When I hear women in the locker room at the gym curse the day because of a broken nail or a parking ticket, I can’t help but get sassy with them. “Let me get this straight,” I might say, pointing at my chest where two perfectly formed breasts used to reside pre-double mastectomy. “I’m flat as a pancake, have chemo brain until noon, and my eye brows never grew back, but do you hear me complaining?”
“We don’t know how you do it,” they sigh, shaking their heads with a mixture of pity and …well, pity. This is what kills me. That “civilians” – that’s what my friend and fellow survivor, Noreen, calls the uninitiated – act like cancer survivors have a real choice in the matter. Like choosing the paint color for our car from the factory or selecting a new dish washer from Sears.
“Chutzpah!” I declare with a winning smile, “That’s how I do it; chutzpah and good medicine keep me putting one foot in front of the other.”
In spring 2004, I didn’t think I had many steps left after a routine mammogram failed to detect a tumor the size of a golf ball. Thankfully, I noticed a change to the areola of my right breast a month later and quickly called my PCP. A biopsy confirmed my darkest fear but the prognosis after surgery was far worse.
Cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. That, coupled with the size of the tumor and my relatively young age – I had just turned 45 – lead my surgeon to determine that I had very aggressive breast cancer. Very apologetic, he predicted I had a 75 percent chance of dying within three years. I could feel the cancer goblins dancing on my grave within three minutes.
But then a funny thing happened on my way to the afterlife. I met my oncologist the following week for the first time, and she gave me a healthy dose of the medicine I needed most: hope. “I’m so excited to work with you,” she said beaming, “with all the amazing treatments today for advanced estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer, you have a 25 percent chance or better of beating it.”
With a “how do you do?” like that, I became 100 percent convinced that the odds were in my favor. I kicked kicking the bucket, truly excited for all the summer adventures that lay ahead with my husband and our two young daughters. Whether camping on the lake or camping out at the infusion center ingesting “cocktails” so exotic my hair fell out, my oncologist helped me see that it wasn’t enough to merely accept treatment.
I wasn’t a criminal resigned to serving my sentence. Quite the opposite, I saw myself as an eager and enterprising foreman, overseeing the biggest restoration project in my life, way bigger than remodeling our kitchen a few years prior. Cancer treatment or kitchen remodeling, if you don’t have the right tools and know how to use them, chances are slim you’ll get the results you wanted.