On August 27, 2015, the radiologist called at 3:40. I’d been to my OBGYN on August 18th to have her check a lump I could feel in my left breast. Truth be told, I felt the lump months before…maybe as far as back February, but I ignored it. I knew the statistics and the information out on the internet. At my age, 37, 1 in 200 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. The internet assured me most breast lumps turn out to be benign. I even found information about caffeine leading to breast lumps, and I drank a lot (A LOT) of caffeine, so it could be the caffeine.
My OBGYN did a clinical breast exam and said she felt something but it didn’t really feel like lumps that turned out bad, but because it was there, she wanted a baseline mammogram and ultrasound done. As soon as she said that, something in me knew this was not going to turn out well. I wanted to believe her, and my husband, A, did research. He did his best to make me believe it would be a cyst.
I started a new job on August 11th, and after my appointment on the 18th, I walked into my principal’s office and told her. She, and the rest of the administration once they found out, have been nothing short of incredible. Supportive. Caring. I cried when I told her I was being tested. She sat and held my hand. Then, she told me that no matter what the tests found, we were going to get through it, I was not letting her down with something out of my control, and we would cross whatever bridge we had to when we came to it.
We came to that bridge on August 20th. I had mammograms. I had ultrasounds. There were two tumors in my left breast and one in the right. I returned on August 25th for biopsies of the left breast because, as the radiologist put it, “I’m 70% certain the larger one is going to be IDC. The other looks like a fibroadenoma.”
Biopsies done. The results would be in on August 27th.
I was a nervous wreck all day. I went to work and taught my classes because I needed to be normal. I needed a distraction. I love my job and wanted to be doing something I love. I waited for my phone to ring. I told my students it was likely my phone would ring. But, it didn’t ring until 3:40 when I was at home, waiting for our 7 year old son’s bus. And, as soon as I answered, I knew. The radiologist asked me if it was possible to get my husband on a conference call. My heart raced. I said yes. I called his cell. He didn’t answer. I called his cell again. He didn’t answer. I called again. And again. And ten more times. He didn’t answer. The radiologist gave me her cell phone number and told me to call her back as soon as I had him on the line. I called my husband’s office manger. No answer. I called his cell again. He finally answered, apologizing. His phone was on silent. He didn’t feel it buzzing. It was in his pocket. I told him the radiologist wanted to talk to both of us. He knew. I knew.
I called her back.
“I have some good news and not so good news. The little place? It’s a fibroadenoma. The larger place? I’m sorry. It’s invasive ductal carcinoma. Grade 2. You have breast cancer.”
My son’s bus pulled up right as she uttered those four words that changed my life. I remember telling her I needed her to stop talking for a moment so I could get my 7 year old off the bus and into the house. I remember her apologizing that we were having this conversation right as my son came home. I remember walking my son into the house and telling him to get a snack and go to his room. I remember walking back outside and sliding down the closed garage door and sitting on the hot concrete. I remember my husband asking for answers. What is Grade 2? What subtype is it? What do we do now? I remember silently sobbing. I remember the radiologist asking me if I had any other questions. I remember asking “What do I do now?” I remember the answer: find an oncologist immediately. I remember her telling us to call her if we had more questions. I remember her leaving the call. I remember begging my husband to come home. Just come home. Please come home. And, I remember asking him to text his parents to come over because I needed them there for our children. And, I needed them there for me.
He made arrangements to come home. I called a friend and former coworker who is a breast cancer survivor and knew I was undergoing testing. As soon as she answered, I sobbed those four words, “I have breast cancer.” I don’t remember what she said. As she talked, I sent a text to my mother telling her to come to my house immediately. I don’t send texts like that. My mother knew something was drastically wrong. She was at my house in less than seven minutes…the perk of living ten minutes from me if there’s traffic and she hits both lights between my house and hers. I remember asking my friend, as I waited for my mom, “Why me? What did I do?” And, I remember her reply: “Why me? Why any of us?”
I told her my mother had just pulled up to my house. We hung up, and my mother walked up the driveway to where I sat at the garage door. As she walked, she asked, “What’s wrong? What is it?” I asked her to sit down, but she refused and kept asking me what was wrong. Then, my in laws pulled up, and my mother knew something was truly wrong. She asked, “Why are they here? What IS going on?” I couldn’t stop crying, but I managed to get the words out. “I have breast cancer.”
