Summer fun trumps surgery

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It’s summer time, and that means swim lessons, VBS, and fun with friends.  Last week, it meant all three, all before noon.  Busy times!  Turner and I managed to squeeze in some fun with my phone while Emma Clare was in swim lessons.  We thought I should show off my new hairstyle, flipped up in the front.  Big news, huh?

If it weren’t for all the summer fun (and heat and humidity), I could be going in for surgery this week.  It’s been six weeks since I last saw the plastic surgeon, and so my skin has healed enough for me to have my final surgery.  I’m definitely ready– this phase of the reconstruction, while not painful, is certainly uncomfortable.  Plus, I’m so eager just to be finished.  I’ll still have another minor procedure or two after that, but for the most part, that surgery signals the beginning of the end of all of this.  Unfortunately, that surgery also signifies the beginning of four weeks in compression gear, not so friendly for a hot, sticky DC August.  Or trips to the pool with my two new swimmers.

And so I’ll wait until school starts before I head back to the familiar turf of the outpatient surgery center at Virginia Hospital Center.  But I’m not waiting long, because I’m ready.  Ready to be finished with all this.

Lipstick: Fuchsia Flash by Smashbox

There’s no crying in cancer

sweet kiss

Not surprisingly, when I asked my surgeon to repeat herself and heard the words “invasive breast cancer” for the second time, I began to feel tears well up in my eyes. Clay had gone to the bus stop to pick up the kids, so I had a few minutes to myself. And I cried. Some. But I knew they were coming home, and I didn’t want to be a mess when the kids walked in. Since I’d had a minor surgery that morning, I knew they’d be worried about me and would want to give me a hug. I was so glad to have a few minutes to gain my composure. There were a few tears when I told Clay, then we talked about the next steps. Not the next year. Just the next week and the next months of treatment. From that time on, there were very few tears. From me, anyway.

I remember the first time I had a young friend diagnosed with breast cancer. Oh, how I cried. We weren’t really close friends, more acquaintances, frankly. But her daughter was close to Emma Clare’s age, and I was probably a bit over dramatic. I immediately began thinking of all the things I wanted to tell Emma Clare, to teach her, to do with her. And I cried that this friend might not get to do all those things with her daughter. I cried for her, but really I cried for myself.

But by the time I had to start telling people that I had cancer, I’d had time to process the information. I’d had time to cry my tears and find my composure. It’s funny, but no one tells you that once you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re likely to be hugging a lot of crying people and comforting them. They haven’t had the time to process, and they can’t do a thing about it. They’re stuck with the emotional impact and utter helplessness. Sure, I was affected on an emotional level. I’m not a robot. But I had things to do, appointments to make and show up for, schedules to organize. I didn’t really have time to sit and cry.

Honestly, after that first day, I only really remember crying three times. Once, I was just so tired, I wasn’t sleeping well, and it was more about the fatigue. I cried when we told the kids. There’s something about a five year old’s first reaction being, “So, you’re going to die?” that will bring tears to a momma’s eyes. I had decided to be very honest with them, but that wasn’t a thought I was going to let them entertain, so I quickly answered with, “Oh, no,” before telling them what my treatment would likely entail. Besides the kids, most people were far to afraid to ask anything so honest, and we stuck to logistics for the most part. I had that down cold, no hint of emotion there. But I remember one day really early on, before I’d even talked with the oncologist, Sally had come with me to an appointment and we only had time to grab a quick lunch before she had to head back to her kiddos. We ate at Chick-fil-A, I can remember which table. And I remember her words, half question, half statement. “But it’s treatable.” My friend wanted to know if I would die. And the quick answer I found to reassure my kiddos just wouldn’t come. I fought tears as I cobbled together every positive statement I could think of. We found it early, it seems small, I’m young and healthy… A few tears, a deep breath, and then I moved on with the conversation. Not because there’s anything wrong with crying. But because I just had to.

From scientist to writer

When I was in third grade, I asked for, and received, a microscope for Christmas.  After receiving that microscope, I decided that I wanted to be a scientist.  I like to think of myself as persistent, but stubborn might be a better word.  I wrote an autobiography in the third grade, declaring that I’d like to be a scientist, and after that day, I didn’t question that decision once until I was a few years into my PhD program. I was looking back through old photos to find one of myself in high school, and was surprised to come across this one I’d forgotten.

scientist in training

That’s me, senior year in high school, at my kitchen table.  Dissecting a rat.  There are no more words.

