One Year Cancer-Free Might Not Be Me
I’m standing in the bathroom, my silky purple bra and cotton grey T-shirt are lying in a crumpled heap on the bath mat as I stare at my naked breasts in the mirror. It’s only a mid-size circular mirror, not full length, so I can’t see the rest of my body.
Probably a good thing.
My body and I aren’t exactly best friends right now. Ever since I started taking last year I’ve been gaining weight. I think I’m up 17, maybe 20 pounds. I hate it. And then there are the hot flashes. The meds pushed me straight into menopause, so half the time I look fat, red and sweaty and 100 percent of the time I just look plain fat.
It’s cruel you know. The things breast cancer has done to my body and how it continues to f*!k with my mind and self-esteem, twisting it around and around so that it’s good and tight, knotted with tension. Reminds me of the long cord that used to dangle from the orange phone that hung on the wall in my parent’s kitchen. Growing up, I’d talk on it for hours, my feet tucked beneath me as I sat hunched on the kitchen chair. When I was done, I’d let the phone’s receiver and it’s cord drop to the linoleum floor so that I could ease all of the twists and kinks from it before hanging it back onto the wall where it’s cord would begin curling into a lump, again. That’s how I feel.
Twisted. Knotted. Dangling.
My One-year MRI
Last week, I had my one-year, follow-up, MRI appointment. It was supposed to end with my oncologist congratulating me on being one-year cancer-free. Except that it didn’t. Instead, four days ago I had an ultrasound and biopsy on the mass and lymph node the MRI showed growing in my right breast. Twice they stuck a long needle into the same right breast that’s located next to the same right armpit where I found the original breast cancer lump. I didn’t cry. I didn’t pray either. I just closed my eyes and breathed each time they pulled a tiny clump of tissue out and plopped it into the medical container to be labelled and tested.
Yesterday, I found out the tests weren’t enough and I need to go back to the hospital and have an MRI biopsy for better accuracy. It’s why I’m staring at my boobs in the mirror. The nipple on my right side still looks like it’s wearing blue eye shadow, thanks to the blue sentinel dye that was injected into my body to light up my lymph nodes before I had surgery last year. It’s faded over the months but it’s still there. I can also see the five tiny scar marks from last year’s biopsies, four black freckle-like tattoos that were inked into my body to point the radiologists in the right direction for treatment, one permanently scorched patch of skin from the radiation and, of course, the scar that cuts across my underarm and into the side of my breast. Now, I have two more small markings that will eventually turn into permanent scars. Next week I’ll have even more.
But I don’t care about the wounds. I’m actually proud of them. They’re proof that I’m strong, scrappy and that I don’t give up. I’m staring because I want to remember what my breasts look like right now, in this moment. I don’t know what my oncologist will tell me after I have this next biopsy and as much as I’m thinking that everything will be all right, I’m also thinking I’m going to be diagnosed with cancer again.
I’m trying not to let my mind run wild with worst-case scenarios, but come on. Of course, I’ve Googled breast cancer and the odds second time around. Of course, I’ve self-diagnosed and think I’m going to need a mastectomy. Of course, I’m concerned about going through radiation, the exhaustion, nausea and brain fog, again. Of course, I’m worried about being sick from chemotherapy and losing my health, my hair, my life and my dignity. Of course, I’m thinking about how flat the back of my head is and that I’ll probably never be asked out on another date, ever. Of course, I’m debating doing microblading on my eyebrows, like right now before it’s too late and I don’t have any hairs left to base the arches on. And yes, I know. Some of this sounds vain. So what? I’m vain. Who cares?
I’m also thinking about the tests I have to do, need to do. Along with the actual surgery, they’re the one aspect of cancer I never obsess over. I want the tests. In the beginning, before the first time I was diagnosed, I had to fight to have a mammogram. My GP backed me, so I got an appointment at a breast cancer clinic downtown. She’s amazing, my GP. We’re close in age, neither one of us old enough to have breast cancer and both of us too young to qualify for an annual mammogram. But having that initial mammogram which detects dense breast tissue was like a VIP all-access pass, pushing me to the front of the line for an ultrasound, which then displayed that like 43 percent of all Canadian women over the age of 40 (according to Dense Breasts Canada), I have dense boobs, making screening more challenging. What the doctors couldn’t see in the mammogram, they saw clearly in the ultrasound and MRI exam that followed, proving that the original lump I’d been feeling under my armpit for six months wasn’t supposed to be there, that I had cancer and my concerns were warranted.
The Power of One
I’m not a delicate flower. I can handle the testing and the diagnosis and if it comes down to it, the treatments too. I will always, every day, choose knowing over not knowing, action versus limbo and options over ignorant bliss. I’m young-ish and single and if I don’t look out for myself, no one else will. I may not have my person standing next to me, but it’s okay because I have proved to myself that I am capable of doing the research, learning the facts, asking questions despite being potentially branded as “difficult” and making smart decisions. I can do it. I’ve got the war wounds to prove it.
I just took a picture of my boobs. Well, the reflection of my boobs in the mirror, that is. I’m thinking of putting it on my fridge. Maybe that’s a bit aggressive. I haven’t decided yet. Either way, I still have both of them and I’m going to hang on to this memory of me looking in the mirror and my picture for as long as I can. – Adriana Ermter