I Survived Breast Cancer But I Don't Think of Myself As a Survivor
I’ve always been this weird combination of strength and fragility. At age five, I’d strip my clothes off and on until I’d found the perfect outfit, but if there was a school field trip, I’d be stricken with the vapors, unable to go.
As a teen, on a reefer and sex high, I spewed defiance, while secretly swigging from the jumbo bottle of Pepto-Bismol I carried in my purse to calm my nervous gut.
In my twenties came the panic attacks. Curled up in a ball, paralyzed with the fear of passing out, or worse, I battled with myself over what seemed like the most mundane of things. If your caterer canceled the night before your wedding with two hundred RSVP’d guests, I could be your Martha Stewart, but don’t ask me to drive on the freeway because I could not.
After years of failed medicating, I eventually moved to Los Angeles and discovered yoga and meditation. "Practice" became my mantra. I dug deep into forgiving my own body chemistry and self-sabotage. I practiced being calm. I practiced surrendering to the unknown.
So on that Tuesday morning, when my fingers brushed the outside of my right breast and felt a small, hard mass, I rushed to my doctor’s office and asked him to perform a biopsy right then and there, while I quietly meditated. He wasn’t particularly alarmed, and I followed his lead.
About a week later, I learned I had breast cancer and needed surgery to check the tumor margins and lymph nodes. Freaked out by the news, I slid off the bed and onto the floor, gripping my husband’s hand, nearly cutting off his circulation. We hugged. I wept.
“I will have a happy ending,” I said a few moments later through streaming tears. He just nodded.
If you've ever had any type of procedure done in a hospital, you know that there's a lot of hurry up and wait, and it was no different on the day of my surgery. As I was lying in bed, behind a flimsy curtain, listening to the doctors tell horror stories of critically ill patients, I longed for some type of rescue. And then, almost on cue, it came.
“I told them I must see you,” said my mom, who had flown in from New York to offer her support. She scooched up next to me just like she always had at bedtime. Then she rolled up her sleeve and I knew what was coming.
“It was before I was born," I said, reciting a story she had told me over and over when I was a kid. "They called it a melanoma.”
“Back then, there wasn’t any treatment after surgery," she continued, without missing a beat. "We had Davey, but for over a year I kept saying, 'I haven’t had my daughter. I must have my daughter.'”
I touched her still jagged, but faded scar on her upper arm.
“If there wasn’t a scar, Honey," she said and pulled me close, "I’d forget about it completely.”
I started to cry. All those years of irrationally feeling like I was going to die, and now faced with a real possibility, I wanted to be like her — to trust in a good outcome and find a way to forget. I began Ujjayi breathing and started letting go.
After the operation, my doctor came in to see how I was recovering.
“The nodes and margins were clear. Also, something quite spiritual happened in the OR — we all felt it," he said. "This is a story with a happy ending.”
The freakin’ surgeon used my exact words. I was stunned.
My oncologist said I had to go on a specific drug for five years to stop all estrogen production and that there might be side effects.
“This kind of cancer has a 97 percent chance of not returning,” she said rather nonchalantly.
I knew I wasn’t about to take a drug that could give me rapid aging, bone loss or arthritis. I would do the radiation and that would be that.
“But that three percent chance could kill you,” she said.
“I don’t believe it will,” I told her.
I drove myself to the radiation center every day for seven weeks. It was debilitating, but mostly it was a constant reminder of being a cancer patient that was the most stressful. Strapped into that frightening sci-fi machinery, I would think, What if I was never told I had cancer and that this was a wonderful elixir I was receiving?
After the first week, I had them play Italian opera during each session. The nurses yelled “Ciao” as I left, which buoyed my spirits. I didn’t tell many people I was sick. I wanted my body to hear only that it was well.
Not a coincidence that Warrior Two is my favorite yoga pose.
I've been clean for five years now. The entire pink ribbon industry will probably scream, but I don’t think of myself as a cancer survivor — to do so would make me feel like a victim. I don’t want to be reminded. I prefer to see it as all in the past, in my rearview mirror. I get mammograms annually, where my breasts are treated like panini, but except for then, I almost forget I ever had cancer.
That took practice.
Originally published at Purple Clover