real life

Two weeks ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer

There are some people who really have their shit together.  They are never late, they create budgets and track finances, their kids' hair is brushed, their clothes unwrinkled.

I am not one of these people.  

But every once in a while, I do something really, really smart.  In 1998, my answer was yes to a mathematician wearing glasses.  In 2007 I said yes again – to his repeated pleas to have kids. And last month, I called to get a lump checked out.  A lump that I was certain – CERTAIN – was directly related to weaning, nothing more.  

There's no easy way to say this.  That lump was cancerous.  And two weeks ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I got the call while driving my son Raines to his first swimming lesson.  I pulled over, listened to the doctor, asked a few questions, then thanked him for his time and hung up.  I called my husband Mike, and asked him to call my mum.  Then I drove to swimming lessons.  Because…what else does one do?  Is there a protocol for this kind of thing?  I had none, and no idea what to do with myself, so on we went.  I sat there in the bleachers, trying to keep Pax amused, while all of the other moms and kids and dads and nannies and grandparents and teachers went about their business.  Their lives, unaffected, by this…event.  This thing, this…cancer, this news that threatened to swallow me whole.  I felt like I should've been wearing a sign:  WARNING: Breasts Gone Bad.  I was a Peanuts cartoon character of myself:  everything else was just mwah mwah mwah mwah mwah mahm.

The last two weeks have been tough.  

The good news is that they caught it early.  (No shit, I wanted to say.  I am only thirty-freaking-seven, it better be early.)  But yes:  early is good.  The type of cancer they found is called DCIS.  DCIS is very early, Stage 0 breast cancer that is incapable of spreading.  It is non-invasive.   The fear, however, is that it will turn into invasive breast cancer eventually.  No one is quite sure on the how, or the why, or even if it will in fact become invasive cancer….but my mum was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer at age 48, so the docs are all in violent agreement:  The boobs have gotta go.

Also, I have a lot of it.  DCIS, that is. 

So in the next month or so, I will be undergoing a double mastectomy, followed by reconstructive surgery.  Once they remove both breasts, they'll do a full biopsy of the removed tissue.  If the tissue is clear, or "just" contains more DCIS, I'm done.  Case closed.  If, however, they do find some invasive cancer, then at that point we'll start talking about chemotherapy.

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I really, really, really don't want to talk about chemotherapy.  I am hoping – as hard as I possibly can – that they only find more DCIS.  I just…I can't even go there.  Not yet.  One thing at a time…this is my new mantra.  Deal with one thing at a time.

Of course, they sent me for genetic testing, to see if I have the BRCA 1 or 2 gene mutation.  If I do…at some point we'll have to deal with my ovaries.  I won't have that result back for a couple of weeks yet.  One thing at a time.

But please know that I am going to be fine.  I AM.  And this isn't the desperate plea of the damned – all of my (very capable) doctors have assured me of this fact several times.  To quote my breast surgeon:  "Yes, you'll be FINE…..and you'll look good, too."

Well.  There's that.  I will admit that I stood in the mirror the other day and lifted my boobs up an inch.  Turning to Mike I asked, "Here?  Wouldn't here…just up an inch be nice?"

The poor man.  He smiles, and is supportive, and managed some enthusiasm (for my sake) at the plastic surgeon's office…but this is a lot.  For all of us.  We're looking at a seriously big surgery in a matter of weeks, with follow-on surgeries for life.  It's crazy, this shit.  I often feel as though I'm talking about someone else.  That poor dear.  Only 37 and has breast cancer!  Can you imagine?  And to think – she nursed for a total of 5 years!

 My poor breasts are confused as well.  They've been nursing for so long and only retired in February.  So I'd call to make yet another appointment and would get the eerie feeling of milk let-down. Or someone would call with condolences, and after I hung up, my breasts would be full.  My son Pax would freak out about something, and as I hugged him, he'd reach down my shirt to comfort himself (something he hasn't quite grown out of yet), reminding me of just how recently he was a tiny baby, nursing.  And part of me wants to scream THIS IS BULLSHIT!  BULLSHIT!!  And part of me just doesn't believe this is my diagnosis, and I'm waiting for the joke sign to come out and OK GUYS, IT WAS FUNNY….YOU CAN LET ME OFF THE HOOK NOW….

Yeah.  Still waiting for that joke sign.  

Mike took me and the boys to the coast this weekend.  It was just what we needed.  Each morning we'd take turns running on the beach.  I haven't really run since high school, but I tend to find my running stride again when I'm stressed.  Running barefoot down the beach, I just pounded it out.  Pounded out my anxiety, my fear, my stress.  And it occurred to me that the last time I saw one of my favorite teachers, Madame Amo, she was running.  Madame always had this youthful energy and was ga-ga over her spirited toddler (in high school we referred to him as "Le Petite Brat" like the assholes that we were) but mostly we all just loved her.  Madam had battled breast cancer for years.  Sadly, the cancer had since returned and the prognosis wasn't good.  So we stopped for a hug and a chat, and I told her that I had heard the sad news and she smiled a tired smile and we held hands.  "You're still running" I said.  "As long as I can, Cherie.  As long as I can."  Then she patted my cheek and told me not to worry and continued on her run, one foot in front of the other.  One thing at a time.  Pounding it out. That was the last time I saw her.  

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Now as I pounded out my own fears on the sand, one foot in front of the other, I thought about Madame.  About the hard truths and harsh reality she faced, and how my own situation pales in comparison.  "I have my life," I drummed out.  "I will live, I will live, I will live."  On that beach, I pounded down the fear, pounded down the sadness, and pounded down the anger.  Or some of it, anyway.  And as I came down that final stretch of beach, I could see my three guys playing in the water.  Pax caught sight of me, and with a gleeful "MOMMYYYYYY!!" he flung his chubby arms in the air and came running to greet me.  The sun shimmered on the water, their blonde hair – all unbrushed crazy – glinted in the sun, and ecstatic smiles stretched over their faces, simply because I had returned.  Mum's come home.  (From a 20 minute run, for pete's sake.)  But that's the thing:  They need me.  Our kids need us.  Sometimes, Mamas, the most important thing is just to show up.  And aren't we lucky to have that option?

Meagan Francis started this focus on self-care for Mamas, and with good reason: she's having her hysterectomy on Tuesday.  I can't echo her sentiment enough:  Self-care is more than just bubble baths and pedicures.   We need to take the time.  We need to be healthy.  We need to be here.  

So please, Mamas, make the time for those annoying appointments.

And as for me?  I will be fine.  Mike and I are both slowing down, refocusing on what's really important. Just go get your shiz checked out. 

Shana founded the website Ain’t No Mom Jeans in 2008 after tossing her old standby fashion magazines aside in frustration.  A frustration resulting from a lack of stylish yet mum-friendly outfit ideas.  Anyone can throw on a pair of killer heels and a gorgeous (dry-clean only) silky top and look good…but she was more interested in answering the question of "How can mums keep up with the kiddos and still look amazing?"

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