Journey to the C-Word

It’s been just a little over 2 months since that most awful day. The day my life changed forever. The day they told me I had cancer.

Since then, I’ve gotten so many questions about how I found out and what happened. I’ve tried my best to get back to as many people but reality is – it’s exhausting, repetitive and super stressful. I am so appreciative of the love, support and curiosity so this entry is dedicated to all those that wonder. Thank you so much for caring. Your love is what keeps me fighting.

Part 1: What the hell is that?

I will never forget the day I felt the lump. 2016 was a whirlwind year for me. The year started off with year end at work. I was super unhappy, stressed out and trying my best to finish what I had started at my last job. The company was innovative, the product was great – I was just so sick and tired of grinding it out, giving every single thing I had for 6 straight years in technology sales. My mom’s health hadn’t been great for a couple years, I was done with San Francisco and preparing for my move back to New York City in hopes of being closer to my family and being back in my most beloved city. In that same month, I landed a job at my dream company, packed up my things and set off back to the East Coast.

To me, 2016 was a year of celebrations. I had 10 weddings, I was in 3 of them and I had to fly all over the world to be in attendance of these said celebrations. I hadn’t been feeling well for months, gaining weight even though I tried to eat healthy and work out, I was exhausted all the time even though I was sleeping a full 8-9 hours each night and having massive heart burn. My annual physical in June came back clear with the exception of some inflammation. I had an endoscopy over the summer with overall good results, just an allergy (not celiac-one) to gluten. But I still felt shitty. I had two more weddings I was in and was so excited for the upcoming trips to celebrate.

Fast forward to October 2016. I had just come back from a wedding and trip back to San Francisco. I had just seen one of my closest friends get married and felt so happy. I was in the shower, washing the plane ride off, soaping up when I knocked into the top inner left corner of my right breast. A hard, massive lump. I will never forget that hair-raising feeling of horror.

I typically do a breast check once every few months, feeling from the bottom and around but I never felt this lump. It was at about 1 o’clock and in just a position where you only knock into it if you were coming at it from a certain angle. I was terrified.

I made an appointment with my gyno the next day and went in a couple weeks later. She felt around and said most likely it was a cyst and I shouldn’t be worried. However, gave me a few places for an ultrasound for a peace of mind. I made an appointment for Tuesday, November 8, 2016 at 8 am and set off for St. Louis to stand next to and watch one of my best college girlfriends get married. All lump worries forgotten.

Part 2: Ultrasound, Mammogram, Biopsy, oh my! 

Oh November 8, 2016- I woke up super early to a beautiful, sunny day. I was so excited at the prospect of witnessing a part of history. Potentially, by the end of today, we would have our first female president. I just about skipped off to my local voting place and joined the throngs of people. I was up so early I decided to walk from the voting place to my ultrasound appointment (near my work) afterwards. It was a beautiful day, after all. I arrived, undressed into one of those hideous hospital gowns and waited for my appointment. A cold gel was placed on my right breast and a knob like wand was used to guide around the area. A dozen or so photos later and numerous looks over at the assistant for any tell-tale signs of awful, I decided things were probably okay. She told me to get dressed and wait for the radiologist. The radiologist came in within a few minutes and told me it definitely was not a cyst or a water pocket and that I need a mammogram asap. Could I stick around? Uh oh.

Of course I stuck around and I had my first mammogram ever. Now, I’m fairly busty for a petite girl so I can only imagine how painful this may be for women who maybe don’t have as much to, shall we say- pinch. A mammogram basically consists of your breast being squished in these ridiculous plastic slabs and you have to hold as still as possible and not breathe so they can take a proper photo. In the grand scheme of things, definitely bearable, but definitely not pleasant.

Afterwards, I got dressed and was told to meet with the radiologist. He was in a room lined up with black and white monitors and he sat me down and pointed to my film. Amongst a background of black and white vein-looking imagery, I saw a clear, white mass the size of an oval quarter. “This definitely looks suspicious,” he said. “What does that mean?” I asked, not daring to go near the C-word. “I need you to get a biopsy to confirm, but it’s definitely suspicious. Regardless, you will have to get that out. You don’t want that in your body.”

