March 5th. 2012
One of those dates that will stick with me forever.
On March 5th of 2012, I made my way early in the morning to the 10th floor of NYU. I signed all the papers with my husband by my side. I shook. I prayed. I was terrified. But, I had strong resolve, and there was no turning back.
Several months prior, my daughter, and then I had been diagnosed with the PTEN mutation that causes Cowden’s Syndrome. This mutation is responsible for increased tumor growth, both benign and malignant. It causes polyps, hamartomas, vascular malformations, and a whole bunch of other messy things. After our diagnoses, we began aggressive and age-appropriate screening.
Meghan was 8. I was 38.
They started with her thyroid. And immediately found issues.
At exactly the same time I was being sent through screening for the highest risk in my age group. Breast cancer.
I already had a mom- a 15 year survivor of bilateral beast cancer. (She does not have the PTEN mutation.) I had already had several surgical breast biopsies through the years, with increasingly foreboding pathology. But, I could not have been prepared for the surgeon I met in NYU Clinical Cancer Center in January of 2012. She introduced herself to me, having already torn through my previously received medical record, and said we should set a date. When I asked for what, she said quite simply, “For your prophylactic bilateral mastectomy.”
A little stunned, I caught my breath and asked why? “It’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN you’ll get cancer,” she said very definitively. “We need to get at it first.”
She sent me to her scheduler, who coordinated with the plastic surgeon. The date they came up with was March 5th. I asked why I couldn’t wait until the summer, and I was told that she thought that would be a huge mistake.
I called my husband, shaking. “Do what they say,” he calmly asserted.
So I left that January day with a script for a bilateral breast MRI – just to make sure there was no cancer- and a surgical date.
The MRI was negative. I am still amazed by that. Five weeks prior to the surgery there was NO FINDING on the MRI.
I met with the plastic surgeon, and much to her chagrin, I opted for immediate reconstruction, deciding to forgo the preferred method of tissue expanders. She reminded me that the results would be “imperfect.” I knew I could not delay my recovery by months. I had a daughter, a family, and a job to return to.
The surgery was uneventful.
I vomited repeatedly as I left the house that morning. I cried as I walked into the OR. My surgeon called me “brave.” I woke up with a strange feeling of empowerment.
I left the hospital 28 hours later. There were drains and wrappings, but there were things to do. I met on the refinance of our mortgage and managed parent teacher conferences with my daughter’s third grade teacher all before the drains were removed.
The day we went to have the drains removed, for whatever reason both Meghan and Felix were there. The plastic surgeon was the first to mention how lucky we were we caught “it” early. I was confused. She said, “The cancer. It was very early and far away from your chest wall.”
There was silence in the room as we all processed the word “cancer.”
She realized then she was the first to share the news. Our next stop was the surgeon. I pored over the pathology report and kept getting stuck.
I went from being a woman “getting ahead of things” with a “prophylactic bilateral mastectomy” to a “cancer survivor” in a moment.
I was told had I pushed the surgery to the summer, I would have been in a “fight for my life.”
I’ll always know I am more fortunate than any of the women who needed, chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments to keep their cancer at bay. I have not traveled the road as they did. I will forever admire them. But, we are kindred spirits living with the daily knowledge that cancer cells once lived inside of us. That is a feeling, and knowledge that can not be explained. You either know it, or you don’t.
My implants lasted less than 5 years. The life expectancy is 15. This past summer they were replaced. Scarring was severe on the right side, and the scars needed to be broken up. A new pair replaced the old. Nothing flashy. Quick surgery, quick recovery. No big deal. Just a reminder of the reality that will follow me forever.
Today I celebrate that reality.
5 years officially Cancer-free.
Five years – and by the grace of God, countless more to go.
Five years- the first of many with sag-less silicone, size small shirts, and the ability to go bra-less without being noticed.
I celebrate my Mom – 20 years a survivor this year – my role model. My motivation.
I celebrate inside my own quiet- unable to speak as my voice heals. I celebrate even through miles of survivors guilt. I celebrate despite my broken heart as so many around me are taken by cancer. I celebrate because that is what they would want most.
Once you’ve been there. Lived it. Watched it. Seen it. You get a deeper sense of how precious life is. And you celebrate what you have each day. It’s not easy. Life can be messy. But, we do our best.
I celebrate to honor those who’ve been taken, those who work so hard every day to smile through, and for those whose diagnoses are yet to come.
Every day is a gift. As my friends at #stupidcancer would say – Get Busy Living!