6 years, plus

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mastectomy day, 5.13.2010

Last week marked 6 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought about it a few times on the actual day (April 27) but found myself pushing any thought out of my head. Not because I shy away from thoughts of my cancer “journey” — good luck getting out of such thoughts, y’all; anyone who has been down this road or who has watched as someone they know has gone down this road knows that is a futile effort. That’s a very long sentence with a simple idea at its core: if you have been diagnosed with a serious illness, thoughts of that illness come randomly and often.

Personally, I’m in a limbo-like state of wanting to acknowledge the passage of time between D-Day and today, while also not tempting fate. My rational brain knows that recurrence and fate are not intertwined, yet my scardey-cat brain wants to skate far from any potential jinxing.

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my babies, 6 years ago

I’m not at all sure what to say or how to feel about 6 years NED (no evidence of disease). I hate to even type that acronym, for fear of unleashing the beast that has already turned my life upside-down and left me permanently changed. I feel like a shit-heel for even mentioning my NED status when so many lovely people (many of whom write stellar blogs) currently have cancer as a recurring character in their lives. I know that could just as easily be my fate, and I know that it still may be my fate.

See, that’s the thing about having had cancer. Regardless of type or stage, once you’ve heard a doctor say some version of “It looks like cancer” you will never be the same. If you happen to be one of those who believe that cancer is a gift, you may want to stop reading right now and head on over to another website — any other website — because I remain resolute in my opinion that if cancer is a gift, I say no thanks.

In reflecting on 6 years post-cancer, I remembered a letter I wrote to my younger self. I need to re-run it, and I need to do that now.

Dear Younger Me,

Listen up, missy: that college dream of yours to light Madison Avenue on fire with clever advertising campaigns isn’t gonna happen. You don’t like the Big City — too many people and way too many germs. That other dream of writing children’s books isn’t going to happen, either. At least not anytime soon. You do end up reading a whole lot of good ones, though, to a couple of precious kids who look so much like your baby pictures it’s scary.

Your smart mouth will get you into a fair amount of trouble. I’d tell you to be careful, go easy, and use restraint, but we both know you’d flip me the bird and keep right on sassing. I can tell you that eventually you do learn the fine art of holding your tongue, but it will never come easy.

That sweet, loyal, smart, cunning and unmatched yellow dog who grips your college-aged heart will never let go. She will protect you, and then your children, for nearly 15 years. She will guard the entrance to the nursery and sleep under the crib. She will show you her back when you get out your suitcase, because she knows you’re leaving, if only for a few days. Her time on this Earth will grow short but she will stick it out longer than anyone expects because she will insist on seeing you through an even rougher patch: the death of your sweet mama.

Guess what, girlie? Your sweet mama keeps a tight grip on your heart, too. Not a day passes without you feeling the loss, in big ways and small ways. (Note to self: don’t give up on trying to make her pie crust. It won’t ever be like hers, but keep trying.)

Just about the time cancer steals your beloved mama, you’ll start getting an annual mammogram. You’re ahead of the schedule thanks to that mama-stealing cancer, and every year the mammogram will come back funky. Don’t settle for the “dense tissue” rationale. There’s a tumor growing, and it ends up taking up a lot of space, both in your body and in your life.

Look, I know you’re going to be busy living your life and raising those two little kids when the diagnosis comes, but please, brace yourself, because it’s going to get ugly fast. And say a little prayer to the environmental-services gods who control your operating room on the day of your mastectomy; maybe we can avoid that post-mastectomy infection that will reorder your life. And BTW, the bilateral mastectomy was totally the right choice. Good girl for following your gut. There will be no hint, not a single whiff, of cancer in your left breast, but it’s there.

Give up right now on thinking your cancer “journey” will be “one and done.” It will be more circuitous than you can ever imagine, and it will change you in ways you won’t discover until years later. Oh, and before you even begin that circuitous journey, you’re going to have to deal with melanoma on your right foot. I know, who puts sunscreen on their feet, right? Hate to tell ya, that even though you catch it early, the surgery to remove the melanoma will be the most painful thing you will experience. Yes, it’s worse than childbirth and a bilateral mastectomy. Oh yeah, about childbirth–when your water breaks, the baby is coming. Yes, he’s early. No, you haven’t finished the birthing class or packed your bag, but it doesn’t matter. And you’re going to get teased for decades for reading ahead in that “What to Expect” book on the toilet in the middle of the night when your water has broken and your much-better-prepared spouse sleeps peacefully, unaware of your foolishness.

It turns out fine, the baby is healthy (but hard-headed). Even the cancer thing is manageable. Not easy, but manageable. I think we both know you can handle it. You’re going to learn a lot, whether you want to or not. Your limits will be tested. You’re going to make some true and life-long friends along the way. You’re going to unload friends, too, in one of many hard-learned lessons. You see, there are people who are willing to give what they want to give, not what you need. This is a very important distinction. Trust me, you’re much happier without ’em. A couple more pieces of advice: first, don’t ignore that knee pain while you’re running. Stretch before and after you pound the pavement. Listen to your body. Pain is its way of saying something is wrong. Ice your knee after each run. I know it’s a hassle, but so is living with constant pain. Years down the road, you’re going to be embarrassed by how you hobble down the stairs like a woman twice your age. You’re going to be frustrated by the ways in which your body fails you. I don’t have an answer for how to deal with that, because I haven’t figured out how to deal with that. I do recommend drinking champagne as often as you can. I don’t have to tell you to never, ever pass up an opportunity to drink some bubbly. The lesson I want you to remember is that the sound of that popping cork will soothe your soul, every time.

