles into it we realized we were making good time. At mile four it was pretty evident that we were going to have a great finish. By this point we were running so hard we had stopped talking to each other. I remember being out of breath, wanting to quit yet not wanting to give up. I remember looking down at my legs and feeling like they were detached from my body. They kept moving but I couldn't feel them because I was becoming so fatigued. Well, we finished our 5 miles with the best time we'd ever run. 44:57, just under a 9-minute mile. It was exhilarating. After cooling off I jumped in my car and headed home. It was during the ride home that my life, as I knew it, changed forever. I received a call on my cell phone from Magee hospital. I had had a biopsy on my right breast the week before due to two abnormal mammograms. The nurse was calling me on my cell phone to tell me I had breast cancer. When I heard my diagnosis, it became an out of body experience. Something kicked in and took over to get me through the weeks that followed. I knew it was no accident that God allowed me to run my best time around that lake?even though the run had been painful; even though I wanted to quit?I believe He gave me that as an image in my mind to hold onto for the months to come. I make my living as a freelance video producer. In my line of work I'm accustomed to deadlines and last minute changes I don't necessarily like them, but I'm accustomed to them. I love organization. I love details. That's why I'm a producer. I get to be the boss on a shoot. Producer equals control. A director may think he's in control, but trust me, as a producer, I?m the one in control. Well, suddenly I found myself in a situation where I was not in control. Part of me accepted the diagnosis. My grandmother had breast cancer in her fifties and lived to be 95. In the back of my mind I always knew it was a possibility. I had never borne any children so I knew I was at a higher risk.
After I received the call I made a beeline to Magee to meet with a surgeon. I found myself in an exam room hearing words like DCIS, invasive cancer, and mastectomy. It was overwhelming. My best friend, Rebecca Sparks, came down and joined me as I talked through my options with my doctor. My mind was reeling as I thought about the decisions I would have to make. Decision Number One, Open a bar outside of the exam rooms at Magee Women's Hospital. I figured I could make a ton of money. After getting a diagnosis of breast cancer I?m sure most women could go for a stiff drink. I know I wanted one. I also thought, as a single, celibate woman, that a groping room would have been nice. You know, one last grab session on my boobs before they were going away. Decision number two. Stop wearing mascara for awhile. This was a very good decision because for the next six weeks I could not get through the day without crying. That night I sent out my first of many emails?
June 17th , Well dear friends, results are in and they are not good. Tests show that I do indeed have breast cancer. Spent most of the day at Magee. Looks like I'm going to have a mastectomy on my right breast. I have more tests on Friday, bone scan, breast MRI, chest x-ray, blood work, to insure it's isolated to my right breast. And I'm all in to full disclosure. I'm one who wears my heart on my sleeve and refuse to let the elevated status of women?s breasts in this society keep me from talking about it. Everyone will know what I am going through and by doing so it will defuse it, de-mystify it and reduce the fear?lots of humor and tears to come?I shall continue to share them with you. And then I closed with a quote from John Steinbeck's East of Eden, which I had started reading two weeks earlier, it became my mantra. There is more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar."
I needed friends who could walk with me through this dreadful beauty. I was flooded with emails, phone calls, flowers and cards from dozens of people. The response from my community of friends was more than I ever expected. My community is very large and very diversified. First, there's my community of Christians. They include my closest friends. In my relationship with God I have always felt His presence but once I was diagnosed, He became very quiet?at least in the way that I was familiar with. Instead, He revealed Himself in a different manner. The prayers and support I received from friends were the hands and feet of Christ to me. On the days when God seemed distant, I knew people were praying for me.
