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The other day, a woman at Roswell’s education and outreach center loaned me a book called Show Me: A Photo Collection of Breast Cancer Survivors’ Lumpectomies, Mastectomies, Breast Reconstructions and Thoughts on Body Image. It took me a little while to work up the courage to peek inside, but when I did, I found it wasn’t that scary. The women in the book stood there, most with huge smiles, and revealed their scars. All were different. None looked anything like me. But they had all gone through some version of what I am going through, and come out the other side.

If I decide to get the mastectomy, I know exactly which woman I would use as my model. She had a double mastectomy, and she was the first one I turned to when I first opened the book. She looks like a teenage boy with two big scars. That’s not scary at all. I could easily live with that.

One woman in the book was only 21 when she was diagnosed, and she sticks in my mind for obvious reasons. Her cancer came back, then it was in her brain, and then she died. I think about this woman a lot.

My mom says that I have to take the book back. Put it out of your mind, she says. Let it go. I guess my parents and J don’t see the book the way I do. My mom seems to think it has bad vibes. But I see these women as sisters in arms, and having the book comforts me. I don’t personally know anybody who survived breast cancer. But somehow the Show Me book makes it okay.

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5 Misconceptions

1. In order to have a bone scan, you must be injected directly into your bones. Haha! Not true at all! In fact, they just inject you in a vein, like EVERYONE ELSE IN THAT BUILDING. Jeez, I had mixed feelings about the Mediport, but after my bloodwork and my CT scan and my bone scan and two MRIs, I can hardly wait. Anyway, bone scans are pretty neat – they inject you with radioactive dye and then use a machine that is not scary and claustrophobic to look at your bones. It’s quiet, too – actually bone scans are very restful, as these things go.

2. If the cancer is in your lymph nodes, you will automatically die. Nope! Although I am still praying that my lymph nodes are clear,  it’s not Game Over either way. In fact, nothing much about my treatment will change if it is in my lymph nodes, except that they will remove them when I have my other surgery after chemo. And speaking of that other surgery,

3. The chances of survival are much greater with a mastectomy than a lumpectomy. This is not true apparently, and I still have trouble wrapping my mind around it.  As long as you follow surgery with a course of radiation, you may as well get a lumpectomy as far as survival goes. Now, there are other considerations, like cosmetic result, size and location of tumor, and recurrence rates, but as far as survival goes the two are pretty much on a par.

4. If my cancer had been found earlier, it would not have gotten to stage 2. This is not how stages work. The stage refers to the aggressiveness of the tumor, not its size or extent of spread. My cancer grew during the time I was not being treated, but its stage was always stage 2. This, and no. 5, are a huge weight off my mind, actually.

5. Relatedly, Every aspect of my cancer treatment is urgent urgent urgent!!! According to Dr. Edge, if my cancer were going to spread it would have done so already. This is not necessarily great news, but it does releive me of some responsibility, and it means we can take our time and think through the decisions that need to be made. And for that, I am very grateful.

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No More Whining!

I must confess that I’ve been whining kind of a lot since I got my diagnosis. Actually, I think the whining may have started in earnest when my parents got to town. I was scared and I wanted to be taken care of, and I was using whining as a means to that end. I’m hungry. My arm hurts. I’m tired. I have cancer. I whine because I want to be fed cream of wheat, patted gently on the head, reassured, and brought cool beverages. I know it’s dumb but this was just my reaction.

Now we’re in Buffalo and my parents and sisters have returned to their normal routines. I am stuck in the house, which always makes me regress a little bit, and my whining has begun to try everyone’s patience. So as of last night, I am giving it a rest. I’m not an invalid; I can get my own juice. My arm feels much better today. It’s time to pull my socks up a bit and stop acting like a baby.

Because I’ve found that how I act has an enormous influence on how I feel.

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Good news probably!

To Roswell this morning for a sentinal lymph node biopsy. The place was almost empty when we got there, but by the time the nurse had taken me back to get my vitals I could see that the waiting room had filled up.

After I’d changed into my gown and J and my mom had come back to wish me luck, I was wheeled on a gurney through several hallways, and finally stuck in a dark corner. This was when I discovered that my gown plugged into an electric heater. I basked in the warmth while a series of people – nurses, anesthesiologists, nurse anesthesiologists – came and asked me questions and had me describe the procedure.

“They’ll knock me out,” I said, “and then they’ll inject me with a radioactive tracer. The doctor will use a Geiger counter or something to see whether the radiation has spread to my lymph nodes. Then he’ll take out three or four lymph nodes and biopsy them to see whether the cancer has spread.”