I left and scheduled a biopsy appointment for Friday, November 11th- their first available. I went back to work, ran a few trainings and went about my day. It was a busy one and before I knew it, the day was winding down and I headed down to the gym for a break. I was mid-work out when I received an email from my gynecologist asking if I could come into the office by 4. I told her there was no way that I could make it uptown by then and I had a meeting at 4:30, could she call me? I stepped out into the hall from the gym and took her call. She said she had heard from my radiologist and that she was calling Sloane Kettering (the top cancer hospital in the city) and trying to move up my biopsy to tomorrow. She also wanted to know if I had called any of the cancer hospitals to meet with any surgeons or oncologist. She was talking so fast I had no idea what was going on and I remember wondering why she kept talking as if I had cancer. I finally had to stop her and say, “Wait, what are you saying because the radiologist did not tell me anything, can you slow down and just be blunt with me?”

She paused for a moment and said, “Okay, the radiologist called and he thinks it’s cancer. We need to get a move on.” In reality this was probably about a 6 or 7 minute conversation but I felt like it dragged on for an eternity. Everything faded around me and I remember hearing this whooshing in my ears. I just replied with “Oh, okay – let me know if you can get the biopsy tomorrow.” I finished up the day and went home.

Part 3: The Biopsy

After the intense election events and from the sheer exhaustion of the day, I fell asleep the night of the 8th before the polls closed. I closed my eyes with the hopes of a miracle comeback in the polls and a miracle in my biopsy results. I got neither the next day. November 9th, 2016.

I woke up to a very divided nation and an early morning email from my gynecologist – “I  got you an early biopsy appointment, please let me know if you cannot make that time.” I dragged myself again to Lenox Hill and changed again into those hideous robes. I laid down in that cold room, the assistant came in and applied some numbing cream to my right breast and then the radiologist came in, ready to insert the needle. It was in that moment, that I started to cry. I remember saying I wasn’t crying because I was scared of the needle, I was just really, really scared of the result. They both consoled me that it would be okay, but I saw it in their eyes. The radiologist did the core needle biopsy and I didn’t feel a thing except for an initial click and prick. I had calmed down by then and sat up afterwards. The assistant left and it was just the radiologist and me. He told me that results can take a few days and that he would call me as soon as he knew. I looked him straight in the eye and I asked him, “I understand, but can you tell me the truth now?”

He hesitated for a moment and then said, “Okay, do you really want to know the truth?” I nodded. He took a deep breath and said, “It’s cancer.”

I started to cry immediately. He came over, gave me a big hug and said, “You’re going to be okay.” How did he know that? Sensing my question, he continued, “You found it early, it doesn’t look like it’s spread, you’re young and healthy – consider yourself one of the lucky ones.”

I didn’t feel so lucky but took a look at his weathered and kind face, and made a conscious effort to believe him. The rest of the day was a blur. I did my best to appear cheery and normal at work. At one point, I reached out to my group’s boss who was my acting manager at the time in California. “Can you get on VC? I need to talk to you.” With a jam packed schedule, he made it work and within a couple hours, with over 2,500 miles between us, I cried for the first time in my entire professional career and told him the news. He was incredibly supportive and told me to do what I needed to do. I felt grateful and also scared, at having said those awful words out loud for the first time.

The rest of the week was a blur.

Part 4: The beginning of a new, temporary life.

The following weeks I tried my best to be normal at work, sometimes having to step into side conference rooms or go for quick walks to calm myself. I had a brand new manager and within her first week I had to tell her I had cancer. There’s nothing quite like trying to make a first impression while delivering that news – I wasn’t sure who I felt more bad for, myself or her. Aside from that, it felt nice to cling to some normalcy because it was the only place I had left of a world where cancer still didn’t exist for me. I got confirmed biopsy results and prepared to meet with my surgeon and oncologist at Sloane Kettering.