You see, I'm 47 and single. Actually, I'm 47 and divorced but I've been divorced since 1989. So, I'm single. I wish I was married. I wish I had kids. Instead I have a surrogate family. I live in the city, across the street and three doors up from my best friend, Rebecca and her husband and four children. I remember the day after my diagnosis, sitting in their living room, looking at their kids and thinking, I don't want to miss this, I want to live to see these kids grow up. I had my community of men. In my field I work mostly with men. Many times I am the only woman on the crew. The response from the men was the most memorable. Maybe that's because I'm single and the thought of a mastectomy was changing my whole concept of femininity. I liked the body I had. Granted, my boobs weren't big but they were mine and I was content with my body image. As I shared my diagnosis with the men I worked with?many of them broke down and cried. I received so much affirmation that they cared for me because of who I was,breasts or no breasts. Of course, they all suggested I go for a C-cup in reconstruction. Obviously I did NOT take their advice. We talked about what my new boobs should look like. We talked about transparent boobs, boobs out the back. I even had a black female co-worker who is very well endowed willing to give me some of her boobs so I could be the first white woman with black breasts! Finally, I developed a new community when I joined a club I never wanted to be a member of?the sisterhood of cancer survivors. I have a friend, Amy. She is a producer like myself, and a five-year breast cancer survivor. She played a vital role in walking me through the process of diagnosis and treatment Then there was Rosemary, who was diagnosed with breast cancer Christmas of 2002. She was in the middle of chemo when I was diagnosed. I'll never forget seeing her the day after I heard my news. She walked up to me and said, "Where you are right now is the hardest part. Once you decide what you're going to do, it will get better." There were a lot of decisions to be made in the following weeks,getting a second opinion, finding a plastic surgeon, deciding one breast or two, reconstruction or no reconstruction. Having friends who would just listen as I struggled with these life-altering decisions was invaluable. My mind was divided over two issues - body image on one hand and cancer on the other. Although the first couple of days I had been overwhelmed at night with a fear of death, for the most part the cancer was a no-brainer because I felt deep in my soul that it would not kill me and I had been reassured by friends, cancer survivors and several members of the medical community that I would live. I struggled more on the body image side because I was losing a part of my body that defined being a female. I'm a very visual person , that's why I'm in video production. I could release my right breast because it was the "bad boob" but I agonized over whether I should get rid of the left one. At night I would stand in front of a mirror push my boobs to the side (mind you, there wasn?t much to push) and think, So this is what it's going to look like.? After a month of second opinions I wrote this email. July 15 Last Tuesday was the first day I made it through without tears. I was able to wear mascara for the first time today since my diagnosis. Sometimes I feel like I'm going crazy. I had a biopsy on my other breast. It shows micro calcification but no cancer. I've pretty much settled on getting a bilateral mastectomy because I don't want the idea of repeated testing on my left breast to be hanging over my head. Besides, I love symmetry. I've been talking to women on the phone who are cancer survivors. I'm going to meet with one, Michelle, on Friday. She decided on a bilateral and is stopping by my work to show me her scars. That's just like us women folk isn't it? Being willing to show our battle wounds to help one another. I hate that this is happening to me. And have started asking God why,I didn't ask it for so long and now I just don't understand. I know (in my few sane moments) that God is in the midst of this, even if I don't feel it. This whole thing sucks and I wish I didn't have to go through with it, but the choice is either surgery or death. A friend worded it well by saying, "self mutilation for the sake of preservation." As a reminder of my "old self" an artist friend helped me make a plaster cast of my chest before surgery. It sits on my piano in my dining room. It remains white and pristine. One of these days I may paint it. I thought of gluing strips of paper from the pathology report around my right breast on the outside and on the inside write a passage from the Song of Solomon, which reads, "Place me like a seal over your heart." In bible times seals were precious to their owners, as personal as their names. I thought about the scars that I would have after surgery ---they would be God's signature or seal on my chest, calling me His own. On September 4th, a Thursday, I had surgery. I had a community of friends, old and new, along with my mom waiting for me when I came out of recovery. It was a regular party. I felt no pain thanks to a morphine drip. I discovered morphine makes me very chatty because I spent the whole evening on the phone, calling friends and co-workers. I also found out from the anesthesiologist that before I went completely under in the operating room I was telling people where to stand"always the producer" I went home the day after surgery. Walked around North Park Lake 5 days later and was back to work within a week, this time without my breasts. I did have two drains hanging out of my incisions, which I lovingly referred to as "my grenades." I came up with money making venture number two - develop a clothing line. My first item would be a t-shirt that read, "Have you seen my nipples"? I figured it would sell both in the breast and the none-breast market. My pathology report was good. Negative nodes. I had to have radiation because there were pre-cancer cells within the margin range. I had seven tumors. Small in size but total size was 3.8 centimeters. It was decision time again. Chemo or no chemo. I opted for it. For the past year I questioned whether I should have done the chemo but recent reports have shown that in the long run it could prove to be beneficial. And I'm the type who ALWAYS second-guesses myself. If I hadn't done it I'd probably be wondering whether I should have. It's really an individual choice. I had my first chemo treatment on Friday, October 3rd. It went surprisingly well. No nausea. I was able to run, though not as far as I'd like. My community stepped in, going with me to my chemo treatments, being willing to run at a snail's pace at North Park, and cradling me in their arms when I felt sad. I felt sad because I had experienced loss now I was going to experience loss of my hair. Once again, my community, in this case my surrogate family, was there.
