I was diagnosed with breast cancer a little over a year ago. I was 37 and mom to an 8, 5, and 1-year-old. I never felt a lump or had a knowing suspicion that something was not right. In fact, I never felt better.
When I finished breastfeeding my last baby, I decided to get a long overdue physical. My doctor suggested I meet with a breast specialist to monitor me due to a strong family history of breast cancer. I did genetic testing and was thrilled when I learned that I was negative for everything you could test for. The specialist suggested we do an MRI and mammogram every year. I went in for the first MRI, and that’s when my world fell apart.
My surgeon called me two days before Halloween. A biopsy confirmed that I did indeed have cancer, but it was non-invasive — or so we thought. The area was too big to do a lumpectomy so I had to do a mastectomy and it was strongly suggested that I do both sides. I thought if I could just get through this surgery I would never think about this again. I was dreading it because it meant that I could not pick up or hold my baby for six weeks. Even thinking of that part today makes me cry.
I had the surgery on December 10th, 2019. Two days later, my husband and I celebrated our 10-year wedding anniversary in the hospital. Though we had three children and a life together, it was then that I realized the importance of having a partner. He was there for me to help me shower, change drains and dressings, and hold my hand. He loved me when it was very hard to love myself.
The very good news was that my lymph nodes were clear. I had to wait a bit longer for the final pathology. My surgeon finally called me while I was getting a pedicure. She said the cancer was actually in both breasts and I was technically Stage 1 because it had escaped the milk ducts. I now was a candidate for chemotherapy. I hung up and went back to sitting at the nail salon, fighting back the urge to burst into tears. That phone call is what I think of every time I go into that nail salon. I often wonder if that association will ever go away.
After meeting with a couple of oncologists who all agreed that four rounds of chemo would be in my best interest, I began to freak out about my hair. I became obsessed with it. The idea of looking sick was more than I could handle. It sounds silly to say that you care so much about your hair, but I did. I still do. I decided to try and save my hair through “cold capping,” an insanely expensive process that my insurance did not cover. You wear a freezing helmet on your head on chemo days. The whole process took around seven hours. My hair thinned a great deal, but I didn’t really lose a ton until chemo was over. By then, we were deep into the pandemic and nobody ever saw me. I was able to pick my kids up at school and go to my second grader’s basketball games and look like me. It mattered so much.
While chemo itself was no picnic, the real struggle for me was mental. I began counting down the days until my last treatment. I hung a dry erase board on my bathroom mirror and wrote a Robert Frost quote, “The only way out is through.” The depression was overwhelming. I began taking antidepressants which helped numb me. The days after chemo, I would lie in bed and not be able to imagine a future where things were normal. I was so stuck. My kids would visit me in my bed and snuggle with me. It was them that got me through the absolute darkest days of my life.
Chemo ended at the end of March. My kids were home from school due to COVID. I was struggling. Whose life was this? What happened to me, and where do I go from here? These are questions that still haunt me at night, but it’s not every second of every day any more. It’s slowly getting easier.
I decided to cut my hair into a short pixie back in July. The hair that was left after chemo was in such terrible shape that I just wanted a fresh start. My hair is growing and I cannot wait until the day I can put it up in a ponytail. Mark my words: I will never have short hair again.
Some days, it’s really hard to see the person looking back at me in the mirror. My breasts are numb and I don’t have nipples. I miss my old droopy ones that fed three babies at all hours of the night. The medication I have to take for the next 5-10 years puts me into menopause for now. I’m 38, but it’s hard to feel like it sometimes. The doctors say I will most likely go through menopause twice.
I also struggle with guilt. I know how lucky I am. So many women have it so much worse. I know I should be grateful. I have three healthy children and a wonderful, loving husband. Why is it so hard to feel grateful some days?
I still randomly cry in the shower or when I’m alone in the car. Most recently, I broke down to a technician at my gynecologist’s office. She had asked me if there were any changes in the last year. I couldn’t find words to just answer the question. How could I explain that I am not really me anymore? I have this strange body, these angry feelings, a story that I don’t want.
It’s hard to meet new people. My hair is awkward. My eyebrows are thin. My eyelashes are sparse. I want to scream, “This simply isn’t me!” I want them to see me how I remember me.
The past year, while brutal at times, has also shown me how much love and kindness I am surrounded by. Friends, neighbors and family went above and beyond to check on me, deliver food, and chauffeur my kids around. My children’s teachers sent me dinners every night after my surgery.
The best part of all of this is that people didn’t send me pink ribbons and other breast cancer paraphernalia. We didn’t have a “farewell to the tatas” party. Everybody has to do what is best for them, but I was so sad about everything. Nothing was funny to me, and the people who loved me got that. My friends took me shopping and drinking and it was perfect. I think the big takeaway from this year is that the kindness of others is what really gets you through the truly hard and crappy times. I hope I can pay it forward one day.
When I was first diagnosed, and until recently, I used to stay up all night researching worst case scenarios. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have pored over the pages of every horribly depressing Facebook group. I know I’m making progress because I can proudly report that I don’t do that anymore. I know that I’m going to be OK. I’m putting the pieces back together as best I can.
Sometimes it helps to remind myself that this is a short chapter in what I hope will be a very long and healthy book. Like everyone else, I’m chalking up this shit show of a year to 2020. No, thank you.