Chronicles of Courage: When Cancer Comes Back
Have you ever looked over the edge of a cliff and had the sickening feeling you might accidentally jump off?
That's what it feels like to go to the doctor when you're pretty sure you have breast cancer, only the jump isn't accidental. You have to leave the solid ground of before. You have to leap into after. Your life depends on it.
The first time, I'd known for weeks that the dimple in my right breast was serious trouble, known the difference in density between my breasts meant something. Something bad.
Eventually I gathered the courage to call for an appointment. The nurse asked me to come in right away and mere minutes later, my internist sent me for a mammogram, saying, "I'm very worried."
An hour later, a sober-faced radiologist looked up--her skin blanched white by the blue glow of the screen in front of her--and said, "We have to confirm with a biopsy but I can tell you now, you're headed down a hard road."
And so I was: mastectomy, shingles, blood clots, a pulmonary embolism, six rounds of chemo, three months of radiation. By the end of treatment, I was bald and weak and slightly singed around the edges, but grateful to have survived.
The radiation burns healed. My hair and eyebrows and eyelashes grew back, and I got stronger with each passing week.
Months later, I was no longer getting stronger.
Then I was backsliding.
An indifferent oncologist assured me things were fine, but I knew she was wrong. I also knew what waited for me below the cliff I was about to jump off again.
I found a new oncologist, one who looked at the same test results and said with infinite kindness, "Something is very wrong here, and we have to find out what it is."
"Can you think of any explanation that does not include the cancer coming back?" I asked.
"I'm sorry but, no. I cannot."
Her words spun me into thin air, falling into yet another series of tests and terrifying procedures.
A week later, this lovely young physician held my hand and told me the cancer had metastasized into my bones.
My only question was whether I would live to see my daughter's first baby born in six months.
"Yes. For sure. Yes."
I don't remember a single other word she said. Fortunately, a dear friend kept detailed notes filled with information and next steps.
Within weeks of the new treatment, I began to regain strength and endurance. Over these last 10 months, I've worked my way from 50 steps a day to 6500. Always slow. Sometimes agonizing. But steadily increasing steps.
Over time, I changed the way I eat and reorganized my home. I radically edited my wardrobe, too. Life's too damn short to wear anything you don't absolutely love.
These days I do everything I can to care for my body. If I had not listened to its wisdom, if I had instead accepted the reassurances I desperately wanted to believe, I would be dead. The still, quiet voice within saved me…for now. The cancer will win some day, but not today.
While I have these todays, I'm spending time with loved ones and traveling to oceans and deserts and forests — even, for the first time, to Europe.
Here's the most surprising thing: After this second diagnosis, jumping off the cliff feels less like falling and more like flying. Turns out, when your worst fears come true, there's nothing left to be afraid of. You're just coming in on a wing and a prayer, once and again.