Email, October 14th, 11 days after my first treatment.
Last Tuesday I had my head shaved by Rebecca's brother, David. Rebecca's 11-year old son, Eddy, also shaved his head as a sign of solidarity. The stubble that I currently have will come out soon. Nurses say that at day 17, like clockwork, it will fall out. A couple of images stick out in my mind as a result of my "new look." One was when Eddy and I returned to the his house, caps on, for the unveiling. Rebecca, Greg and the kids were on one side of the dining room table with Eddy and me on the other. Our unveiling was met with applause. The other image occurred the next day when I went for a run at North Park. I unveiled my shaved head to my running pals. It was met with cheers of delight and a kiss on my head by my friends. What a blessing of acceptance. Emotionally, I've had a couple of meltdowns. I feel like quite the eunuch these days. No boobs, no hair. Thank God for MAC makeup, bright lipstick and big earrings. Last week I was clothes shopping and a complete stranger, a woman, came up and rubbed by shaved head and said, "I was where you were a year and a half ago." She was a fellow breast cancer survivor. I burst in to tears. I'm amazed at this sisterhood of women, willing to tell you their story, ready to pass on the baton to the next survivor. My hair indeed leapt off my head, not at day 17 but at day 21, in my usual delayed reaction. I chose not to wear a wig. Call me stubborn but part of me wanted the world to see the effects of cancer and its treatment. The creative part of me liked the look, sort of a Sinead O'Connor or the chick from the new Startrek TV series. The chemo threw me into menopause so I was constantly tearing a cap off my head throughout the day due to hot flashes. Chemo treatments ended December 9th and I remembered my losses. Loss of security in my body, loss of my breasts, my hair and now, because of menopause, loss of fertility and at times, my sanity. Christmas 2003 rolled around. I was so grateful not to have to go for a chemo treatment. I was mindful of the value of friends and family , my community. I honestly could not have made it through surgery and chemo without them. January through early March were filled with days of radiation.
On March 14th 2004, I wrote this.
At 8:30 am, Tuesday, March 9th I successfully complete 33 days of radiation. I received a certificate of completion from the staff in the radiation oncology department, along with a pair of cycling shorts from one of the technicians. As I was leaving the hospital I passed two women, waddling by, bellies full with the weight of an expectant birth and I thought of the passage from Job, The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. May the name of the Lord be praised. I was quick to have a pity party and say to myself, ?He took my breasts. He's giving them children. But the truth is He took away my cancer and is giving me life.
In the last month another production co-worker was diagnosed with breast cancer and one of my friends lost her mother to a 14-year battle with cancer that started in her breast. I also lost a dear, new-found friend to lung cancer. She was only 41. It reminds me that I walk a tightrope. In my soul I believe the cancer will not come back and it is my tendency to wipe my hands and think, I took care of that project, move on to the next thing. I don't travel too far down that road before I have the occasional thought that I?m living in denial and it, the cancer, could someday return in another form. I think this is the thought process of any cancer survivor,even the title, cancer survivor, has not sunk in. I'm learning to live in this new normal, as it's called. I am mindful to live one day at a time, that life is precious and that God is by my side on this journey of life.
Ann Lamott, one of my favorite writers put it best in her latest book, Plan B. She writes: I have survived so much loss, as all of us have by our forties , my parents, dear friends, my pets. Rubble is the ground on which our deepest friendships are built. If you haven?t already, you will lose someone you can't live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and you never completely get over the loss of a deeply beloved person. But this is also good news. The person lives forever, in your broken heart that doesn't seal back up. And you come through, and you learn to dance with the banged up heart. You dance to the absurdities of life; you dance to the minuet of old friendships.
11 days after my last radiation I celebrated my birthday. The Sparks family had me down for a birthday dinner. 14-year old Justina made me a cake and 11-year old Eddy gave me an incredible gift. He led me to the back porch of their house with my eyes closed to reveal a door, which he had painted with bright colors. On it he wrote, "I've prevailed." "Sickness is nothing." And then with a little musical reference to Sheryl Crow he wrote, "Everyday is a winding road." "Happy Birthday."