A C-word journey. First impressions

I’ve been having mammograms for a decade and never had any trepidation about it. No family history or known risk factors. January 11th, 2023 pushed the preliminary pause button on my life with a mammogram that required biopsy. January 27th pushed the actual pause button with one sentence: “I’m so sorry, but your biopsy came back positive.” I don’t know when the “play” button will be hit again or what it will play. It doesn’t escape my attention that while this experience is so uniquely painful and deeply personal, it’s almost banal. Millions of women receive the same diagnosis every year.

It’s hard to believe this is happening. It feels surreal. It’s hard to accept, yet I have no choice but to try and flow with it. I hate that our life as I knew it was put on hold. At first it was a total shock, but the original discovery was what my son later called “a chill cancer,” a non-invasive constellation of crystals. Several friends from the medical field reassured me that this was not life-threatening, “the best kind of cancer” that exists, and all will be well. For the next month I struggled but was able to teach and be fully present with my students. Occasionally I would catch myself shaking quietly under the surface, remembering in the middle of my class what was really going on. I was imagining anxiety as a wave that comes, peaks, and subsides. We even went to a conference where I truly enjoyed seeing old friends and colleagues from all around the world. I delivered two presentations and enjoyed dinners and coffee dates and even a little shopping on the way back. That was my February.

On March 3, my dad’s 80th birthday–for which we were supposed to be visiting in Israel–I got news of additional findings. The MRI showed two small spots that proved to be cancerous and invasive. The bottom fell off. Maybe there never was a bottom and life has always been open-ended and uncertain. But this is one of the reasons cancer has a bad reputation. Uncertainty and open-endedness. There could be new findings. They can change the trajectory of your life. New findings required new testing. The procedure that was initially scheduled for March 13th was postponed. I stepped into complete, bottomless darkness. I didn’t know such darkness existed. I thought I had experienced challenges before. But not like that. Not even close. It was raw fear, burning, overwhelming, overpowering. I stopped teaching and had to ask colleagues to cover for me. The joke in the family up until that point was that I’m capable of teaching as long as I’m conscious. Not anymore. I have learned so many emotional/spiritual tools over the last twenty years and especially over the last four, yet they suddenly became unavailable. I couldn’t access them.  

I couldn’t sleep or eat normally; my anxiety became uncontrollable. I lost 12 pounds in two months. In honesty, I have lived most of my life with health anxiety and probably all my life under the shadow of the C-word. I was either shaking and trying to cry (mostly unsuccessfully) or lying awake at night, with fear burning all over my body. My mind screened all possible horror movies involving cancer. All the people I’ve ever known who died from it, all the stories of horrible treatments. Every word related to this diagnosis seemed to be a trigger. Every mention of the disease. Every fear people born in the same part of the world had for generations. Was it fear of cancer, fear of death, fear of fear? I suspect there is hardly any group that can compete in the fear department with Ashkenazi Jews. It’s not just the Holocaust. It’s centuries of persecution and pogroms. Collective fears, family fears, my own soul’s fears. All at once. I hate fear. The fear took over my life, it seemed. It took the charger for my internal battery and would give it to me only occasionally. In March there was very little light left in me. Anxiety locks you up in the prison of your own mental perception. As if it owns you and your world. I can be watching a movie and then as soon as it’s over, I remember oh, I’m in prison. Back to misery again, the break is over. As if the diagnosis rules my life from now on. I can’t be happy; I lost this right the moment I heard the words “your biopsy came back positive.” The space is divided for cancer versus everything else. The time is divided between before and after. Who or what created this dichotomy? Multigenerational experience? Trauma? Fear in the back of my throat, coming and going. Rising with the appearance of a missed call from the doctor’s office, a new message, a new email. A thought of receiving the results. It’s the door that opens into the terrifying space… of despair and suffering. For generations, loss of quality of life, physical pain, death were associated with this diagnosis. This is not entirely true anymore but somewhere inside remains the old wiring. If /then. As if I’m under an obligation to suffer. As if after hearing the words, I lost my right for joy. Trying to reclaim it has been difficult. The unwiring, rewiring, establishing new patterns of being. Undoing.

