When Cancer Called

One mom shares how an unexpected cancer diagnosis made her face her fears and find her strength

A man I had never met before called that Monday to say, “I’m sorry, but all three of your biopsies came back cancerous.”

I crumbled. I’m not speaking metaphorically — I literally fell to the ground. The room began to spin, but unfortunately, I was aware enough to realize I was acting like Meredith Baxter in a Lifetime movie. God, I’m such a cliché, I thought. I actually just thought the words, “My life changed with a phone call.”

To hear they have cancer at the age of 43 would surprise many people, but for me it was similar to being told I was going to be living on Mars. I ate organically, practiced yoga and mindfulness, exercised daily and expressed myself, making my children do so as well because I thought not doing so caused blocked energy.

“Me?” I said to the doctor on the phone. “Are you sure?”

But I knew he was sure, because he knew my name, medical history and date of birth. Then he prattled on about my infiltrating lobular carcinoma, mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, all of which it appeared were now — or soon to be — part of my life. He explained margins and tests, but I couldn’t retain anything he said.

“What stage is it?” I asked.

“We can’t be sure at this point.”

“What stage is it?” I yelled.

“At least 2, perhaps 4.”

And then I asked him the only question that really mattered.

“Will I survive?”

“I can’t answer that,” he said, “but we’ll do our best.”

I threw the phone down and crawled into bed. Visions of friends who had undergone chemotherapy and other cancer treatments came to mind. My friend Chris’ throat became so burned with radiation, he couldn’t swallow. Even the noise of the Spiritualized CD that was playing felt as if it was attacking him. He died a few months later, at 31.

“It’s not the cancer that’s hard, it’s the treatment,” a friend’s mother told me. But if I refused treatment, what would happen to me?

Ever since I was a little girl, thinking about my own death caused panic attacks, so I usually didn’t think about it. But today, today I needed to travel down its very long, dark tunnel.

“Hello, Death,” I said.

To my surprise, greeting death felt more calming than facing chemotherapy. I told myself perhaps it wouldn’t be that bad. I was exhausted, as most single moms are. Maybe dying young was the way to go, at least it spared me all of the aches, pains and decay that came with old age. Perhaps it was better to go out like a bright star rather than to wither away.

“Will your boob grow back?” my daughter, Stella, asked.

The sweet thought of a regenerating breast, like a lizard’s tail, caused my eyes to well with tears.

But then there were my children.

My kids were only 7 and 10, and the thought of leaving them motherless was unbearable. Equally devastating was the thought of dragging them through this ordeal and not being able to be the mother I wanted to be for them, the mother I was now. In either case, I would be leaving them. Thoughts of being nauseous, emaciated and bedridden battled it out with calls from the dark tunnel, and I didn’t know which to root for. So I crawled back into bed and called all of my friends.

The following morning, I said, “I can’t possibly meet with clients this afternoon. I just got told I have cancer.” But then I met with clients.

When my friend Erika offered to take my kids to the class picnic that night, I said okay. But then I stopped at the store to buy some chicken for the picnic.

I won’t tell my kids yet, I told myself, but within five minutes of picking them up I did tell them.

My son, Conor, cried, immediately grasping what breast cancer was, but my 7-year-old daughter looked perplexed.

“Will you be all right?” Conor asked.

“I hope so,” I said.

“Will your boob grow back?” my daughter, Stella, asked. The sweet thought of a regenerating breast, like a lizard’s tail, caused my eyes to well with tears.

“No, sweetie, boobs don’t grow back.”

“Who will take care of us when you’re at the doctor’s?” Conor asked.

I explained that Jenn, our housemate, would help more and that friends had already offered to step in. 

Once they had asked all of their questions, Conor went out to his yoga ball — a place where he talks to himself and sorts things out — and Stella crawled into bed with me. We snuggled and stared out the window. Conor joined us a few minutes later.

Eventually, the snuggling was replaced with wrestling and poking, so I said, “Who wants to go to the picnic?”

 “The picnic is tonight?” they asked. But their excitement was short-lived once they remembered the big C.

“Picnics are supposed to be fun,” Stella said.

“I know,” I said. “And you guys can do and say whatever you want tonight, but personally, I’m taking the night off from cancer. A couple of people at the picnic know I have it, and they’ll hug me and I’ll cry, but for the most part, I’m not going to talk about it. If you want to talk to your friends about it, feel free, but if you don’t want to, that is absolutely all right as well.”

We gathered our picnic blanket, plates, napkins, cups and our very store-bought chicken and headed to the car. I checked and double-checked to make sure we had everything we needed, and then I returned to the house for one more task.

“Swedish Medical Center, can I help you?” the voice on the line asked.

“Yes, I need to make an appointment with a surgeon,” I responded.

“Do you have someone in particular you would like to see?” she asked.

“Yes, the surgeon who can see me tomorrow.”

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