In 2006, I had a busy life: four kids aged 15 to 4, one funny husband, an enormous dog, an old house to fix up, and, I thought, a really good attitude about turning forty. I was confident that this would be the decade in which I would finally mellow, be more laid back, let things go, abandon perfectionism and embrace “good enough”. In short, I would soon become the Zen woman I had always dreamed of being. I was ready to get started.
So when it was time for the medical milestone of this passage – the first mammogram – I wasn’t a bit worried. I knew I would do great! After all, there had never been a woman with breast cancer in my family. I exercised, ate well, even had three kids before I was 30. This confidence, mind you, was based mostly on scientific journals such as People magazine, and O, where I consistently scored very well on breast cancer quizzes. My plan was to smugly rock this mammo, squeeze in a few more errands for my son’s 16th birthday, and then pick up my daughter from preschool –all the while evolving, if there was time, along the way.
But after some initial films, and some waiting, then more films, and more waiting, the appointment did seem like it was taking kind of a long time. It was almost time for preschool pickup, and I was pretty sure it was just a formality for them to come back in and give me the all-clear. I confidently ignored the instructions to not get dressed before the films were read and pulled my sweater back on while I waited. They came back, finally, noting my obvious failure to follow instructions, and explaining that the doctor would like to speak to me. This was not going as I had planned.
And just like that, on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon, I most unexpectedly became a survivor. I didn’t really know it then and I wouldn’t have believed it if you’d told me it was happening. I felt more like the anti-survivor, or whatever the opposite of a survivor would be, whatever you were if you felt like you definitely would not survive, you would probably die right there on the table from the unbelievable, heart-pounding shock of it all, and on the off-chance that you survived the next 15 minutes, you certainly could not possibly survive this disease which has been — which continues to be – the most dreaded by women in all of recorded history.
But survive I did, that day and the excruciating days that followed, not due to any personal fortitude, but only because there didn’t seem to be another option at the time. It would be three days before I got the news for sure, and weeks before I learned that the diagnosis included not only the “in situ” cancer the radiologist had suspected, but a much more dangerous invasive tumor within. It would be months before all the treatment decisions were made, and a year and a half before they were all finished.
I confess that I did have the hope, early on, that maybe this would be the thing that propelled me into the rarified air of enlightenment. Perhaps if I tried really hard, and did an excellent job at this, I would look back on this time and blithely note that on this day, I was transformed: I would never again yell at my children or at drivers on the Baltimore Beltway. I would take up pottery and wear Eileen Fisher and breeze through life in a peaceful state of wonder and gratitude. I would never again sweat the small stuff, because I had would have, that day, become a Zen woman.
Trouble was that for a time, the losses were so significant, that it was all I could do to keep it together, much less take a pottery class. I lost my breasts, piece by piece at first, then all at once at the end, not before I lost my hair, the veins in my left hand, a lot of weight, a ton of sleep, the confidence that I would be the one making the casseroles, not the one receiving them. I lost what my sister in law calls the luxury of careless living, and I deeply envied those who seemed to still have it. I couldn’t breathe exactly right, and noticed only after months had gone by that I didn’t sing in the car anymore. I lost trust in my body and I wondered miserably how it could have failed me, and I it, so completely. I worried endlessly about what the future held and if I would survive long enough for my youngest daughter to remember me. I packed away the out-of-season clothes more neatly than usual, and in boxes clearly labeled, just in case my husband was the one who would have to retrieve them. I had a hard time staying positive. I had a hard time staying vertical. I did not do a particularly good job.
It took a year to heal my body and another year to heal my soul. But eventually, after a lot of time, and a lot of work, I started to feel like myself again. Everybody had another birthday, my hair grew back, and I paused with a prayer of gratitude as I unpacked the out-of-season clothes the next year.
Survivorship, it turns out, takes many forms. It is not always pink and pretty and positive, but it is real. It gets better, but it takes time. It’s true that you can barely breathe for a long time and then you notice that you can. You don’t trust, and then you do. You have bad days, and good days, and then a bad day shows up again. But they get fewer and farther between, and eventually you find that while you may not have had a personality transplant, while you still grieve losses and pursue acceptance and strive every day to adjust to a “new normal”, you start to see flickers of your former self. Foibles and all, you are glad to have her back.