I’m Still the Tooth Fairy
February 6, 2023
On the hardest day of my September ‘22 Stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis, my middle son Ryan lost a tooth.
Not just any tooth.
His first tooth.
On this day at the beginning of my journey — when my identity as a person who genuinely loved getting up and going to work each day was gone…
when my identity as a woman was eroding, with my female organs shut off, and plans to remove other parts were underway…
and when my identity as a mother and wife who would live to see graduations and weddings and grandkids was in question, as we danced the dreadful discussion of “treatable” vs. “curable”…
We still had magic.
I was still the Tooth Fairy. 🧚🏻
Ryan lost his first tooth on the day I got my bone and organ scans to discover if the cancer had spread beyond my lymph nodes. Finding this out would determine if my treatment plan would focus on curing me, or comfortably prolonging my life.
Getting the kids off to school that morning felt like we were characters in a play, acting out the mundane daily ritual of an off to school routine, with a dramatic undertone of life or death. The questions firing through my subconscious were gut wrenching, while I simultaneously carried on with the flurry of things you do to get kids out the door…
“Do you have your lunch box?” (When you get back home today, will you have a clinically dying mother? )
“Is your water bottle full?” (If I’m not here this time next year, will Dad remember to ask you that?)
There’s not a lot of description required to imagine how terrifying a day like this is. Every step you take feels like ripping off a bandaid.
We have to get dressed.
We have to drive to the hospital.
We have to get out of the car.
We have to check in.
Now…we have to wait.
I’d typically describe myself as “all fight” if you had to pick your personality in “Fight or Flight.” However, on this day, at every step, all I wanted to do was run.
“This is so not like me — who am I right now?,” I kept asking. It’s funny how fear steals a piece of your identity too.
We had the scans, and were told it would take a few hours to get a call with results.
Fresh air is your best friend while stewing in blood boiling fear, so we walked down the hill from the hospital to sit on a bench at a soccer field (one I’d played on dozens of times as a kid)… and we waited.
Dark humor is also your best friend. While we sat, we joked, “How funny would it be if someone asked ‘Hey! How are you today?’ What would you say!?” I also used the opportunity to make a strong yet unsuccessful pitch for why we needed a puppy. We passed the time daydreaming dog names…
“ALL CLEAR, bone and organ.”
I jumped up in the air.
I told my husband to buy a bottle of champagne. I called our friends and family with the same elation and exuberance I had for the birth of our kids.
My excitement however, was unmatched.
“Ok — but, it’s still, like, really bad though right?”
They weren’t wrong.
Even though I was spared the transition to Stage 4, I was still at mile marker 0 of what would be an ultra marathon of hell with an aggressive invasive cancer. 12 weeks of weekly chemo, 12 months of targeted intravenous immunotherapy, a double mastectomy and lymphadenectomy, daily radiation, reconstruction, and 10 years of meds to keep this boob eating beast out of my body for good.
“Yea, but I’m NOT going to die,” was, and continues to be my response, and my mindset.
We arrived home to family who had been watching our kids …
“Ryan has some news for you!”
“I LOST MY TOOTH AT SCHOOL!”
In that moment, the horrors of that day drifted out through the door as we opened it, dissolving and disappearing into the universe, and in that moment, magic and innocence was restored in our home.
We circled ‘round the tiny tooth, safely in its Ziplock snack bag, listening to Ryan proudly recount the heroic events leading up to the tooth’s loss. The pain, the blood, and finally, the extraction. It was a welcomed distraction from having to recount any details of our day.
“And you know what that means!” he concluded. “The Tooth Fairy comes tonight!”
My Tooth Fairy tradition is to spray paint a dollar bill with gold glitter and tie it with a curly ribbon. In Tooth Fairy night’s past — this wasn’t an activity I was always thrilled to execute. The Tooth Fairy would sometimes wake up in a cold sweat at 2 A.M., yell “SHIT!”, and head to the basement to sleepily and begrudgingly spray paint a dollar bill in the dark, while wearing a bathrobe.
But this time, I’d never been more excited to spray paint a dollar.
With everything ahead of me, and one of my hardest days behind me — I would be here to do this for the rest of their childhood.
I was still the Tooth Fairy.
Months into this journey, I had a rough week of chemo that landed me in the ER, followed by a full day in bed. I missed the morning routine of getting the kids off to school, and in the wallowing that occurs when forced to spend the day in bed, I missed my life before cancer.
I missed my identity.
I missed getting up and going to work.
I missed feeling like myself.
I missed my previous energy and feeling of purpose that was now being gradually drained from me with each weekly chemo infusion.
“Ryan has some news for you!” my husband yelled when the kids got home. His words gave me a burst of energy, and I ran down the stairs.
And there he was — with a new window in his bottom row of tiny teeth. Ryan lost his second tooth. On such a downer of a day — we had magic again.
I’m about 25% of the way through the ultramarathon. There will be more bad days, and many more unknowns ahead.
Fortunately, my kids are 8, 6 and 3 — which also means there are many more teeth to be lost. As I continue on with this fight, and experience days when I feel far from the me I know I will once again be… I know I can, and will still be the Tooth Fairy.
And no, I don’t have a puppy… yet. But I’m sure with my “all fight” and my magic, that day will come too. 😉 🧚🏻 — Julie
A note from Julie:
“The story here too which I hope comes through for awareness is that I am a SUPER active and otherwise healthy person. I’m 37, I had a mammogram at 35, I don’t have a family history of breast cancer, I’m in shape, I breastfed 3 kids, I’m a healthy eater. I found a TINY bump (not a lump) putting on my bathing suit Labor Day weekend. Because of everything listed above, I had to advocate to be seen quickly. When I was seen, I was told, ‘we’re sure it’s absolutely nothing’ which translated into zero urgency or priority for scheduling a mammogram or biopsy. I again had to push and follow up to get those scheduled quickly. Advocating for myself will be what saves my life!”
Julie’s piece was originally self-published on Medium, and has been republished and featured here with permission.