In high school, I was definitely a bit of a math and science nerd.  Maybe a bit of a nerd all around?  I really liked those classes, I didn’t love history, and I really didn’t like English.  Really, it was mostly the writing part I didn’t like, I’m pretty crazy about grammar.  (It gives me great pride when my children use the word “well” as an adverb instead of incorrectly using the word “good” as so many do.)  But the writing, oh, the writing.  I didn’t enjoy it, and in a class whose grade depended largely on writing, I got my first quarterly grade of a “B.”  I remember being outraged by that B, and so irritated that my GPA might suffer for it– I was’t going to be a writer.  I was going to be a scientist.  I wouldn’t believe anyone who tried to reason with me at the time, but of course I had no idea how much a scientist’s success depends on their writing skills.  And while I’m very thankful for the perspective of my scientific training, these days I’m more writer than scientist.

I’m trying to think back on it and decide why I didn’t like the writing.  Of course, there was the incident of the D-minus that I “earned” on a paper because though there were only three in the entire paper, I used two passive verbs in the same paragraph.  That could sour any overachiever.  But mostly, I remember struggling to find a topic, an opinion, a voice.  Maybe I’m a bit of a late bloomer on the writing front.  But I guess I’m a little glad that those teachers hammered in all the lessons when they did, so that now that I have found my topic, my voice, I can express it.  Deep down, I still think of myself as a scientist.  But now I’m a scientist who loves writing.

The indignity of it all

Yes, they're fake My real ones tried to kill me Tee ShirtsSource

After giving birth to Emma Clare, I decided that the process of pregnancy and childbirth pretty much strips a woman of her dignity.  The sheer volume of people who need to check on something (usually involving stirrups) is crazy.  Then having a small child who knows no boundaries– who feels like a closed bathroom door is an open invitation– surely that would strip away what dignity is left.  Nope, enter the second pregnancy which required taking said toddler to the aforementioned visits involving stirrups.  Gone yet?  Nope, there’s more.  A few more doctor visits and procedures related to the way those kiddos ravaged my body chipped away just a little more dignity.

But breast cancer?  Surely there can be nothing left.  I can’t even begin to count the number of people I’ve had to flash in the course of all my appointments.  Let’s see– there’s a breast surgeon and her nurse– wait two breast surgeons, the oncologist, the nurse practitioner, the two plastic surgeons I saw and their physicians’ assistants, the three or four people involved in the mammograms, the radiologist who did the ultrasound and his nurse, the doctor and nurse in the second biopsy, the two different MRI techs, and I can’t even begin to imagine how many people involved with the surgery and post-surgery care.  And for everyone post-surgery– the nurses, the plastic surgeon, the physical therapist– they all saw my scars.  So did the woman at Nordstrom, Akeelah (love her!), who helped me try on a post-surgical bra while my drains were still in place.  (Kudos to her– she was so gentle and didn’t bat an eye.)  They’ve all been kind, and I can tell that helping me preserve my dignity has been important to them, but there’s only so much they can do about it.  There’s no chance to get all self-conscious.  It’s all survival mode.  Strip down like there’s nothing strange about it and take care of business. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining.  There’s something freeing to be above being embarrassed.  Seriously, if you have a question to ask, I guarantee you’re more embarrassed about it than I am.

Thankfully, a lot of my friends in the survivor community feel pretty much like I do.  We realize that the whole experience stripped away our dignity, but for the most part, we don’t care, and we are thankful that it stripped away our embarrassment, too.  I’m so thankful for those women who will answer all my crazy questions about what I can expect, whether what I’m feeling is normal.  But I’ve met some women who didn’t want their dignity taken, and held on with everything they could.  And I think that’s ok, too.  There are some parts to breast cancer that are mandatory if you hope to survive.  The chemo, the surgery, the radiation– if your doctor says you have to, then you have to.  But how everyone deals with it is different, and some women just don’t want to answer all those questions.  (So ask me, not them!)