I had looped in about a dozen of my closest friends at this point and numerous people offered to go with me to my appointments. I kept saying no, thinking I could handle it (I have independence and asking for help issues, but more on that later.) Finally, one of my friends just forced the issue, said she was taking the day off and was coming, whether I liked it or not. There’s nothing I love more than being Type-A’ed by an even bigger Type-A. Thank you, friend. I am forever grateful.

I met with the surgeon, world renowned in the breast cancer world and he very bluntly told me the next steps of my new temporary life. Most likely Stage 2, given the size, I had enough of a breast (haha) to preserve the natural shape even if I did surgery before, I had to have chemo, radiation, hormone treatment and ongoing medication. To be honest, I completely blacked out for most of it and was really thankful my friend was with me. There was so much paperwork, so many new terms and medical language I didn’t understand, I had never been so overwhelmed in my life.

The meeting with my oncologist went similarly. A different friend accompanied me to this one, a cancer survivor herself. I felt so comforted having an extra set of ears. My oncologist was a typical New Yorker. Loud, impatient and spewed information super fast. On a normal day, I would have appreciated it. On that one, I felt overwhelmed. She laid out the diagnosis and treatment plan very matter-of-factly. Stage 2A, triple positive  Grade 3 (which means aggressive and hormone-caused), chemo, surgery, radiation, hormone therapy and 10 years of hormone-blocking drugs. Oh by the way, do you want to have kids? If you do you need to preserve your eggs and then we’d have to do surgery first. Let me know what you’d like to do.

Okay, I’ll just get back to you on these life-changing decisions. Give me a fucking moment!

Afterwards, I was waiting for my flu shot (they make you get one) and my friend kindly suggested that I may want to think about a second opinion and also getting treatment closer to my family in DC. “I know you’re independent, but trust me, there are going to be times where you are going to want your mother,” she gently said.

I asked my oncologist if that would be all right. While not typical to split your treatment between hospitals, I would love to be with my family during the bulk of the hardship chemo and potentially surgery, then transition back for the rest of it. She agreed it wasn’t typical but she felt if it would make me comfortable, she’d push for it. I liked her a little more after.

Part 5: The reality and first step forward.

It was right around Thanksgiving by now and everything was shut down. I had a pre-planned vacation to Key West with my family that I had already paid for and I was going to cancel but decided to go last minute. After all, there wasn’t anything I could do in those few days anyways. Nothing was open for what I needed to get done. So with my second opinion oncologist and surgeon meetings scheduled, I went off for a much needed but very anxious-filled trip.

The following week, I met with my oncologist at Johns Hopkins. From the moment I met her, I loved her. She was kind, warm, and super patient. She answered all of my questions and explained the why behind everything (which I love and needed.) On top of that, surprising to me, she also suggested a slightly different chemo plan. I was worried about the fact that my oncologists didn’t agree but in the end, I went with where I felt most comfortable for this stage of treatment. I made sure she connected with my Sloane Kettering oncologist and off we went. In the following weeks, I met with the surgeon at Hopkins, had an echocardiogram (to make sure my heart was healthy and could withstand treatment) and had my first MRI.

Let’s talk about that last one for a second. I’m not claustrophobic per se, but I do not enjoy small confined spaces. For an MRI, you are injected with some contrast liquid, placed face down into this chamber and slid through a tunnel-looking white machine. It’s a short machine but it’s a slow, 45 minute ride. It’s kind of like sitting (or laying rather) next to a Manhattan construction site while straining to hear some classical music. At least that’s what my experience was like. At the time I was struggling to breathe and keep calm in there but looking back, that was probably the least painful and scary part. Oh how your perspective changes.

Following, I had a port insertion surgery (to make getting chemo and hormone therapy easier) and have now started chemo.

Part 6: The journey to health and a new life.

This is ongoing and my current situation. I wanted to take a moment and thank you all for the incredible love and support during this time. It’s been the hardest two months of my life and I know there is a ton more hardship ahead. However, it makes things a little bit easier, knowing that I have such incredible people in my life who believe in me and will me forward. On the days where I can’t move from pain, when I feel at my ugliest/lowest or on days when I even forget who I am – you remind me. Thank you.

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