I have been so bogged down with the joys and “joys” of parenting plus the fatigue of treatment that I haven’t been able to be all reflective and celebratory about things that need reflection and celebrating. Let me try to rectify this situation.
Last Monday, just three days before the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis, I finished radiation. With the end of radiation is the end of cancer treatment as my de facto career. I now have my life kinda-sorta back. The only thing to which I’m beholden is an every-three-weeks (I bet there’s a cool way to say this in England… you know, like “fortnight”) infusion of the drug that targets my particular brand of cancer and thus has saved my life. The drug is called Herceptin in case you’re just *dying* to know.
Radiation was six weeks of scrambling to drop off my son at first grade, then taking my almost-two-year-old through Boston rush-hour traffic every morning so I could lay down in a crazy high-tech machine and get blasted (I’m being dramatic here. You actually don’t feel anything while being shot with radiation) during an appointment that never took more than 10 minutes. But the circus that surrounded it added up to hours every day, and every night I was exhausted. On the last day, my husband accompanied us and took some pictures of me ringing the special bell you get to ring when it’s all over. I’d post the pictures but I look real fat in them so it’s not happening.
Then, last Thursday, Thanksgiving, was the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis– the day my primary care physician called to let me know my breast biopsy showed that not only did I indeed have cancer, but it was “a wild one.”
What’s funny (or maybe not funny…depends on your sense of funny), is that as we sat down to Thanksgiving last year, my diagnosis year, my father started the meal by giving thanks that we were all healthy. As he said that, I thought about the strange hard rock-like thing deep in my breast and wondered if maybe he was wrong. The next morning, I called my doctor at Beth Israel and was seen the same day. By the time I left the hospital that evening, I had had a mammogram and a biopsy scheduled for first thing Monday morning.
Now that treatment is all over, I’m left with lots of feelings and insights. But right now I’m going to focus on deep gratitude.
At the beginning of treatment, my beautiful and brilliant oncologist said I had a 40 percent chance of cancer recurrence. A recurrence is horrible because it often means the cancer has metastasized to your bones or liver or brain and your days are numbered. But thanks to the drug I referenced a few paragraphs up, I had a pathological complete response–a complete disappearance of my 9 cm tumor and all the cancer cells that had invaded my neighboring lymph nodes– prior to my surgery. The cancer disappearance changed my long-range odds from bad to good. My oncologist wouldn’t give me a new statistical outlook but a different oncologist put my recurrence odds at 10 percent. I credit this drastically-improved outlook to my oncologist, Dr. Michaela Higgins. She not only gives first-rate care but refers to herself by her first name and gives hugs.
Another source of gratitude is my excellent surgical team at MassGeneral. Due to having a pretty significant form of breast cancer, Stage 3A, I was required to have a modified radical mastectomy. But thanks to my surgeons, I had an amazing cosmetic outcome that helped me psychologically more than I could ever verbalize.
Dr. Michelle Specht was able to do a skin-sparing, nipple-sparing mastectomy (she took out everything inside while leaving the outside inteact) and Dr. Jonathan Winograd immediately followed that up with a DIEP, a procedure that gives the look and feel of a real breast because it uses your own tissue. Months later, I am still amazed at Winograd’s artistry, at the way he was able to achieve symmetry in shape and size. My super-compassionate and über-talented radiation oncologist, Dr. Shannon MacDonald, said that on an x-ray, you can barely tell that my new boob, or noob, is a reconstruction.
And then the people–oh!–there are so many people. I read a lot of cynical stuff about “what the world is coming to” but I have had the exact opposite experience.
When the shit hits the fan, people step up and show up. People I knew, people I kinda knew, complete strangers… there have been so many people who have helped us including our amazing childcare provider who took my daughter last-minute when I had appointments or was sick; people who held fundraisers, both virtually and through events (thank you to my family, in-laws and friends, the generosity of Boston Globe staffers, Kate Youngclaus, and Kim Spear), organizations that gave us checks (the Jeffrey Coombs Foundation) and support (the Ellie Fund, MGH’s Julie Fund, the Kelly Considine Scholarship), companies that donated their amazing product (talking about you, JOOS!).
And my dear, dear family… my husband, my two amazing kids, my mom, brother, and sister. My Aunt Jane for taking me to appointments and being my buddy, and my cousins for dropping off food.
I am deeply grateful.