You never know when you’ll get hit with reality. You can read, study, research, and live it. But then comes that moment when you stand on the beach, you face down the wave of the tsunami, and you lose.
While I was forced to face my diagnosis of IDC (Invasive Ductal Carcinoma) in July, someone else was being forced to face her diagnosis of DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ) just the day before. We were only recently acquainted over the last year through a mutual friend and shared similar viewpoints on politics and favorite pastimes on Facebook.
My heart sank when I was told of her diagnosis and we quickly started to communicate via email. I wasn’t sure what DCIS was, really. Why was I, with an established invasive tumor, facing a possible lumpectomy, hormonal, and chemotherapy when she was facing a bilateral mastectomy? That seemed so harsh. It wasn’t cancer yet, right? I didn’t understand.
As I would learn, DCIS is breast cancer; it just hasn’t left the gate. Cancer is staged based on the location of cancer cells: in situ (0), invaded local areas/tumor size (I-III), invaded bodily systems (IV). And that mastectomy for DCIS is often chosen because it prevents the inevitability of cancer cells multiplying, invading local tissue, and becoming more aggressive. Granted, this is highly simplified, but with that laid out before me I started to understand that it doesn’t matter the stage on which you play out this drama, breast cancer is breast cancer; it’s the long term outcome that is statistically improved—not the short term emotional and physical pain for both the individuals, their family, and their friends.
Knowing that my new breast friend would be having her mastectomy this week, I wanted to visit to lend some support and give her some presents to make her smile. She was going to be going through a lot of hell in the coming days, weeks, and months. And, faced with my own mishegoss, I didn’t know when I’d be able to visit her again. So, together with our mutual friend, I boarded the bus and headed out to enjoy a beautiful fall day.
We had a wonderful day and I hated to see it end. I was increasingly annoyed at how I started to feel less energy as they day progressed. My back hurt and my knees and left hip were such that I remained mostly sedentary . Someone dropped by with a gift of a lovely coneflower for my friend and this devoted gardener couldn’t even get up to dig a hole and feel the earth in my hands. It hurt too much. I was tired. I knew it would be useless to try. I didn’t help with dinner. I couldn’t. And deep inside I was pissed, but I took it in stride. Or at least I thought I did.
It wasn’t until my friend was driving us to the bus stop that the gravity of what cancer was doing to my friend and to me crashed into me like a wave. In the dark of the car the tears wouldn’t stop coming. I sobbed inwardly, able to pull myself together in short bursts to carry on with the conversation of our shared nightmare. I was mourning the loss of her breasts and how her life will change in profound ways that we probably can’t even imagine right now.
This wave of intense reality tussled me for the next hour as I sat in that dark bus and cried most of the way home. I was so sad for my friend, and I was also sad for me.
In many respects, this tsunami of grief has pulled me way out to sea and deposited me on an uninhabited island. I grieve for my friends who have breast cancer and I’m jealous of those who will be cured. Fuck it; I can be jealous of a cure. I love all of the friends and colleagues who give me stalwart support and welcome it for however long you want to give it; I promise you I will never turn it away, though I don’t know how I could ever begin to return it. I’m glad that I have my mom and my sister.
But in the end I face this wave alone. We all do. No matter how strong you are, that reality is a hard one to accept.