I wake up at 2 a.m. again, the butterfly thugs smashing inside me, my whole body convulsing with shivers. What is this? I’m trying to sleep here, trying to drift off and fucking forget for a few hours, and my brain hates me. It wants me to suffer.
I finally get back to sleep, but I’m up again at 7 a.m. I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, the wall, Kevin’s form under the blanket. I think about how I don’t want to die. I think about how my life doesn’t feel like my life anymore.
It occurs to me that I’m having panic attacks.
I always thought panic attacks were accompanied by a rapid heartbeat and maybe some kind of fight or flight reaction. And I thought they were triggered by something, not just waking up. But this has got to be what these are. Friday and Saturday were one long panic attack, but on Sunday, I had a few brief moments where I wasn’t crying, where I wasn’t curled up in bed. Then they would start, and I couldn’t do anything but freeze up and run to my room.
I get out of bed. I go downstairs. I start cleaning up the kitchen.
God will get me through this, but God also made the dude who invented panic attack medication.
My doctor’s office opens at 9 a.m., so I spend the time waiting for everyone to wake up by putting away dishes, scraping the food from last night’s meal in the trash, and clearing off the table.
The house is a mess, and I am grateful that I actually care. It feels like nothing will ever be the same, but at least, for one brief moment, I am thinking about something normal.
Once everyone is up and the morning is under control, I drive to my doctor. I riffle through my wallet until I find the hated piece of paper, the one that says I am going to die. I walk in and say to the nurse who’s at the front because the receptionist isn’t there yet, “I need to see Dr. Daria.”
“Dr. Nowak?” She raises a disapproving eyebrow at me, which isn’t exactly like her, so I find it almost comical, like someone scripted this exchange.
“Yes.” I hand her my piece of paper.
She reads it. “Did someone explain this to you?”
“I’m going to take a copy of this. Have a seat.”
My phone dings. It is a message from friend I met when I was pregnant with Morrigan. Meghan’s text reads, So sorry to hear your news. If you want to chat about it, I’m here for you. Oncology is my research specialty if you have any questions.
All the questions. Mainly: Am I going to die?
I send her a picture of the paper.
She says, The good news is that the cells are HER2 positive. That means they have something to target if you require targeted therapy down the line. She goes on to explain about the three markers of breast cancer, and how the more markers I have, the easier it is to treat. We are VERY good at treating breast cancer. It’s the best type of success rates even at high grades.
Relief floods through me. This is the information I was too scared to google. I didn’t want to hear the bad. I need to hear the good. But google does not differentiate.
It’s going to be a tough road from here, I’m not going to lie. It all depends on the extent of the spread and how well it responds. Expect to start chemo and radiation soon.
I’ll start it soon. I’ll start it fucking now. I don’t want to wait. The longer we wait, the more likely…
It’s also amazing you don’t have more pain – bone mets tends to be very painful.
I scratch my head over this. I’m taking Tylenol-3 and prescription ibuprofen three times a day. Sometimes I skip it in the morning. How is this possible? How did I not notice until it had spread across five of my teeth? Yes, I was on pain meds from breaking my tailbone in labor, but still.
None of this makes any fucking sense.
She tells me about some of the experimental treatments. I will do all the experimental treatments. I want the autocorrecting one she talks about, where if a tumor pops up, my new bionic woman constitution kicks its ass without anything else.
Yep, two of those, please.
For the first time in three days, I think, Maybe I’m not going to die.
The nurse comes to get me. “Dr. Nowak will see you now.” She puts me in a room. I fidget. I text with Meghan a little more.
When the door opens, Daria bursts in, I leap up, and we hug. I’ve never hugged a doctor before—how weird is that? It’s not, though, and I’m crying again. So much crying. I am tired of crying, but what else am I supposed to do right now?
“I’m sending you for a mammogram right now,” she says. “The first thing to do is find the source. Then they will put together a treatment plan. We’ll put you through the Rapid Breast Clinic at Princess Margaret. Your oral surgeon referred you through the head and neck division, but it’s breast cancer.”
“OK,” I say. Refer me through eighteen places. I don’t care. Get me to see someone. Get me the treatment. “I need something for panic attacks.”