My mom had no idea I was being tested. I didn’t tell her. I didn’t want to worry her. Throughout the end of 2013 and most of 2014, my mother fought a grueling battle with Stage 2 colon cancer. She had five surgeries, 12 rounds of chemo before surgery to remove the tumor, and another 6 or 8 rounds after surgery. She had complications from every surgery. She’d spent weeks in the hospital. So, I didn’t tell her. My in laws knew, but only because after the ultrasound when the radiologist told me she was 70% sure I had cancer, I couldn’t go back to work. I was hysterical. So, I went to the nearest relative’s house: my in-law’s house. My mother in law was home that afternoon, and I sat on the couch with her, sobbing, and told her everything. She’s a stoic, New York Italian. She told me I wasn’t going to be alone in this and the whole family would face it together if it turned out to be cancer.
I couldn’t answer my mother’s questions that came after I told her. When did this happen? When did I go to the doctor? What tests had they done?My mother in law answered as best she could while my father in law went in the house to be with my son.
My mother sat down beside me and told me to stop crying and talk to her. My mother in law went in the house to get a cloth for my face. Slowly, with gulps and sighs and hiccups and tears, I told my mother everything. I told her the doctor who’d called me told me I needed to find an oncologist and hadn’t given me any suggestions, but I knew who a family friend and several coworkers had used. As soon as I said Dr. O’s name, my mother recognized it because Dr. O is in the same practice as my mom’s oncologist, Dr. C.
We sat, the three of us, by the garage door, and talked for awhile. My mother and mother in law are optimists. I am not. They talked to me about trying to be positive and holding onto hope. All I knew was I had breast cancer and those words meant I was going to die. Before turning 40. Before seeing my children grow up. Before growing old with my husband. My mother insisted I could not think that way, but that’s the mantra that ran through my head. “You’re going to die. You have breast cancer. You’re going to die.” Those four words danced through my head in an endless circle of fear.
My husband finally pulled in the driveway, saw us sitting there, parked his car, and slowly got out of it. I watched him walk towards us. His mother stood, hugged him, and went inside. My mother stood, hugged him, and went inside. He sat down beside me. Of all the things I don’t remember from that afternoon, I remember our conversation as if it happened minutes ago.
“I love you, you know. No matter what, and we’re going to get through this. We’re going to fight this. We’re going to find the best doctor in Dallas and we’re going to beat this.”
“But what if I can’t beat this? What if this kills me? What did I do? Why did this happen? What if I’m not around to see the kids grow up? What’s going to happen to them? What are we going to do? I’m going to lose my hair, my breasts, everything.”
“You can’t think like that. This is going to be hard. Really hard. And it’s going to suck. A lot. And nothing is going to happen that’s going to make me leave or anyone in this family love you less.”
“But what if I die from this? What about you? What about the kids?”
“You can’t think like that.”
“But what if?”
“Then I’ll figure out a way to go on and the kids will know their mother was one of the bravest women I’ve ever known and she did everything she could. But, please stop thinking that way right now. We’re a long way off from knowing what we’re dealing with because all we know right now is you have breast cancer. We need more answers. Call your OBGYN as soon as the office opens in the morning. Talk to her.”
“What do we do now?”
“We go in the house. Eat dinner. Call people we know who have been here and can help us. We make it through the night. Minute by minute, hour by hour.”
“There’s a football game tonight. S has been asking when football starts back.”
“So take her and go. Distract yourself. We’re going to get through this. I don’t know how, but we will. We need answers. We don’t have them yet. So, for now, we make it through as best we can. We’re going to go in the house, be parents, and go about as best we can. Go to the football game, come home and go to sleep, and go to work tomorrow. You need the distraction and you need to tell people there so they can help.”
“Everything’s going to be different now.”
“Yeah, it is. We’ll figure it out.”
We’ll figure it out. That’s become the four word mantra around our house since August 27th. We’ll figure it out.
I have breast cancer. We’ll figure it out.