I had good genes, or so I thought. It was something I always relied upon. In my giant extended family, cancer was conspicuously missing. Longevity was in my bloodlines, that of my parents and my grandparents. While I feared a great many things (autism, SIDS, car accidents, and the over-achiever’s classic: FAILURE), breast cancer was never one of them.
Then, one day, it was me… sucker punched by the “Big C.” And, it was not just breast cancer, but advanced, locally metastatic disease. How did this happen? Where did this come from? How the hell could I manage my hectic, carefully constructed life when someone just pulled the stabilizing Jenga piece out from under me? I was a pediatric ENT surgeon, wife, mother of two toddlers and had an infant recently released from the neonatal intensive care. Where in this mess was there room for me to be ill? The most difficult addition to my situation was that my beloved, otherwise healthy, wonderful father, had just been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, just two weeks prior. My family needed me to be my father’s doctor-daughter, but who would be mine?
Ultimately, we all rise to the occasion. There is no choice. The life around us continues, the needs of our family and our will to live pulls us forward like the tide.
Once I started down the long path of surgery and chemo and radiation, I started noticing that being a knowledgeable doctor did not spare me from the physical, emotional and psychological challenges. Rather than ignoring them, I began to pay attention. There were certain annoying details and steps that no one ever talked about. “Do armpits really change after lymph node dissection?” I wondered aloud in the shower. Well, if they did, no one ever discussed it with me.
Some moments were just ridiculous. Did I really have to crash the Housing Department Christmas party looking all “cancer-patient-y” just to get the site plans approved for my house?
The answer to both the questions above was, “yes.” But, these are the things no one ever tells you about breast cancer.
So, I wrote things down. I lugged my computer everywhere, black and grey strap dangling from my right, non-radiated, non-dissected shoulder. I began to recognize and record all the funny, ironic and informative stories within the framework of my big sad tale. It was cathartic, gave me an outlet and sometimes even amusing. And, when it was all over, I mean the life-altering myriad of treatments and reconstructive steps, I spent another year intensively documenting the rest. That is how “Hell and Back: Wife and Mother, Doctor and Patient, Dragon Slayer” evolved. I wanted to create a comprehensive, easily readable, relatable account to guide others. Kind of “A Girlfriends Guide to Divorce” for breast cancer. Not just for the patients, but for their friends and families, or for anyone slapped in the face by the adversity of this kind of disease. It was a labor of love and a laying on the line of my personal privacy in exchange for something greater. I also wanted the oncologists and surgeons taking care of patients like me to hear about it from the perspective of the doctor-patient because I believe that it would only enhance their quality of care.
Almost as soon as radiation began, I resumed my hectic life. I thrived on caring for my patients, allaying their fears and fixing their problems. Post-cancer, I did not change my life-course so overtly. However, that is not to say that I did not change. I did. Internally, I incorporated the lessons that I learned from facing my mortality at a young age (and persistently carrying it in the back ground). For me, it’s about all mindfulness in the little details of life that I may have once overlooked. This is my bucket list, until such time that my reality changes…