(that’s me on the right next to Sue, the real redhead and Fran)
Getting diagnosed with breast cancer was an odyssey.
Find lump. Go to Doctor. Get diagnosed. That took over two months. I handled it with grace one day and the next … I completely lost my shit. I railed at life, the Universe and God “HOW COULD YOU?” I denied, I got angry, I wept. I bargained with myself and God – that spiritual journey will be a whole separate post. Today’s will be about the physical journey. Grief has five stages and I jumped in and out of every state except acceptance. That came slowly in very tiny amounts. I’m still not there. I’m still pissed.
I couldn’t wait for my GP to get back from her holiday travels so I went to a clinic and had a rather reluctant doctor – used to treating runny noses and sprained ankles – feel my breast. Yes, he said, there was a mass in my right breast, but I had to see my GP.
So I waited. I poked my boob every day – and bruised myself – to see if it changed. I convinced myself it was changing sizes and shapes – getting smaller, then bigger. People who knew me intimately got used to seeing me shove my hand down my top in public and poke my boob.
“Stop poking it.”
“Stop #@%*$!& telling me not to poke it.” (See how quickly I digress to stubborn three-year-old Lisa? Mais oui!)
What did I do while I waited? Well I sure as hell didn’t research breast cancer. I did research other benign causes of breast lumps, like cysts, fibroadenomas and hormonal changes. While my lump didn’t quite fit these categories, I remained hopeful that this wasn’t something serious. I talked to friends who have battled breast cancer and won. Even called Bridget in the middle of her vacation to tearily say I had a lump. Oh shit. Don’t panic!
Don’t name it! Law of Attraction and all. Don’t bring this beast any closer than it is. Stick fingers in ears and sing “La la la la” and ignore. I thought about my spirituality. I cleaned out closets and I amused myself as much as possible.
I partied like a rockstar.
Usually, I do a detox cleanse every January – and this year my mind & body were screaming for me to go vegan. Screaming! But I brushed that intuition aside and hit the dance floor.
Clubbing with the ladies – live bands and crowded dance floors – wore my white filigree mask to a beautiful Winter Wonderland masquerade ball.
I signed up for a bellydancing workshop so I could get my shimmy back.
My work life was equally busy. I skipped into the role as the resident Blockchain expert – and loved it – and had speaking engagements lined up for months. I accepted a respected former colleague’s invite to see Dan Tapscott – who wrote the book on the Blockchain Revolution – at the University of Toronto downtown campus. I was at the top of my game.
Then I walked into my GP’s office on January 30, 2017 and crumbled. My world was starting to crack. There was indeed a large mass in my right breast. She felt it and nodded. We needed to investigate. When she wrote the ultrasound requisition, it said 7cm x 2cm suspicious mass. That automatically put me in Stage III … *IF* this was breast cancer. I asked for sleeping pills.
We ran through the risks – and I was still considered low risk – so I had hope.
I walked into the local medical imaging clinic … and they couldn’t get me in for eight days. Eight! I was not waiting another week. At the recommendation of my friend Sue, I contacted a Toronto clinic and made an appointment for my mammogram and ultrasound for the very next day.
No deodorant meant I wouldn’t meet anyone for lunch (it interferes with the scan and no deodorant interferes with relationships), so I went alone to the Imaging clinic to get my breasts squished in the mammogram machine and wanded for an ultrasound. I tried not to look at the screen. Did a cancer tumour look black or white? My lumpy blob was black. That was good, right?
More days passed. No news was good news. But then the call came … on February 6 (which happened to be the day I was christened) forty-five minutes before I got on the train to Ottawa to deliver a keynote speech on Blockchain. My GP wanted me to see the surgeon ASAP that day. The news was not good.
“No. I’m going to Ottawa.” I was focused on Ottawa and delivering that pitch. Not going to a surgeon. While my health IS important, my professional self could not step out of a customer event with less than 24 hours notice. We didn’t have a replacement. So I went. On auto-pilot, I delivered a top notch presentation. I smiled. I laughed. I stood in the middle of a large group and talked shop and promised to deliver more presentations. I left that afternoon to come home. And fell apart.
I saw my GP on Wednesday, February 8th and indeed … the news was not good. On a scale of 0 to 5 with five been highly suspicious of malignancy … I was a “5”. The good news was that the ultrasound sized the tumour at 3.5cm – a large grape – instead of a 7cm lime, there was no calcification and no visible involvement with the lymph nodes. So I left with that report and a script for more sleeping pills, anti-anxiety pills and something in case I became depressed.
The whirlwind of appointments began. I saw the surgeon Dr. X and asked if he thought this was cancer. His answer was simple and direct. Yes.
The next step was a biopsy.
Before I could do that, I had a birthday party to plan. We had reservations at the dance club. We had dinner plans. We had Red Hot intentions for making our favourite redhead’s birthday a night she would never forget!
