The day I heard my doctor say, “your results are positive for breast cancer,” was the worst day of my life to date. She didn’t discuss the grade, stage or offer any diagnosis details. I was at the mercy of the nurse navigator who was supposed to call me back and explain what this news meant. When my doctor and I hung up, after only talking a matter of seconds, I sat at my table in shock staring into nothingness before calling my boyfriend, Doug. What I did after that is not clear. I remember feeling like it was taking hours for Doug to arrive, but in reality not more than an hour had passed. I must have called both my parents, who are divorced, so I would have called them separately, but I have no recollection of either phone call. I vaguely remember hearing a lot of, “you’re kidding?”
When Doug arrived at my house, he held, calmed and soothed me. The details are again hazy at best, but I remember him doing everything I hoped one would do. I don’t know what I would have done without him. During a moment of lucidity, I pointed towards a pile of Tide, Dawn, Crest, Ivory Soap, and other non-natural products sitting on my counter and said, “you can take these, I won’t judge; otherwise they’re going in the trash.” I wasn’t trying to poison him! I’ve just learned after years of pushing my way of living on others that we all arrive in our own time, and some of us never do! Some are lucky enough not to have to. The bottom line was, I felt powerless and getting rid of those products was one little thing I could do to feel in control at that moment.
Thirty-three years old and diagnosed with f*cking cancer. A year and a half earlier, I’d gotten divorced. Before that phone call, I felt like I was finally getting my life on track. I’d made choices I thought were in support of my marriage, only to end up way behind where I thought I’d be in my early 30s. No husband. No children. No career. I had a tiny sparkle of identity, which needed nurturing if I was going to start accomplishing my goals. But I was ready. Ready to take on the world.
Now I wasn’t even sure if I was going to live or die. Damn doctor. Couldn’t she have given me a little more information? The thought of departing from this planet before I was able to leave a bigger mark on the world was terrifying. My life was far from a sob story, but it was nowhere near what I’d envisioned. On the bright side, I’d met this fun, passionate and interesting man who reconnected me with nature, music and seeing so much beauty in the world. I have no regrets getting divorced but have many regrets putting my life on hold. To be clear, he never asked me to, but all the moves we made, which were in support of his career, created many challenges for me. Ladies, all I can say is, love and support your man and always take care of you too.
Here I was, 33 years old, prepared and eager to get on with my life, and instead was about to learn from my doctors that they recommended I have either a lumpectomy with chemo before and after surgery with radiation to finish it off or a full double mastectomy and chemo without radiation. I know plenty of women who were happy to get a free boob job, but having blossomed into a full B cup as a teenager and peaking out at a D cup in college, a boob job was not on my wish list. And when you get down to it, a double mastectomy is not your average boob job. The surgeon removes all the tissue from your breast, takes muscle from your back to rebuild the breast and depending on your stage and grade, you might end up with a tattooed nipple. Thanks, but I’ll pass.
No matter where you are in life, a cancer diagnosis is a lot to process for everyone involved. Here is my best and likely unexpected advice to you as the flawed human being I am (aren’t we all?) after being diagnosed with cancer at thirty-three years old, not as a nutritionist.
- Get drunk. You heard me. Get after it. Not alone, by yourself, sulking in a bottle of your favorite booze. Make a plan with friends and let loose. Maybe you don’t get falling-down wasted but have a good time. This is likely your last hurrah for a while. How much harm can it do? You’ve already been diagnosed with cancer—doh. The day after my unlucky phone call was The Taste of Vail’s Mountain Top Picnic. Our understanding friends generously offered Doug and me two tickets to the event, which was a favorite of ours. If you’ve ever been to a “Taste of X” event, it’s a collection of food and wine vendors that usually gather in a city, but in Vail’s case, it’s at the top of the mountain. The scenery, people, and experience is first class, and the food and wine are unlimited. Need I say more? I had a great time chatting with friends, as if all was well, and forgetting about the looming decisions, research, and treatment ahead of me.
- Decide who you want to tell. The day after my diagnosis, only a few people knew about my diagnosis. No one else had a clue, which allowed me to eat, drink and be merry as if it was any other day. Had a bunch of my friends known, it would have completely ruined the fun by people asking questions, looking at me differently and saying the dumbest things. Inconsiderate comments occur often. My favorite is, “Oh I know someone who died of cancer.” I don’t know what people are thinking, but that’s the last statement anyone who has ever been faced with cancer wants to hear. We’re sorry for your loss. And… It’s not about you right now. A little self-awareness and empathy go a long way.
- Delay the inevitable until your first doctor’s appointment. After the picnic, Doug got me out of town for a couple of night’s to go mountain bike in Fruita with other friends of ours. Our closest friends knew what was up, but kept it quiet, and we were again able to enjoy life as usual, except when I had to remove myself to cry it out for a moment. The last day of our trip, we met up with another group of friends celebrating our buddy’s birthday. We carried on like all was good and right in our world. Later on, our friends were shocked to find out the news because I was laughing, smiling and making the most out of our day. That ride in Fruita was my best mountain bike ride to date. I crushed it! Live like there’s no tomorrow, right?
You’re going to spend plenty of time engrossed in all things cancer and making massive changes in your life. For a couple of days, you’re allowed to get drunk (with friends in a fun social way, no solo self-loathing or pity parties). The cancer had been growing a long time before it became detectable. A couple more days of imbibing with the people you love and who love you is likely not the end of the world. Then again, if you feel inspired to make immediate changes in your life, go for it! I’ll always support that path.
Whatever choice you make, you can pretend like all is normal, fine or fantastic in the name of enjoying your life pre-treatment. After all, it’s your journey. Don’t be surprised if your senses are heightened. You may not have ever realized what a beautiful tree sits in your front yard, how many leaves it has and how truly magical it is. You might sit by the river, watching the water flow down its meandering path, and hear it flow over the rocks like you never have before. The details of your partners face, hands and body could seem more pronounced. If you find yourself staring into your loved one’s eyes more intensely, and you’re afraid they’ll notice, don’t worry about it. Take in the clarity. If there’s a blessing during these first few days, it’s seeing life through an entirely new and beautiful lens.