"This looks like cancer," the radiologist told me -- no holds barred, no mincing words here -- as the ultrasound technician stood over me, cold gel at the end of the wand pressing on my right breast. I suddenly felt like covering up, as if I could pull a sheet over myself and make the malignant cells disappear. The technician gave me that "I'm so sorry" look, and all I could blurt out was, "What else could it be?" Cancer wasn't supposed to happen in my life.
My only firsthand experience with the disease had been my father-in-law's 22-month ordeal with pancreatic cancer. It had struck suddenly (as these things do) and he'd died less than two years later. He'd been a physician for 28 years, delivering thousands of babies during his career. He was so fit, he was still lifting weights as he neared the end of his life, sitting in his padded rocking chair watching his beloved 49ers, his gut bloated with his swollen liver so that he looked pregnant himself.
No one on my side of the family had ever had any type of cancer, which is probably an anomaly in itself; all of my grandparents and great-grandparents had lived into their eighties or nineties (or are still alive). People don't die in my family so much as wear out sometime around their ninetieth birthday.
I was aware of breast cancer -- who isn't these days? I'd run a couple of 5k races for the cure, but that was the extent of cancer touching my life. I'm lucky, I guess.
In the wake of my diagnosis, I began to write. At first, I wrote to keep friends and family up-to-date about my doctors' appointments, my chemo schedule, what side effects I was experiencing (hair loss, hot flashes, and nausea, oh my!), and how I was coping with a breast cancer diagnosis at the age of thirty-two.
The truth is, my head was spinning. I couldn't figure out how to manage all of the emails and phone calls that came pouring in once the news of my illness spread. Friends and family and people I'd never even met were showing up in droves to offer me their own stories of survival and hope, to cheer me on or answer questions or link me up with specialists, researchers, and support organizations. I appreciated it so much, but I felt like I needed a public relations team to keep up with it all. A blog seemed like a good way to communicate with everyone.
My first post was about an after-dinner phone call from my breast surgeon the night before I started chemo. She'd called to ask me how I was holding up and to give me a little encouragement. "Let's kick cancer's ass!" she'd said. I loved her enthusiasm, and told her there simply was no other option. How many surgeons do you know who will offer up after-hours sentiments like that? Who will call you at home to check in on you, when you're not even technically their patient yet? I wanted everyone to know what great people I had on my side.
I had recently become a first-time mom, so my head was spinning from that, too. The day I was diagnosed, I'd had to call my husband to make sure we had enough breast milk in the fridge to tide our son over until I could get home; my appointment was taking longer than I expected and they wanted to send me to radiology for additional tests. Even as I sat in the waiting room, watching Dr. Oz and surrounded by pamphlets on breast cancer, I didn't suspect what was coming.
As I drove home from the radiologist's office that August afternoon -- stunned, my heart racing and cold fear creeping up my neck -- I felt guilty about having to tell my husband, who was now having to face this dreadful illness twice in two years.
I worried that I'd already passed the cancer on to my son. After all, I'd been nursing him for five months out of a rotten, cancer-filled breast. My doctors told me not to worry, as if that were possible.
I worried I was going to die and leave my little family, but then I thought: It's breast cancer. People beat this all the time.
I didn't know the first thing about it.
My husband -- a geology and anthropology professor -- and I began reading everything we could. We learned that the average age of a breast cancer diagnosis is 61. We learned that, while rare, when cancer does strike young women, the survival rate is high. I figured: I'm healthy, so I've already got a leg up. I figured -- naively -- that the one percent or so who didn't make it must have other, underlying health issues. Maybe they didn't tolerate chemo, or were obese, or smokers. I was trying, desperately, to make sense of something frighteningly random.
I'd done yoga until I was seven-and-a-half months pregnant. I ate organic kale. I'd run two marathons. I graduated from Johns Hopkins University and law school. I'd passed the bar and planned a wedding and moved across country all in the same summer. Cancer has nothing on me, I thought, as if it were a matter of will or endurance.
And maybe there's something to that, if I'm still lucky.
Because my tumor was about the size of a walnut and as aggressive as they come, my doctors ordered a slew of follow-up scans and tests those first couple of weeks. My remarkable breast surgeon was the one who called with the results. She told me as gently as she could that there were spots in my lungs, my spleen, my chest wall, and an area outside my liver called my periportal region. I wasn't sure whether to cry or vomit. My mind was buzzing, and everything started to get dark around me as if I might lose consciousness. I wasn't able to process any of what she was saying, so I passed the phone to my husband and asked my doctor to repeat everything to him.
I had a five-month-old son and Stage IV breast cancer.
That was more than two years ago, and I still share my story today. I don't think there's anything particularly brave about showing up at the infusion center every three weeks to receive chemo, or having my blood drawn to test my cell counts. I don't know if it's bravery that still gets me hiking at 6 a.m. or on my yoga mat a couple of times a week. Teaching my toddler to swim or helping him learn the alphabet is just parenting, and I'm no braver than any other parent in that regard. I also don't know if any of those things will make a difference in how long I live.
What I can do -- what I have done -- that I hope makes a difference, is share my story. I have posted makeup tutorials showing how I get from bald and sallow-skinned to eyebrowed professional ready to practice law. I have documented my hair loss and regrowth. I have shared my triumphs when a medicine is working and my fury at statistics that tell me I have a one in five chance of watching my son start kindergarten.
As I write this, I am on my third course of chemo, a new drug that specifically targets my cancer cells while leaving the rest of my body relatively unscathed. I get to keep my hair this time. And luckily, it appears to be working.
In the last two years, I have been bald twice, lost both my breasts and my fertility, and have had reconstruction surgery and five weeks of daily radiation. My nipples have been replaced by scars, and I don't know if my eyebrows will ever recover the fullness they once had. I have gotten down to no evidence of disease (NED, in cancer-speak) with every chemo, but hotspots have cropped back up as soon as chemo ends. I have scans every three months to check the status of my cancer. I am always worried about the day my drugs stop working.
"You're so strong," people tell me. "I hope to be as brave as you," they say. I don't know if either of those things is true. I think most cancer patients -- most people facing any crisis, really -- would say the same thing, that is: you do what you have to in order to get through it. And maybe my story can help someone else get through it -- until that day when they find a cure and we can all stop going through it.
You can follow my story at www.boobyandthebeast.com.