It never rains in California. And that’s a drag because what I could use right now is a cold chardonnay, a depressing Neil Young CD, and a rockin’ good thunderstorm.
What’s my problem? I’m done. I just had my reconstruction, which marks the end of my cancer road. No more side trips to the oncologists for chemo or radiation, to the cardiologist for EKGs, to the plastic surgeon for expander fill-ups, to the physical therapist for myo-fascial release, to my primary for Wellbutrin refills.
I’m done with all that. So why am I sad, scared and more than a little pissed off, when instead I should be happy, relieved and grateful?
After I was diagnosed in May 2006, the wheels started turning, and they turned fast. I motored through a double mastectomy, five chemos, 28 radiations, and the related side effects of all three: complete hair loss, the inability to construct a thought, abrupt menopause, severely limited range of motion, fatigue, weight gain. I also had just gone back to work after raising kids and doing freelance for 15 years, and I’d just begun seeing someone.
I rocketed through it all.
I’d like to think I was able to successfully navigate cancer treatment, single-motherhood, and a new job because I was strong, determined and optimistic. But I think the truer statement is that I got through it because I had no other choice. None of it was optional.
I also got through it because I had stellar support. My friends rallied; they went with me to appointments, called, met with me for coffee, arranged to have post-chemo dinners brought to my house. My family—my brother and his fiancee, my sister, my mom and dad, my uncle and cousins, my ex and children—provided practical and emotional support (as well as a wicked, and healing, sense of humor). My boss was generous, supportive and kind. The new man in my life was amazing in his ability to say the right thing, in the right place, at the right time.
I recently wrote in an email to my friend and cancer sister L. (aka Princess Hedgehog):
“Sometimes I feel as if the cool, powerful me was drowned in a shallow pond. At one point in this past year, my self-esteem was skyrocketing. I was so proud of myself! Look what I can handle! Look how cool I look with this bald head! Now, I'm just feeling physically and emotionally small and damaged.”
I had my breast reconstruction on July 13, and may need a corrective surgery. At least that’s what I’m hoping for. In the same email to L., I described the new “girls”:
“You have to go wireless with implants, which severely limits your options. So with only four bras to choose from on the entire bra planet(s), it's actually amazing that I could find one that (only kinda) worked. These are not natural looking, feeling, projecting boobs. They're flatish, roundish, asymmetrical, and, well, they're hopefully not finished yet.”
What I didn’t write is that the right “breast” is rippled and its newly constructed nipple kind of collapsed on itself; while the left “breast” has a large dent in the outer quadrants—making it look like half a breast—and its nipple is pointing toward Iceland if I'm facing San Francisco. My plastic surgeon, a talented and well-respected M.D., reminded me that reconstruction is more of an art than a science. He also suggested that I go live my life and be grateful that I don't have bigger complications. I will do those things. But before i do, I want to be sure I've done everything I possibly can to have a good outcome. I'd like two whole breasts with the nipples making eye contact.
I have tentative plans with L. today. We're going to meet for tea while her daughter's at a birthday party. We both admitted on the phone this morning to feeling "a little depressed" and needing support.
Tomorrow, we’re going to a cancer chick brunch hosted by a woman L. met and befriended at Commonweal. A year ago, I would have sprinted from such a gathering. These days, I realize it’s exactly what I need. Friends, family, co-workers and partners cannot be expected to understand the predictable (but somehow still surprising) emotional nosedive that happens when you've made it through surgery, chemo and radiation. That trajectory is best traveled with Princess Hedgehog and other cancer chicks. They know what it means to be "done" with cancer.