Chanda, a native of Mumbai who came to the States for graduate school and never left, was single and practicing law at a health care organization when she learned that she had breast cancer.
I was shell shocked when they told me I had cancer and walked around in a daze for days. I didn’t tell my parents, who still live in India, because it was just going to freak them out. But I told my two sisters and my boss at work, who I was pretty close to. Even telling them was very surreal, as was waiting to meet with doctors. I think I spent the whole time looking mortality in the face. You have no idea what it’s going to be or how you will be treated or how horrible the whole thing will be. It was a very strange time, but I continued to work because I needed to keep living.
Since I was an employee, they fit me into the schedule pretty quickly. Five days later I had a meeting with the team assigned to take care of me — the oncologist, surgeon, radiologist, and the pathologist to review the report. My sisters and I are very close, and they came with me to that meeting and took notes. Someone had told me I would be too vulnerable and emotional and that someone else should take notes. So, both sisters did for me.
Gratitude and Luck
The meeting was great. That’s when they told me it was a very small tumor. It was invasive ductile carcinoma, and was hormone positive so more easily treatable. There were clearer targets for the drugs. They walked me through all of it, and I felt much better. And I felt really grateful, lucky that they caught it so early, lucky that I was working at the hospital, lucky that they were making things so easy, and lucky that I had good health insurance. The only thing I needed to worry about was getting healthy, none of the other things so many people need to worry about when they are diagnosed. And that gratitude lasted through the whole process. Every day I woke up and thought it could be so much worse. I was lucky.
Because it was such a small lump, the plan was a lumpectomy, including the removal of six affected lymph nodes. Then, 22 sessions of high dose radiation followed by hormone suppressant drug therapy. I had been so worried about having chemo and losing my hair that when doctor told me no chemo, it was like the best, best, day. I had been bracing myself for it and was on such a high for the rest of the day. At the office, friends were saying “we will help you get an awesome wig, we’ll go with you.” So, I had a lot of support, but still it was such a relief that I didn’t have to go through all that.
Love and Reassurance
I told my parents after my surgery. My mom was really pissed off at me for that, but I said, “I knew you guys were going to get on a plane to come here, but I couldn’t have taken care of you.” And my mother said, “But we would have taken care of you.” I’m still not convinced. I had my sisters to take care of me. That was better. One sister stayed over for three nights when I had the surgery and they were both a big art of my support team.
Initially, I just had the standard side effects of radiation burns. But it got really bad. The skin peeled off and I had no nipple left. I freaked out, but because I was an employee, my care was unbelievable, and I had the additional benefit of just calling anyone. So, I called the head of dermatology. I had told the radiation oncologist, but he was so dismissive. “Stop obsessing about how it looks,” he said. “I just saved your life.” But when I spoke to the head of dermatology, she said, “That’s how men are. They don’t get it. But your skin will grow back and don’t worry. It will be fine.” That was all I needed, someone to reassure me and not to dismiss it.
Pain and Anxiety
I finished radiation in August and started taking Tamoxifen in September. In December, I woke up with incredible pain in my arm. It wasn’t lymphedema, but the doctor said it was probably related to the radiation, and to take pain killers and see what happens. Then the pain sort of went away, but my shoulder froze. I had a frozen shoulder for a year and a half. Then, after eight months of physical therapy, it just unfroze in the middle of a PT session. It went from 0 to 90 one day at random, a true miracle.
I never felt depressed or anxious through treatment. My overwhelming sense was that I was very lucky, and that I was being carefully watched. But I did experience anxiety in anticipation of my follow-up visits when treatment was over. The first one was the hardest because you just don’t know what to expect, but every follow-up visit, especially in early days is scary. Are they going to find anything? Is it going to come back? I was less anxious than other people I know, but it’s still a big day every time I go for my mammogram.
Doubts and Affirmation
I’m single so a big part of my reaction was related to that. At the time, I was on sites meeting people and dating. But a cancer diagnosis just shuts everything down. You don’t have time in your life to do these other things. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about this actively, but it was clear I wasn’t going to be dating anyone soon. How would I even have that conversation with someone I just met?
When the cancer was behind me for a couple of years and I was convinced I would never date again, I saw someone at a party that I had known for a long time. We hooked up and it’s funny but, it wasn’t like it was ever going to be anything permanent — he had a girlfriend at the time — but being with him healed me in a way. While we were together I asked him, “Are you ready for the scar?” And he asked me, “Do you want to talk about it?” I said, “I don’t think so.” But he said, “Ok, when you’re ready, we can talk about it.” And after we had made love, we stayed together for a while and talked about it. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about my experience, it just didn’t matter to him. It was very reaffirming.
If I had dated and gone through that process with someone new, it would have been harder. That’s the other reason I feel lucky. I had that reaffirming experience and it got me out of the mindset that I was never going to date again. It’s amazing how much our bodies and our psyches can take, and then you are better.
I still think about my cancer every day. It is so much a part of me that there isn’t any moment of my life that isn’t colored by it, even on the best days, the best moments, when I am feeling very lucky. Part of that being lucky is that I survived cancer. And on the bad days, I can still say this is bad but not as bad as cancer. Its’ just who I am now, in a weird way. It’s not something that would come up in conversation, but it’s very much a part of me.