There were 13 very long days between March 3rd and March 16th when the test we were waiting for came negative and the road to a lumpectomy was cleared again. Something that felt scary and daunting just a month ago was now something I was looking forward to. I barely had a moment to breathe, and another fear overcame me—what if the margins show up positive (as in, there is something else there) and what if the cancer spread to my lymph nodes. March 28th came, and the procedure was successful. I was home the same day. I thought I would be relieved, but I wasn’t. By that time, I had developed a full-blown PTSD to my phone, awaiting any medical news. I had a procedure on Tuesday and on Thursday afternoon my surgeon left a message on my phone that the pathology report was “very good.” I couldn’t bear listening to the message. My husband did. When he told me, I lost it. I was hysterical, crying and sobbing. These were not tears of joy, it was cleansing of some of the feelings that had accumulated in recent weeks. We spoke the next morning and the surgeon said the margins and lymph nodes were negative (clean). Thank God!!! Everyone was asking how I felt when such a burden is relieved. The truth was I felt my mind so tortured and battered that I could barely process the good news. I felt slight relief, yet so much mental pain that accumulated over those long weeks. Also with cancer, this is not the end of it. I will have an appointment with the medical oncologist and the radiation oncologist to determine follow-up treatment to prevent recurrence. I’ve been reminded more in the last two months than in the last decade that I’m young. Except that now it doesn’t mean a good thing. It means higher risk. There will be treatment to lower the risk. I don’t know how well my body will tolerate whatever treatment they determine.

April is here and it’s always made things better for me. It’s early spring in Pennsylvania. The trees are waking up, our lilacs are showing their first leaves and now even the flowers. Our daffodils are in full bloom; the snow-fountain cherry has put on her bridal outfit surrounded by rhododendron bushes in dark raspberry. Rebirth, renewal, and rejuvenation are in the air. I’m breathing it all in. So far, I seem to be recovering well from the procedure, at least physically. It looks much worse than it feels. I was able to get myself off painkillers after 6 days and resumed driving on the 7th.   

A few illustrations of what compassionate healthcare looks and feels like. This is a true antidote to my early life experiences in that other country.

  • A stranger who went through the same ordeal and now makes special post-procedure pillows free for any woman who goes through it. A patient care coordinator from the breast care center told me to come and pick it up before my surgery. They are in the shape of a prolonged heart and mine has Penn State symbols all over it. On the fourth night after the surgery, I tried to sleep without it and immediately felt the difference, inserting the magic pillow back under my left arm. It’s my “comfort blanket.” I sleep with it, sit with it, drive with it.

  • The morning of my surgery, four women were in the room with me when the radiologist was inserting the wire to mark the place of the procedure. She also wanted all the details in one image which, given the placement of the problem area, was a real challenge. Two technicians literally used their bodies to gently press mine against the mammogram machine, while holding each of my breasts. The radiologist was under the machine to my left working on the wire beneath my breast. Another member of the staff was pressing buttons to take pictures and to save them to the computer. When it was over, I said that never in my life I had so many hands on my boobs at the same time… So many loving and caring hands. Also, after the wire is in, you can’t wear your normal clothes. They wrap you in a large bath robe for a ride to the hospital from the breast care center. One of the nurses heated the robe in advance to provide comfort.

  • During pre-op preparations, the surgical nurse wrapped my right arm and hand in the warm blanket and placed it under the thermal blanket I was covered with. She returned after a few minutes, inspecting my hand and saying with satisfaction: “And now it’s much better.” I figured out after a moment that she was preparing my vein to insert an IV and wanted it to be as smooth as possible.

I’m processing a lot of grief, yet experience gratitude in equal measure. I’m grateful for my amazingly caring and patient husband. I’m grateful for the professional and compassionate medical team at our local hospital and its breast care center. I’m grateful for the opportunity to receive a second opinion in one of the best cancer institutes in the world. I’m grateful that we have insurance that should cover most of the expenses. I’m grateful that I have a job flexible enough to allow for my time off. I’m grateful for the five kind colleagues who volunteered to cover my class for a month. I’m grateful that the cancer was discovered early. I’m grateful for my healers–magic makers from whom I’ve been receiving various energy healings and acupuncture. I’m grateful for the friends and family near and far whose loving thoughts and prayers contribute to my healing. I’m grateful for the Divine Energy of the Universe and the healing and loving energy of Mother Earth that are protecting and supporting me on this journey.

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