This looks like cancer,” the radiologist told me as the ultrasound technician stood over me, cold gel at the end of the wand pressing on my right breast. I suddenly felt like covering up, as if I could pull a sheet over myself and make the malignant cells disappear. The technician gave me that “I’m so sorry” look, and all I could blurt out was, “What else could it be?” Cancer wasn’t supposed to happen in my life.
No one on my side of the family had ever had any type of cancer, which is probably an anomaly in itself; all of my grandparents and great-grandparents had lived into their eighties or nineties (or are still alive). People don’t die in my family so much as wear out sometime around their ninetieth birthday.
I didn’t know the first thing about coping with a breast cancer diagnosis at the age of thirty-two. My head was spinning. I had recently become a first-time mom, so my head was spinning from that, too. The day I was diagnosed, I’d had to call my husband to make sure we had enough breast milk in the fridge to tide our son over until I could get home; my appointment was taking longer than I expected and they wanted to send me to radiology for additional tests. Even as I sat in the waiting room, watching Dr. Oz and surrounded by pamphlets on breast cancer, I didn’t suspect what was coming.
As I drove home from the radiologist’s office that August afternoon, I felt guilty about having to tell my husband, who had lost his dad to pancreatic cancer less than two years earlier. I worried that I’d already passed the cancer on to my son. After all, I’d been nursing him for five months out of what I now thought of as a rotten, cancer-filled breast. My doctors told me not to worry, as if that were possible. I worried I was going to die and leave my little family, but then I thought: It’s breast cancer. People beat this all the time. I didn’t know the first thing about it.
My husband — a scientist and professor — and I began reading everything we could. We learned that the average age of a breast cancer diagnosis is 61. We learned that, while rare, when cancer does strike young women, the survival rate is high. I figured: I’m healthy, so I’ve already got a leg up. I figured — naively — that the one percent or so who didn’t make it must have other, underlying health issues. Maybe they didn’t tolerate chemo, or were obese, or smokers. I was trying, desperately, to make sense of something frighteningly random.
I’d done yoga until I was seven-and-a-half months pregnant. I’d run two marathons. I graduated from Johns Hopkins University and law school. I’d passed the bar and planned a wedding and moved across country all in the same summer. Cancer has nothing on me, I thought, as if it were a matter of will or endurance.
Because my tumor was about the size of a walnut and as aggressive as they come, my doctors ordered a slew of follow-up scans and tests those first couple of weeks. My breast surgeon was the one who called with the results. She told me as gently as she could that there were spots in my lungs, my spleen, my chest wall, and an area outside my liver called my periportal region. I wasn’t sure whether to cry or vomit. My mind was buzzing, and everything started to get dark around me as if I might lose consciousness. I wasn’t able to process any of what she was saying, so I passed the phone to my husband and asked my doctor to repeat everything to him.
I had a five-month-old son and Stage IV breast cancer. As I write this, I am on my third course of chemo, a relatively new drug that specifically targets my cancer cells while leaving the rest of my body relatively unscathed. I get to keep my hair this time. And luckily, it appears to be working.
In the four-and-a-half years since my diagnosis, I have been bald twice, lost both my breasts and my fertility, and have had reconstruction surgery and five weeks of daily radiation. My nipples have been replaced by scars, and I don’t know if my eyebrows will ever recover the fullness they once had. I have gotten down to no evidence of disease (NED, in cancer-speak) with every chemo, but hotspots have cropped back up as soon as chemo ends. I have scans every four months to check the status of my cancer. I worry about the day my may drugs stop working.