My family went through a lot during this whole process, too, but they didn’t have to give up their privacy, their dignity.  You can’t embarrass me, but there are some things that I probably won’t go into detail about here– where it can live online for all posterity–  mostly for their sake.  Already, less than a year from diagnosis, I’ve talked to several newly diagnosed women, sharing my experiences, giving recommendations for doctors, bras, and of course, passing along a lipgloss or two. I’ve found it reassuring to be able to talk to women who are a little ahead of me in this journey, and I consider it a privilege to offer the same reassurance to others.  There’s nothing I won’t share with one of those women, really any woman.  (Guys, well there’s a line.  You know where it is as much as I do, so let’s just not cross it, ok?)  But for the record, and for all posterity, yes, they’re fake.  My real ones tried to kill me.

An Ever Present Reminder

prayer card

I’ve already told you about Uncle Bruce’s prayer, but his sweet wife was praying for me, too.  As were so many at their small church.  I know this was not the only church where I was on a prayer list, but their church went one step further than most.  I’ve received a card like this one every week since last October (and they’re still coming)!  After Wednesday night’s prayer meeting, they all sign a card for each person on the prayer list.  Really, a rather simple gesture, but such a sweet reminder.  It was truly a pleasure to be able to visit the church when we were there a couple of weeks ago and meet many of the people whose names I’ve seen on a card each week.  Also a pleasure– I was able to meet them over a church luncheon complete with fried chicken, blueberry pie, and sweet tea!

This is my village

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We’ve all heard that it takes a village to raise a child.  Well, this is my village.  At our bus stop, at least thirty kids get on the bus every morning.  Except on the rainiest days, there’s a crowd there long before necessary– the kids play, the adults chat and drink coffee.  And after school, there’s a group playing for at least an hour every day.  All during the school year, anytime I needed to head to a doctor’s appointment early, I knew I could drop the kids here or with a friend before they headed over.  And if I thought I might be late, a quick heads up in the morning or even last minute text was enough to ensure someone would see that the kids got off the bus safely and had somewhere to go.

I don’t think I ever told the story about how they found out I had cancer.  I found out on a Friday afternoon, and then had appointments Tuesday and Wednesday.  Tuesday I dropped them early with a friend, and then Wednesday, Clay was going with me to the oncologist, so we both walked the kids to the bus stop.  One friend was just ahead of us, still wearing her running gear.  I remember telling Clay that her littlest must have gotten up early, so she’d have to go for her morning run later, with the stroller.  It’s amazing how much you can know about a person and what’s going on in their life when you see them twice every single day– just her outfit told me lots.  Not remarkably, she could tell that something must be up with me, too– I was dressed, made up, in heels and ready to go for the third day in a row and Clay was with me (maybe only the second or third time he’d ever been there in the morning).  She asked if everything was ok, and I must have nodded and mumbled something about a doctor’s appointment and I’d tell her all about it later.  Only that afternoon, I was late to the bus and everybody cleared out early for various after school activities, so I didn’t see her.  We told the kids I had cancer that night, and the next morning, I had a very early appointment with a plastic surgeon, so Clay had to take them to the bus stop again, only this time, solo.

Clay got to the bus stop with the kids, and a big group of moms was chatting, as usual.  Turner ran up to the middle of the group ahead of Clay and announced quite loudly, “My mommy has cancer!”  And then he ran off to play with his friends.  And then, crickets.  Clay said all the talking.  just.  stopped.  It still makes me giggle to think of how that must have looked.  Thankfully, we’d been camping with two bus stop families a couple of weeks before, so at least two moms knew Clay well enough to approach him and talk to him, most of the gaggle of moms only knew me.

And before I’d even had a chance to chat and hear how it all went from Clay (honestly, I laughed– such a funny scene in my mind!), I had texts from at least two friends.  Simple words, but thoughtful and so kind.  In your thirties and early forties, I think it’s kind of hard to know how to react to something like a friend with a potentially terminal disease.  But my village, they did it perfectly.  Lots of hugs and promises of support.  They offered help, but were so gracious not to smother me.  These families fought over the opportunity to meet any need I even mentioned, and they bragged when they managed to secure a spot to bring us dinner!  They watched my kids, they cooked us meals, they learned more about cancer and reconstructive surgery than any woman our age should ever have to know.  They celebrated with me.

Now that it’s summer, we don’t have that daily connection.  I miss my village.  But even with no bus to catch, we’ll still be spending some time at the bus stop.  It was never really about the bus, anyway.