After that, things get a little fuzzy. I remember a nurse giving me some kind of sedative through the IV in my hand. I saw little bubbles in the IV tube and thought perhaps they would go into my blood and kill me, but I didn’t feel too concerned; I mentioned it to someone and she said it was fine. Then I tried to make myself feel afraid and couldn’t. This should have been scary, but obviously it wasn’t. I’ve always been apprehensive about anxiety medication, which is why I haven’t yet used any of the Xanax my oncologist in Bloomington gave me. I worried that if I were on it, I would be so anxious about its effect on my brain that my head would implode. It’s nice to know that this worry, like so many of my worries, was insane.

Eventually they wheeled me into a brightly lit room and put an oxygen mask over my face, and that is all she wrote. The next thing I knew I was back in the room I’d started in and the nurse was telling me that there was no cancer in my lymph nodes.

Before you bust out the champagne, I should mention that this is just a preliminary result: I think they have to do a more involved lab test or something. I don’t see how they could have had biopsy results so quickly. But it is certainly reason for cautious optimism.

I spent the rest of the day zonked out on codeine and watching How I Met Your Mother. My armpit is really sore – one of the cats decided, having taken no interest in me to date, that I would like my torso massaged and walked on. But the biopsy is over and tomorrow I have a day off from doctors, so that’s all good news as well.

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Ever since the diagnosis last week, I have been at pains to be kept stimulated and amused. My boyfriend, J, has been extremely helpful in this regard. The day after my initial diagnosis he drove an hour and 45 minutes each way to the Museum of Miniature Houses, six rooms of teeny tiny food and furniture and bedding and oh my goodness it was amazing. Every time I start freaking out I just visualize a 2 cm diameter soup tureen and feel much more serene.

Another thing that has brought me joy lately is walking my dad’s law partner’s dog, London. London is a very fair golden retreiver – she is almost white, and so so beautiful. Whenever I walk London people want to be my friend – yesterday in the park some guy started telling us everything we ever wanted to know about Vizslas, his breed of choice, and small children crowded up against her to pat her silky head. London is so friendly and gentle and beautiful that she is well worth sneezing for a few hours. I am already thinking about who I know in Bloomington who might let me walk their dog.

Yesterday J and I also went to a batting cage, which was fun although not, I think, a remarkably efficient use of $10. I hadn’t hit a ball in years though, so I had fun and I got a couple of okay hits. J is trying to practice hitting left-handed because those are the rules on his softball team, and he did very well.

Lots of other things have given me joy lately: old episodes of How I Met Your Mother, harmonizing on “Birdhouse in Your Soul” in the car, our wonderful Easter picnic. In fact I think I have crammed an unusual amount of joy into the last week since I found out I have cancer, and I hope this will continue to be the case.

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Hi. Do me a favor, go examine your breasts. Yes, even if you’re under 40 – I am 23 and I was diagnosed last week. Yes, even if you have no family history of breast cancer – I don’t either. Yes, even if you’re a dude – men get breast cancer too. Just go do this thing for me. I’ll wait.

Did you find anything? I hope not, but if you did, go to the doctor and make him or her give you a breast exam. Maybe they will tell you it is just a cyst. If this happens, you do not get to let the matter slip from your mind and start thinking about cupcakes instead. You need to keep an eye on your situation in case there are any changes, and you need to follow up.

It’s been over a week since I received my initial diagnosis, and most of the news since then has been good. I have stage 2 invading ductal breast cancer, the most common kind. I am starting chemo in a week or two, and after chemo I’ll have surgery (don’t know yet what kind) and then probably a little radiation, just for good measure.

People keep asking me if I have questions. I already asked the only one that really matters – am I going to die – and the answer was no. Then I asked a bunch of questions that don’t matter. Then I ran out of questions, but still they keep asking me. So the other day when someone at the hospital asked me whether I had any questions about radiation therapy, I asked with a perfectly straight face, “Approximately what percent of patients develop super powers as a result of this treatment?”

The nurse smiled faintly – a very cancer-hospital type of smile – and said she couldn’t make any guarantees. My father said, “I’m afraid, honey, that we’ve already discovered your genetic mutation.” I am Cancer Lass! with the proportional cancer of a much older woman!

Anyway. I have no doctor appointments, MRIs, PET scans, bloodwork, biopsies, or Irish dance classes scheduled for today, so I’m going to go romp in the sunshine. You should too.

Put on some sunscreen.

And examine your damn breasts.

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