Drugs, Hugs and Losing My Jugs: A Breast Cancer Journal - June 1, 2015 - "You Saved My Life"
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, it was so shockingly devastating I didn’t want to tell a soul. I thought the best way to cope and to “beat it” would be to quietly fight while continuing to live life as usual.
Having lost my father to a rare form of lymphoma several years earlier and having a grandfather who was currently dying of prostate cancer, I especially did not want to tell my family. I worried my cancer news would be too distressing, especially given how completely random and unexpected it was — we just got over a high-risk pregnancy and now this?
I agonized the most about telling my mom. As a mother, the first thing I thought when I heard I had cancer was, “Thank god it’s not Penelope. I will gladly take this so my baby is spared.”
Even now, when I find myself despairing — because my tastebuds are gone, because I’m about to lose my hair, because cancer is just so overwhelmingly awful — I thank god that it was me and not my daughter.
But as the seriousness of my diagnosis set in and the surgery and treatment plan began to take shape, it became increasingly apparent I could not quietly fight my cancer.
Slowly, over the course of the next two weeks Kyle and I began to tell people. I told one of my closest friends, Elise, first. Then I told my sister. I told both over text, which thankfully has become an oddly normalized way of breaking really shitty news.
Me: “So I have something to tell you. I haven’t told anyone else in the family. And you can’t call me right now because I’m at the doctor’s and then I have to go back to work.”
Sis: “I’m meeting a friend right now but will be done in an hour and a half or so. Then I’m around ’til 7 p.m. my time.
Me: “I found out on Tuesday I have breast cancer. I’m sorry I’m telling you over text. It’s really hard for me to talk about it.”
Sis: “What stage?”
Me: “Early they think. It’s about 2 cm. Left breast only. Thank fucking god.”
Sis: “OK, I’m flying out there to be with you. I don’t want you to go through this alone. I am here 100 percent.”
Sis: “Thank god they found it. Can I tell Chris? I won’t say a word to anyone else.”
Sis: “I’m so sorry Jessica. Can I fly out there?”
Me: “I am scared to tell mom.”
Sis: “Maybe wait until you have more info. She is really stressed about grandpa. She might crack. I would wait.”
Me: “And Grammy and Aunt Kerry are coming next week. I’ll have to tell them because it’s likely I’ll have appointments and shit while they’re here.”
Sis: “Might be nice to have their support.”
Me: “I’ll probably tell mom after I meet with the surgeon. I’ll know more then.”
Me: “I’m scared as shit.”
Sis: “Shit. Fuck. Shit mother fucker.”
I told my Grammy and Aunt Kerry over brunch at Le Pain Quotidien on Montague. I waited until we were finished eating.
“I have some news,” I said, bravely, because I’d popped two sedatives under my tongue about 45 minutes earlier.
They both looked up from Penelope excitedly and I realized they thought I was about to tell them I was pregnant again. “This is very unexpected,” I continued, “But I want you to know I am going to be ok, so you should not worry about me. I have breast cancer,” I finished, and then started to cry.
The next day an email went out to my entire company. The day after that I told my mom because she was in Southern California surrounded by family and even though she was there to see her dying father, I didn’t want to deliver this news later in the week when I knew she would be back home in San Francisco alone.
I sent an email telling all of my friends. Kyle then told his father, stepmother and brothers. At work, he told his colleagues. By email he told his friends. I told my stepmom. And everyone told everyone else and then everybody knew.
Well, almost everybody knew…
My 700 Facebook friends did not know. Just like they did not know I was pregnant until — poof — I had a baby (coincidentally, I orchestrated my Facebook pregnancy the way I wish real life pregnancy would work). And everyone was like, “Oh, shit! I didn’t even know you were pregnant. Congrats!”
And I thought, “Of course you didn’t know because you don’t actually know me; we are just ‘friends’ in this weird ecosystem where everyone appears to be perfect and happy.”
My 8,000 mom friends on a mommy Facebook group page also didn’t know. And I intended to keep it this way. Like pregnancy, my plan was to not share my cancer with Facebook. Unlike pregnancy, I did not plan to surprise everyone in a year by announcing, “Hey! I beat cancer rah rah rah I’m awesome!” and a picture of me with a pixie cut doing a Burpee in a pink shirt, my newly reconstructed tits flapping in the breeze.
And then I had my double mastectomy on April 23 and my thinking changed. I went into surgery panicked and petrified. I emerged alive and angry as fuck.
Lying in bed that night following surgery, hopped up on painkillers and adrenaline, I couldn’t stop thinking about how fucked up my cancer was.
I thought about how little information about breast cancer there was for young women.
I thought about how dismissive everyone had been about my lump.
I thought about the teenage boys I saw wearing “Save the Boobies” bracelets when I worked in schools.
I thought about the pink cleats worn by football players during the month of October.
I thought about how prevalent the pink ribbon was, but how little I myself — an educated young woman with means — knew about breast cancer.