And that we did! We had Red Hot party favours. Red Hot glow sticks. Red Hot body stickers. Red Hot boas. Red Hot hearts. Red Hot martini glasses and Red Hot hair! Fran and I snuck off to quietly don long, wavy wigs of beautifully bright red hair! We made such a splash – such an entrance – that the club staff and regulars still ask if the redheads will come out to play once again. Mine sure did on Valentine’s Day … but that is another story!
Thank God I love wigs because I may be wearing them for a long time!
Wonderful distractions while I waited for Dr. X to call with my biopsy appointment. But he didn’t. I finally got called by the hospital asking where my CD of images were … no one told me I had to drop them off. I grumbled and swore. And got a parking ticket, which I still haven’t paid.
Went over to the Ajax hospital. And refused to drop off my images as the person I was supposed to give them to didn’t exist. Well she did, but her colleague didn’t now that.
Back the next day – Tuesday to drop them off. And wait. They finally called me and scheduled my breast biopsy for Friday.
I’m blessed with an amazing group of wonderful female friends. Truly, truly blessed. We support each other, especially when one is down. We circle, support and make sure she is still standing. We are always there for each other and drop everything to help one another. There is nothing that saddens or angers me more than seeing women tearing apart women. Life is never easy at this age. There are ex-husbands, kids, jobs, court cases, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, heartbreak, injuries and illnesses … but we stay above water because of the strong women with whom we stand shoulder to shoulder. I love them with all my heart. They are my family.
Fran and Sue took me to the hospital for my biopsy. While I am in the lovely blue gown, lying on a stretcher while someone positions my right breast at the optimal angle for the doctor, I can hear them planning their evening on the dance floor! The technician commented that I had wonderful friends – and indeed I do – because they wanted to know if I was cleared for clubbing that weekend!
The biopsy was delayed as we waited for the doctor, but the technicians assured me that the delay was worthwhile! The scheduled had been swapped last minute and I was getting the best … So in walked Dr. Best
Dr. Best arrived and immediately took charge of putting me at ease and getting this done. Between the flirting – chatting – laughing – swapping stories, he managed to explain the process and keep me calm.
My breast was swabbed, then pinched with a needle to deliver local freezing – just like a dentist but less painful – to the tumour side. I spent years working in TGH Emerg as a volunteer so medical procedures don’t frighten me. In fact, I’m way too curious. I’m great at the scene of an accident … just fall into project management mode and do what needs to be done. I had to stick my head in to watch the dentist extract a tooth from Matt’s mouth when he was five. She was the on-call emergency dentist for Sick Kids … and she said she had never had a (calm) parent stick their head in to watch like I did. I just wanted to see how it came out. I’ve stood passively beside medical staff while they pull sharp and blunt objects out of bodies, treated gun shot wounds and heart attacks. I’ve ridden in an Orang air ambulance helipcopter, wheeled car crash patients to OR and helped elderly ladies with broken hips. Today, I got to watch the ultrasound screen as the needle pierced my own breast and went in a good inch or two. The Learning Channel Live.
Numb nipple in a few minutes.
Dr. Best chatted and told stories as the large biopsy needles – which sound like a staple gun – sliced out three or four tissue samples the size of large grain of rice. I bled and I bruised immediately. Yes, my breasts ARE highly sensitive. But the procedure was complete, and the technician and I discussed bandaging since I am allergic to latex and adhesives. I opted for a steri-strip across the biopsy incision, then lots of white gauze and a little bit of tape over the whole breast. That came off an hour later as I reacted to the white tape. Add red welts to the purple mix. What’s worse than a sore, badly bruised boob? An itchy, sore, badly bruised boob. I can’t feel myself up anymore.
The results would take 7 to 10 days.
No dancing for me, as I couldn’t imagine banging boob to elbows on a packed dance floor. It was that bruised, swollen and sore. So for the first time in months … I stayed home alone on Friday night. Feeling sorry for myself, I popped a sleeping pill and hid under the covers like a three-year-old pouting over the last slice of chocolate cake that she couldn’t have. Life was going on without me and I didn’t like it one bit.
Dr. X’s receptionist called on Thursday to schedule my appointment for the following Tuesday. I wouldn’t know the results for five days. Monday was the Family Day holiday in Ontario.
So I went out for dinner and saw Fifty Shades Darker. Twice.
I cried the first time because I need a great sex life. With a great body. With a whole body. I’d happily jump into the Red Room and play! How the fuck do I do that now?
Shallow perhaps, but I roll my eyes out loud when someone tells me I’m just as lovable with a scarred breast. It’s not just the scarred breast that scares me. It’s the missing hair, the absent eyebrows and the eyelashless eyes. It’s the life that chemo will suck out of me. It’s radiation burn that will mark my chest. It’s the fact that I can’t get back to the gym for toned arms and well defined legs. I will gain weight with steroids and chemo. Or look like a walking corpse. And don’t even mention chemo brain to me unless you want to slip an anti-anxiety pill under my tongue immediately to stop the hyperventilation. I can’t function with chemo brain. I have a cognitive job in a cognitive technology. I don’t do air head.