“Yes, of course.” She gets a prescription for Ativan queued up, gives me instructions, tells me I can test out if I like it or not, and we can go from there. “Before you go for the mammogram, I’m going to do an exam.”
When I was in my twenties, I used to do breast exams. I kept feeling lumps—more than one, every time. My breasts are large (34/36 I/J is my bra size, depending on the brand), which I guess plays into it. I showed my doctor at the time, and he said, “You have fibrous breasts.”
“OK, but what does a breast cancer lump feel like? What am I looking for?”
“Well, it will be more lumpy.”
I stopped doing breast exams years ago. What was the point? Every month, I would feel lumps. I certainly couldn’t go into my doctor every month telling him I was feeling lumps.
I tell Daria this.
“Yes,” she says. “You do have fibrous breasts.” She feels around in a circular motion, first the left, then the right. “I don’t feel anything.”
I am both relieved and heartbroken. If I could have felt a lump and caught it early, I would hate myself now. But because I couldn’t have, what was I supposed to do?
Apparently wait until it metastasized, grew a tumor in my jaw, and hurt bad enough that I went to the dentist with a toothache.
That’s not the right fucking answer, ok? That shouldn’t be the answer.
The mammogram lady is a cartoon-like woman who is firm in her instructions but apologetic as to what she’s got to do. There’s a goofy poem on the wall about getting one’s boobs smashed. “It might hurt,” she says, “although I get more complaints with woman with small breasts.”
I nod and say nothing. First of all, I’ve given birth. Nothing can hurt as bad as the invasive pelvic manipulations required to induce labor, never mind labor itself. Second of all, I have breast cancer. Fucking find it and get it out.
I get sent for an ultrasound. The technician does it, and then the director of something-or-other does it. Radiology? The lab? I don’t know. When she’s done, she tells me they found two lumps that look like cancer.
I am the first person in the history of the world to be relieved by this news.
They found it. They found it, and they can nuke the shit out of it now.
The lumps are way in the back of my left breast, buried almost against my ribcage. The only possible symptom I had was my left breast—and only my left breast—got itchy a lot while I was carrying the twins.
But that’s a normal pregnancy symptom. I would be a hypochondriac if I went to my doctor insisting it was breast cancer. It didn’t even occur to me it was breast cancer, only that lotion didn’t seem to relieve it. But that still doesn’t mean it was a symptom. It could have just been hormones.
I need a biopsy to confirm that it’s the primary site. They schedule one. I tell Daria’s receptionist what happened. She says she’ll relay it. I leave.
The night I received my diagnosis, my husband put on his jacket to go outside and smoke. He said, “Well, it’s what I’ve always figured. Doesn’t matter what you do. If you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it.”
Bile rose in my throat. I bit back my response. Don’t you fucking EVER use MY CANCER as a justification for your VILE HABIT. Instead, I said, “I don’t want to talk about this right now,” and walked away.
After my visit to the doctor, I round the corner of the building outside and nearly run into a woman who is smoking a cigarette. She’s younger than me, maybe late twenties, and she looks guilty for puffing away right outside a health facility.
As the smoke hits my nostrils, it’s like running to a red wall of fury. I am overcome with hatred for this woman.
I march up to her, snatch the cigarette out of her fingers, and fling it into the parking lot. Stunned, she reels back. I advance on her.
“How fucking dare you!” I scream. “Look at my face. Look at my face. I have cancer, and do you know what I did to deserve it? Nothing. I have smoked perhaps two cigarettes in my life. I didn’t do drugs. I took care of my health. I ate fresh fruits and vegetables. I went to all my check-ups. And here you are, flaunting your cancer-free lungs here in the parking lot. All I want to do is live to see my children grow up, you monstrous thunder cunt, and you’re rubbing my face in it.”
As I storm off, I shout over my shoulder, “A pox upon your household!”
Weeping, she apologizes, shouting after me that she’s sorry, that she’ll never smoke a cigarette again in her life, but I hurry away, ignoring her revelation. It’s her moment. Not mine.
That does not actually happen.
I am not that changed of a woman.
Instead, I grit my teeth, hold my breath, and hurry past her.