I thought about self exams and sex ed class and giggling with my friends in the back of the room.
I thought about the number of times my gynecologist asked me if I self examined and the clever, smart ass responses I gave her that all equated to a big fat no.
I thought about the genetic counselor who referred to my cancer as a “rare” cancer.
“Breast cancer isn’t rare,” I corrected her.
“It is when you’re half the age of the typical woman who gets it,” she retorted.
I thought about all these things and more and the longer I laid there, the more indignant I became. For the next three days I continued to brood. And then I did something about it.
I wrote a post to my Facebook friends and the mommy group that read:
“I am shy to post this, but have spent a lot of time reflecting and decided as many women as possible need to hear my story. Three weeks ago I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. I found the lump and I advocated for myself when others thought it was no big deal because I’m ‘young’ and ‘healthy.’ Thursday I underwent a double mastectomy — the first step towards eradicating the cancer — but I have a long journey ahead of me. Breast cancer doesn’t run in my family. I do yoga, eat well and take care of myself. I just had a beautiful baby five months ago. And yet I got breast cancer at 33. I never thought this could happen to me and had I not advocated so hard for myself, this would be a very different story. I saved my life and my hope is that in sharing this post you will please routinely self examine and advocate for yourselves and the women you love.
— Jess the Tit Cancer Ninja”
Within minutes of posting, women I didn’t even know were reaching out to me thanking me for bravely sharing my story and telling me they had not had their mammograms and were not self examining, but that they would.
Another half dozen women reached out, sharing similar stories about their recent diagnoses of breast cancer.
An editor from an online magazine asked me to write an essay that detailed my experience.
Friends I hadn’t spoken to since elementary school contacted me, expressing their sadness, but also their gratitude for my willingness to be so candid about my experience.
And then one morning last week I received this message:
May 27, 9:16 p.m.
Hope you are doing well. Words cannot express how grateful I am that you shared your story with the mommy’s group last month.
I am also a 32-year-old mom to a 7-month-old baby girl and 2 1/2- year-old son. Prior to reading your post and article I convinced myself that these new and strange bumps on the lower portion of my breast were nothing because just like you — I am healthy and 32 and just had a baby. Two weeks ago, with your story in mind I saw my OB to have them checked. She then referred me to get a mammogram, which I convinced myself was also just to be sure it was nothing, then I was told I needed an ultrasound, followed by a biopsy (which the doctor told me they were 99 percent sure it was not cancer) and then yesterday I got the results… it is cancer. DCIS with micro invasion. Today I saw a breast surgeon and was told I need a mastectomy.
I am completely terrified and angry and sad and I know you can relate but so grateful it is still stage 0-1 and if it were not for your story — I probably would not have such a hopeful prognosis. I am sure it was extremely difficult for you to share your story but please know you helped save my life.
You mentioned your incredible team in your article. If you wouldn’t mind sharing their info with me I would really appreciate it.
Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart, Jessica.
I read and reread her message, shocked and then saddened. I told Kyle. I told my Grandmother. I told Jules. Everyone was so excited. I had saved someone’s life! High five!
Yesterday, the author and I talked on the phone for over an hour. She wanted to know everything about my diagnosis, my doctors, the mastectomy, the reconstruction and chemo. Her cancer is very early stage, earlier than mine. It is in her right breast. It has just started to move, hence the designation “micro invasion,” whereas mine was straight-up invasive — meaning that shit was moving.
She is terrified and anxious and confused and overwhelmed and all of the things I was after receiving my diagnosis.
“You have every right to feel these things,” I said. “But I hope that you can find some peace knowing that my cancer was further along than yours and I had to wait for my mastectomy and every day I waited I worried the cancer was spreading, but it didn’t. It didn’t make it to my lymph nodes. Breast cancer, fortunately, is a slow-growing cancer and you found yours early. Let my story lighten the burden on your shoulders right now.”
“You saved my life,” she sobbed. “I had been ignoring these lumps, but I read your post and then I read your essay and I couldn’t stop thinking about you. So I went and finally did something about these lumps and it was cancer. All last week I kept thinking, ‘This woman saved my life. This woman saved my life.’ I can’t thank you enough. I don’t know how to thank you.”
I sat there numbly as she said this and then awkwardly told her she didn’t need to thank me and that I was here for her. We made plans to see each other next Monday when she goes to meet with a doctor and I am inevitably at the hospital because, well, I live there.
The rest of the day I kept thinking about her and her cancer and my role. Something was bothering me, but I couldn’t figure out what. Why should I be upset by a woman who credited me with saving her life? What was wrong with me?
As I lay awake last night, again unable to sleep, I kept hearing her. “You saved my life.”
Why didn’t I feel good? Why wasn’t I proud of myself? How many people ever tell you that you saved their life and actually mean it? And then it occurred to me — I saved one life, and that simply wasn’t good enough because it still didn’t justify my own cancer.
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All photos courtesy of Jessica Sliwerski