Tuesday started with an early lunch at the Portly Piper. Handed off from one friend to another, we went to get the results from Dr. X.
Cancer. I have highly invasive ductal carcinoma. He had me in shock with highly invasive. I barely heard him mention that I have the garden variety of breast cancer – 80% of the cases are similar to mine.
Close your eyes. You know that deep, dark fear you have lurking under the surface about your health? Maybe your biggest anxiety is something else. Financial ruin. Death and loss. Divorce. Loneliness and abandonment. Imagine it just came true. Just sit with your eyes closed and let that thought roll right through you like a freight train of fear. I hope to God when you open your eyes, you can sigh with relief because your biggest fear won’t happen.
I couldn’t. Don’t ever say God only gave me what I can handle, because I’ve had enough. Fleeing an abusive relationship. Walking away. Starting over. Death of both parents. High pressure job in a shrinking market. Sole custody and a deadbeat ex. Heartbreak. And I just got kicked to the curb with cancer. I know there are people who have it much worse. But there are also those who have it much better. Where the hell did I go wrong?
And then I look at the bright side. I have a place to live. My son and I – and our two spoiled dogs – live comfortably. I have a job that I enjoy. I have medical benefits. I rescue dogs. I have loads of friends. I have a socialite lifestyle. I’m cute enough to always have a date. I can dance better than twenty year olds! I stay out later than twenty year olds! Friends shake their heads when they see me checking in to McDonalds at 3am for some post-club noshing. And I usually plop myself down next to the cutest guy, smile and start a conversation.
I’m happy. But I am no longer healthy. And really … doesn’t everything else fade into the background if you don’t have your health?
My surgeon examined my breasts, commented on the bruising and palpatated the tumour and my nodes.
I barked at Dr. X and got his back up against the wall – questioned his credentials and the timing within the health care system. He pushed back. I told him exactly what I wanted and didn’t want. No scar. No chemo. He told me reconstruction would be free so we could fix everything up (and then some!). I still didn’t want a scar. And I sure as fuck wasn’t waiting a month to get this out. Princess Margaret has a one day clinic. Diagnose in a day.
He knocked me on ass and said “Lisa, at this point we are just trying to save your life. You have cancer.”
And I – for the first time – was speechless. Tears. Shock. Fear. Anger. Helpless. Single mom. It all rolled in. Thank God Terri was there – she stayed out of my battle with Dr. X. and she got me out the door in an upright position without hitting someone.
He told me that they no longer do mastectomies (unless necessary and it wasn’t in my case). I would have a radioactive dye injected to identify the closest lymph nodes. A few nodes would come out with the lumpectomy. I would be doing radiation for sure.
So I got to keep my breast.
Dr. X told his assistant to book me for surgery as soon as possible. The first available date was March 10 (my Dad’s birthday). Perfect. We’ll take it.
Terri rolled me out of the doctors and into the pub next door so I could process this life altering moment. It was a flurry of phonecalls – incoming and outgoing, text messages, friends arriving, more wine and more tears. Terri poured me out of the car sometime before 11pm.
I love her. We’ve been to hell and back together and share more secrets than twin sisters. In fact, we have a pact that each with write the eulogy for the other. The twist? Both of us want to go first because the steamy, x-rated, tell-all euolgy will make living impossible!
I flopped on the bed, but knew I had to clean my face up and steady my tears. I had to tell my only child, my 19-year old son – and I am his only close relative – that I had cancer.
Matt lowered his head and cried. I couldn’t let him see me cry, so I hugged him and told him it would be ok. Everybody survived breast cancer and I would too.
Days blurred. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t eat. I only slept because the medications made me. Friends worried about me. You know who closest supporters are when crisis strikes. My friends stepped in immediately to take care of me – mentally and physically.
So my advice?
Cultivate deep relationships – family or friends. I have no close family nearby, so my friends have stepped in to take on that role, and I love them deeply. Why, why, why do people knock eachother down? Find your good tribe and hang on to them for dear life.
Take quiet moments and allow your mind/body connection to tell you what is wrong.
Take care of you.
When you are told to go get a test … a mammogram, a colonosopy, a bloodtest. Don’t delay. GO DO IT TODAY. Book it. Now.
Figure out who and what is important. Really. And make those people, places, things, thoughts, bucket lists and memories your priority. No one is promised tomorrow.
Quell the fear. Be bold. Be daring. And go for it. When I do go, it won’t be quietly. I will be skidding into my grave, laughing out loud and screaming “What a ride!” And Terri gets to write the last sentence. I absolutely love reading well written, highly hysterical eulogies. Mine will be the BEST! But it won’t be written yet. I have a few more years to live life large.
You may have to come back and re-read this post while I think more about my advice column.
Because right now I am signing off and taking my own advice.
P.S. I will save the hilarious shenanigans pre and post surgery for another day! My cheeks still hurt from laughing when I think about those moments!