Chapter One: "You Have Breast Cancer."
This is a chapter of my life that I never expected to write. Even as I undergo treatment for the second time, I still have moments when it just doesn't seem real. It doesn't seem like this should be my story. To be honest, I really wish it wasn't. In the deepest, darkest part of my ego…that place that holds things that none of us are proud of, I feel like somehow this illness makes me weak, makes me less than you, makes me undesirable. In my heart, of course I know this isn’t true. But the voice of the mind can be loud and ferocious. It tells us stories so grand and so perfectly woven that truth often feels irrelevant.
But this is my story, as true and as raw as I can tell it. I am learning to embrace it, to welcome it even, as part of my metamorphosis into a more awake human being. Whether you are going through this yourself, know someone who is, or are just curious about what it’s like to face a life threatening illness, I hope that you will come to see, as I have, that cancer is a powerful teacher. We do not ask for this teacher to come to us, but if she does, we must submit humbly and be willing to learn something deeply personal as part of our healing journey. My teacher has come to me for a second time and so it seems that I have more lessons to learn. They are deeper and much more profound this time, more painful too. But first, I want to tell you about where it all began. About the first time I heard someone say, “You have cancer.”
I have no family history of cancer, I have no genetic links. I was never one to get sick often, and while I was certainly no saint, I was generally a healthy and happy person. No one would ever have predicted that I would end up with breast cancer at age 33.
And yet, I did. It was a year and a half after a romantic, fairy tale wedding in Italy. The kind of magical love story that makes you feel invincible, like life will forever be roses and butterflies from that day forward. But in mid December, 2015 my husband, Nico and I were laying on the couch watching TV on a cold Sunday night and his hand grazed my side. He moved it back to my breast, and just as I was about to swat it away, he said, "You have a lump here." I put my hand to my breast and immediately felt it too. I could even see it in the mirror if I moved a certain way. We were getting ready to head back to Italy later that week to visit his family for the holidays and as tempted as I was to wait until we returned in January, something told me to get to my doctor right away. I was nervous, but also hopeful that it would turn out to be nothing. I had no family history after all, I told myself.
The next morning I called my Doctor who got me in immediately. She felt the lump too and sent me straight for a mammogram. Within hours I was sitting down with a radiologist who looked at me with fear in her eyes and said, "This is very serious. You are going to need to see a surgeon and have this biopsied."
"But I'm heading to Italy this week," I replied.
"I suggest cancelling your flights," she insisted. "This is very concerning and you need to take care of it immediately. Do not wait."
My body felt as if the warm blood running through my veins had suddenly turned to ice. I could hardly breathe. Like a car accident whose terror transforms fractions of seconds into hours, I can still remember every detail of that moment even today, as if it had happened in slow motion.
Later that evening my doctor called and said she had reviewed everything from the radiologist and wanted me to see a specialist at NYU Langone. They could get me the following week and so we decided to cancel our flights at the urging of all of the doctors. Besides the lump, there were also other areas of concern: calcifications around the right breast and one small lump in the left. The ultimate fear circulating through everyone’s mind was, how far along is this? Had it already spread around the breast, to the other side....maybe further?
I called my mom. I could hear the fear in her voice as she tried to understand the details, details I didn't yet have or understand. I called my brother and he cried. I cried too most of the night. My husband, Nico kept me calm, reassuring me that whatever it was, we could face it. That it was all going to be ok. He never showed me his fear, but remained steadfast in his assurance that we could take on whatever life brought our way. In the midst of the most terrifying storm, he was still planting roses and saving butterflies.
And so that week I met with the surgeon at NYU, scheduled biopsies, an MRI, and rebooked our flights to Italy since they wouldn't be able to operate or begin any treatment until after the holidays. My parents came to Italy too and we filled our days together with family and as many activities as possible to crowd out that nagging monster of fear that was continuously parading across all of our hearts.
As quickly as everything seems to happen when dealing with a cancer diagnosis, there is still so much time spent waiting. Just waiting. Waiting for test results, waiting for recommendations, waiting for answers…answers that sometimes never come. And in the moments of waiting, fear starts planting seeds. Like weeds those seed begin to grow, threatening to overtake all that is healthy and good. My greatest battles with cancer to date have not been fought with the body, but with the mind. A constant and vigilant effort to rip out the insidious weeds of fear so that hope and peace can continue to feel the light of the sun.
The email we had been waiting for finally came two days after Christmas. We were in Florence, ready to step out into the brisk morning air for a cup of delicious Italian coffee. "Good news," said our surgeon. "The biopsy is showing Ductal Carcinoma in Situ, Stage 0, which means treatment won't need to be as severe. Enjoy your time in Italy and we will deal with everything when you’re back in January."
We told our parents the “good news” and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, except for me. Inside, I knew that there was still going to be a long and difficult road ahead. I knew that on the spectrum of cancer, everything was in fact pretty severe. And so, even though no one had said it yet, I knew something dramatically life altering was coming my way. I was already preparing to have to say goodbye to my breasts.