The threat had been hanging over Sue’s head since she was 27, when her mother died of breast cancer at age 60. She was certain she would receive the same diagnosis, if not the same outcome…
I was keenly aware of the disease and my own vulnerability. It was like the sword of Damocles and I kept waiting for it to fall. Every time I went for a checkup, I worried this was going to be the one. This was the time they would find the cancer. Often, they found something that needed to be explored further. They were always calling me back for more imaging saying, “We need to watch this,” and taking biopsies. I had five, but none of them showed any cancer.
Then, in the spring of 2005, I got a call from my gynecologist after a regular checkup. A small cyst in my uterus had started to grow. She didn’t think it was cancer, but highly recommended a hysterectomy. I spoke with my brother, a doctor, and he concurred, so my husband, Bob, and I met with one of the two recommended surgeons. He seemed really nice, so we went with him.
At the end of July, I had the hysterectomy, thinking it would keep me out of work for two weeks, at most. The surgery went badly, and four days later I was back in the hospital. A round of tests revealed that my ureter had been cut during the laparoscopic procedure and I had sepsis. Now they needed to open me up for a much more extensive operation. By the end of the summer, I had had my fill of hospitals and languid days of recovery. All I wanted was to get back to normal life. But that wasn’t meant to be.
There it Was
In early September, I felt a lump in my breast. There it was. I had never really expected I would dodge the bullet, but now? I had had a mammogram in June that was clear, so this was a real surprise. Because of the false alarms and the significant family history, I had been seeing an oncologist who had put me on tamoxifen and monitored me over the years. I went to see him, and despite the bad timing, when he said the words “You have cancer,” it was actually a relief. I knew this day would come and now, finally, we could deal with it. It was almost as if I had been waiting for the shoe to drop all these years. I didn’t fear it, it was more a question of, “OK, what do we do next?” It was a challenge to be undertaken.
When I met with the breast surgeon a few days later, the first thing he said to me was, “You’re going to be fine.” That made all the difference. He had such a nice way of being and was so reassuring. He explained everything in detail. I only needed a lumpectomy because it was caught so early, which also was comforting. I did worry, though, about the aesthetic effects of having a lump removed. Would I look uneven? Bob let me know right from the beginning that it didn’t matter to him if my breasts were lopsided or what they did to me. He would always love me and be there for me, which he was.
Surgery was just before Thanksgiving, and I went right back to work after the holiday. Then they told me I needed a second surgery, to “widen the margins.” That was in early December. Again, I went right back to work. After the holidays, I started 16 weeks of chemo, 8 treatments, every other week, followed by 7 weeks of daily radiation. I had my chemo on Friday, and it didn’t really affect my energy beyond the weekend. I gave myself Neulasta shots on Sundays, which boosted my white blood cells and helped me recover.
The radiation was tougher. The fatigue really built over time and it was hard to predict how I would feel. Still, I only lost 4 or 5 days of work. The interesting thing about radiation is you see the same people every day for weeks. You get to know the stories of the other women as you wait together. People respond to their circumstances very differently. Some were happy and social, others were alone in their own shells. I realized how fortunate I was to have a strong constitution, consistently excellent care and incredible support from friends and family.
At the time, I was working in the financial services and publishing arm of the Episcopal church. It had a community prayer list that was emailed to all 350 employees every other week. Employees put the names of friends, family and occasionally themselves on it, primarily with regard to major health issues. I hadn’t put my name on the list in anticipation of my hysterectomy, and given the outcome, felt I should now. Maybe it was just superstition—if I put my name on the list now, maybe everything would turn out fine. Besides, if I was going to be missing work, or not quite up to snuff, it might be good for colleagues to know why.
And people at work were genuinely concerned and supportive. They would ask, “how are you Sue,” with empathy and sincerity. It was wonderful. One woman, a survivor and nurse who worked in the medical insurance group, gave me a call almost right away. She told me what to expect, helped me to sort through managing insurance issues and was so generous with her time. Her advice was sound and her kindness and support then and throughout my treatment made a world of difference.
The first day I wore a wig to the office, after half my hair had fallen out and I had shaved off the rest, I hid in my office as long as I could. I felt like a spectacle, awkward and completely vulnerable. Then, as I passed a friend’s office, he said, “Sue, you look great today.” I never knew if he realized I was wearing a wig, but with that sentence, everything turned around for me. Later, I had to laugh because I realized that most people never knew I wore a wig. My own hair was not always tidy, but the wig was. Sometimes, when I got a complement on my hair, I had to decide whether to tell the person it wasn’t my hair. Mostly, a simple “thank you” did the job.
Becoming More So
At one point, Bob asked the oncologist when we would know if all this treatment had worked. The doctor, who was in his 50s said, “When you come to my retirement party.” There’s no such thing as a clean bill of health with breast cancer. So, I’m still vigilant. After I finished radiation, I was put on an aromatase inhibiter. It weakened my bones and probably contributed to a broken wrist. But if it helped prevent a recurrence, it was a small price to pay.
Overall, it was an amazing experience that made me so grateful for the progress of healthcare, the support of friends and community. It was astonishing to experience such overt kindness. I am typically reserved about myself and expect that I should take care of myself. But by sharing my bad news with friends, my life was extraordinarily enriched. And it opened my eyes to what others might be going through, helped me be more aware of other people’s needs. I won’t say that having cancer changed me, but it gave me a chance to recall who I am and become more so.