At age 63, Ann discovered she had breast cancer. Single and self-employed, she worried about getting through it and the prospect of losing her hair while trying to return to her professional life.
I had my regular exam and the gynecologist felt something on my left breast so I went for a mammogram and ultrasound. The tumor was hard for the radiologist to find at first, but it was there, and it was sizable—I would need a biopsy. I am a psychotherapist, so I know something about emotions, but you really never know how you’re going to react to this. I was a wreck for days before my biopsy and really mad that they couldn’t do it sooner. Then I had to wait another couple of days for results. When they told me it was malignant, that I had breast cancer, I was in shock. I’d had a scare once before when my son, now 39, was a baby, but it was benign. I don’t come from a family with breast cancer, although my younger brother had died of melanoma when he was 27.
No Time to Cry
When my gynecologist called with the bad news, I started to cry. I was dating a guy at the time who said “don’t worry, you’ll be ok, and I’ll be here”—which was bullshit—but we had dinner, we made love, and there was some comfort in that. But I was kind of numb; I remember waking up the next morning, thinking “oh my God, I have breast cancer.” I started to cry, then forced myself to stop. I thought “I’ll beat this. This disease is not going to kill me. Let’s get to work.”
I am a planner by nature and work for myself, so when someone wants something from me, I know that no one else is going to do it. It’s up to me. I had a speaking engagement scheduled shortly after my diagnosis and knew that I couldn’t waste time crying about things. Time to plan my dates because I needed the money from that presentation. If I wasn’t going to die, I just had to get on with it. Eventually I told my son, which wasn’t easy. We were very connected and it was really hard for him to deal with the idea of a parent possibly dying.
Worse Than They Thought
I had a lumpectomy and the good news was that they got the tumor out. But, the bad news was that it was lobular and when it was laid out in the lab, it was twice as big as they thought; at first it was all crunched up, but when flattened out, it was like an octopus. They would have to go in again and get wider margins, which didn’t make me happy. At least it was contained and there were no lymph nodes involved. It took double time to heal from that and it was especially painful to reopen the scar again. Then, I had four chemo treatments followed by seven weeks of radiation, which completely burned my breast; it was horrible.
The hardest part was losing my hair, which was a big part of my identity. My picture was even on my calling cards and the books that I had written. People said you can be forward thinking about it and shave it off. Or, you could choose to watch it come out in clumps. My son’s friend, John, had a buzzer and offered to shave my head. When I decided it was time, he and another friend came over, and we got my son on Skype so that he could be involved. I wanted him to see me at different phases and be part of the illness and part of the recovery. We were playing music, trying to make it fun and I was trying not to cry. John stopped in the middle to show that he’d given me a mohawk, which made me laugh, but it freaked my son out. That night, everyone saw me bald, but afterwards I wrapped my head in a scarf, and in public I kept it covered.
From Powerful to Bald
I was so powerful and strong in the years before cancer. I had just gotten used to being on my own in New York, and to go through this took everything out of me. The only time I felt emotionally strong was when I was coaching my clients. The rest of the time I didn’t want to see people. I found myself looking for other women wearing scarves—if 1 in 4 have cancer, where were they?
Around that time, a friend’s son was getting married in Austin, where I had lived for years. I wanted to be at the wedding, and on the trip there, I was wearing a scarf. Going through security they called my name. A woman said, “I have to examine you, I have to pat down anyone with a head scarf.” She wanted me to take off my scarf. I got hysterical and started to cry. “I have cancer, the scarf is protecting my head,” I said. She showed some empathy, but I cried and cried. I was still crying as I sat by the gate. It was the first time everybody in Austin was going to see me with the scarf, and now TSA wasn’t respecting me. It was a very hard time for me.
When I first went out in public without a scarf, I only had stubble and felt uncomfortable. Later, I went to a professional conference where a lot of people knew me. My hair was very short. It was my re-entry after cancer and I walked in, shaking in my shoes. I thought “I am bald. Everyone will know I have cancer,” but people were crying and hugging and welcoming me. That was when I started to feel OK and thought I could start to go out more, but it really took until my hair looked halfway decent that I could feel good in professional settings.
There were times when I was depressed and wondered if I was ever going to be normal again. After treatment, I had no structure and didn’t know what to do. Business hadn’t really picked up, and friends weren’t coming around at that time. I had a lot of nights by myself. One evening, while walking home from a movie I had a spiritual moment. I said to my angels, “I need to know I’m going to be OK.” So, I look down, and on the sidewalk is something that looked like angel wings. I stared at it for a minute, and heard a voice say, “all is well, you’re going to be fine.” It made all the difference in the world, and I felt lighter, knowing that things were going to be OK.
You’re never really over cancer, it’s always there in the background. And it created another level of uncertainty in my life. My business has never really come back so there’s economic uncertainty. And, I’m falling in love with this man I’m dating now. He seems very supportive but who knows. If I had to go through another cancer, would he be there?