Love,
Me


21 Comments on “6 years, plus”

  1. carla says:

    Oh Lordy, since I am at the five year mark do I get this. It’s like we sat on the phone for a good long call and talked about this…. Only you said it much better than I did and much more comprehensively – you solidified all those thoughts running across my head for the past week.

    What a beautiful post! Thank you !

  2. Hugs to you and congrats on 6 years!❤
    Diana xo

  3. David Benbow says:

    Wow. I raised a glass to you on your six-year cancer-versary, but I didn’t want to mention it to you on the off-chance that the day would slip by you, unnoticed (like my birthday). You’re a tough cookie, girlie. Keep on truckin.

  4. Eddie says:

    Loved the letter to your younger self the first time you ran it and it only gets better. You may want to update that knee advice, just in case a younger you ever does read the letter! You raise a good point regarding the challenge of being considerate of others’ circumstances. How does one speak honestly of their own struggles? If you admit to feeling it is unfair you may be whining. How do you complain about your difficulties when others have it worse? But downplay your struggles, make light of the disease, and you offend others for diminishing its seriousness. Speak of your good fortune and you are gloating, downplay it and you are false-claiming the status earned through the greater struggle of those less fortunate. Rest assured, others having it worse than you in no way reduces how much what you have gone through sucks. It’s not a competition, in the cancer olympics there is room on the podium for everyone.
    So glad to have had you around another year my friend, let’s do it again.

    • mmr says:

      Wow! Well said!! This is a conundrum that has bothered me too. I don’t worry so much about offending others about the seriousness– it’s more that I want others to understand and respect the seriousness. Maybe that’s because I have had a lot of people gloss over what I’ve been through or negate it. I know they haven’t had to face it, but they should do me the courtesy of not judging my anxiety/fear/anger/grief/loss as something small and of little consequence. Nancy has had to face it, so she gets it! I sure appreciate that she writes about it so eloquently.

      • It’s easy for people to gloss over breast cancer because it’s “the pretty cancer” and because we get brand new boobs! (As if!)

      • mmr says:

        Haha– I’d ROFL over the new boobs comment except then I can’t push myself up off the floor anymore. The doctors didn’t tell me about that part….

    • “In the cancer olympics there is room on the podium for everyone” — I love it, Ed!

  5. Welcome back to the blogosphere – I was starting to wonder where you were x

  6. […] Both Nancy K and Katy reflects on six years since she first heard the words you have breast cancer. […]

  7. mmr says:

    Love your post, as always. Nancy, did you have knee problems before “Big C”? I’ve been having a bad knee lately so was just wondering. Never had a problem before. Maybe I need to wear a compression garment not just on my arms but on my knee too when working out. Trying to figure out if it’s yet another after effect. That category now includes chronic hives–I’ve had them 4 months so far in this go-round– that according to the Immunologist are an autoimmune response, possibly to the alloderm. There is a shot for hives now, but guess who can’t have it– people who have had cancer. Catch 22. Some days I laugh about all this and some days still come close to crying. Thanks so much for making me feel less alone!!

    • Marcie, I did have a bad knee pre-cancer, but all of my joints got worse and I believe it’s from Tamoxifen and Arimidex. I would not be surprised if your hives are related, if not to the alloderm then to one of the many drugs you’ve had to take. Stupid cancer. I’m glad my post makes you feel less alone; that’s the main reason I write. xo

  8. The Accidental Amazon says:

    First of all, YAY that you’re still here, still NED. I love that letter to your younger self. I hope you popped a cork and raised a glass to yourself on the day. Hope you get to do that again & again for many years to come. xoxo, Kathi

  9. nancyspoint says:

    Hi Nancy,
    I know I am super duper tardy to read and comment on this post, but after reading it, I just had to. It’s so perfectly written. I relate on so many levels. And I guess I hadn’t realized, or perhaps I forgot, that our diagnosis dates were so close. Mine was April 29, 2010. My bilateral was June 2, 2010. Of course, I’ve never forgotten about your sweet mama. Now my dad is gone, too, and it really sucks to have no parents left, in the physical sense anyway…Love the pic of your kiddos and the one of you. And of course your letter to your younger self. Love that too. I’ve never done one of those. Maybe someday. Hope things are good with you. Hopefully you’ll be writing a few more blog posts now and then?? Take care of yourself.

    • Hi Nancy! I’m so glad this post spoke to you. There are so many things about cancer that are hard to understand unless you’ve been through it. Same for the death of a parent. While I hate that you and I are well-versed on both, I’m glad we have each other! Your mastectomy was the day after my birthday! You’re right, I do need to blog more often. Stay tuned!


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