Saturday, December 18, 2010

Happy First Birthday to the New Girls/Happy Anniversary to Me

(The above photo represents the bulk of my memories of the first day after surgery: my morphine pump, and the warning attached to it. In the background is Snuggles, my bear, whom I've had since I was seven. Which makes him old enough to rent a car without having to pay extra for liability insurance.)

At this moment one year ago, I was far away in some dreamless place, silent, unconscious, immobile, while back on planet Earth, surgeons first removed and then reconstructed my breasts. Yesterday, as I was leaving work, exchanging pleasantries with my colleagues about our plans, someone asked, "So do you have anything exciting going on this weekend?" And I responded, "Actually, yes, I do. I'm celebrating an anniversary." And sort of left it at that. Because how do you explain to someone you don't know all that well that December 18 is just as important as my birthday, just as important as the day I met my husband (and the day I married him), as important as Christmas and New Years and every other holiday, too? Because December 18 wasn't just the day I had a mastectomy; it was the day I beat cancer. (No matter that I didn't have it yet. I did what I did so I never would. And that's still beating cancer.)

So what are the characteristics of this most unusual anniversary? First off, it's an exceedingly happy occasion. This is no funeral, people. Today, I'm celebrating health, and marveling at the extraordinary measures I was willing to go to protect it. Today, I don't mark the death of my breasts; today I honor their rebirth. Secondly, today, I will celebrate my body and its capacity for wonderful strength. As I woke up this morning, I stretched -- a glorious, full-bodied lengthening animated by pops and cracks and creeks -- and I remembered how confined I felt those first weeks after surgery, unable to move, afraid to tear something, sore and bruised and afraid of my body. So today I will go for a run; I don't know how far or how fast I'll go, but that's beside the point. I will celebrate my health by doing something good for it. Finally, I will treat myself well. What that means yet, I'm not quite sure: I'm still in my pajamas, working my way through my second cup of coffee (oh, where's my waiter when I need him? Refill soon, darling, please!), with a day full of possibility still ahead of me. Tonight we'll go out to dinner, a boobversary dinner, and toast the new rack. And then we'll head off to two parties, a birthday celebration and a holiday party. But between now and then: I imagine a cookie or two, perhaps some shopping. Maybe some pampering. I've got a busy day.

Believe it or not, I have mostly fond memories of my surgery (though less so of the immediate aftermath). I have, first off, never felt so loved; support and love and flowers and vegan desserts appeared from every corner. And though I was terrified in the months and weeks leading up to it, the day of surgery, I was calm. I remember feeling so lucky to have a husband to hold me and a mother to scratch my back through my thin hospital gown. I was comforted by the many people I knew were thinking of me and rooting for me and wishing me well. So today isn't just a happy day commemorating an unhappy day; it's a happy day in remembrance of a happy day.

And I have a lot of good memories: I remember the food I ate the night before surgery (mmmm... fake duck). I remember the cake my BFF from Texas ordered from the same vegan bakery our wedding cake cake from (mmm... peanut butter chocolate ). My dear friend A, appearing out of nowhere beside my bed, sitting with my husband as I drifted in and out of consciousness. The completely selfless Z and P who sat with my parents while I lay in surgery. The first shower. The fist glance. The fucking relief.

So today is a good day. Life has gone on, but it's important to acknowledge where I've been: I've gained as much in this process (confidence, certainty, clarity) as I've loss (boobs, but more importantly fear, too). And today's the day when it all started. So I'm unzipping my hoodie and staring down and saying to my hooters, "Happy first birthday, girls." And happy anniversary to me.

Monday, December 13, 2010

I am sad -- and conflicted about my grief -- about Elizabeth Edwards

The news of Elizabeth Edwards’s passing hit me unexpectedly hard. Like a gut punch hard. Which I know is a bit dramatic, considering I’ve never met the woman, though I feel as if I know her intimately.

When news broke last Monday that Edwards’s breast cancer had spread to her liver, I was saddened but not surprised. After all, this was a woman with terminal cancer who had publicly acknowledged that she was dying and promised to live with grace the last of her allotted days. But following so soon thereafter the news of her death—-just one day--later, I felt deeply aggrieved, like she was cheated out of some valuable remaining days and I the closure with which to process her demise.

It’s sad when someone dies, especially someone so unobjectionably nice and good and gracious as Edwards. A cheated-upon wife, the mother of young children, a woman who has known more loss than most, Edwards was a sympathetic figure. I felt a connection to her, a connection facilitated by the very disease that killed her. We had that in common--breast cancer. But how silly that sounds. I never had breast cancer; she died from it. And yet--she is the reason I chose to do something so radical about my risk. We forget too often that breast cancer is a deadly disease, that it comes back once it’s “cured” and often with a vengeance. We forget this because the smiling Elizabeth, the healthy Elizabeth, the optimistic Elizabeth in the photographs that accompanied her obituary were not depictions of the woman she likely was at the end--ravaged by the disease, perhaps bald, perhaps wasting. The face we see was a woman living with terminal cancer, not the woman as she died. Not that we should see that--that’s private, of course. But it adds to the public sanitation of the disease. “But she looked so good! How could this have happened?” we ask. “I didn’t realize things were so bad. She seemed the picture of health and acceptance.”

When I cried over Edwards’s death, I cried about the insidiousness of cancer, its mercilessness, its ceaseless appetite. I cried for her young kids. I cried for the days she wouldn’t live to see, the people in her life that would have to find a way to go on without her. But I also cried because, in some ways, I felt guilty. That I had a chance that she did not. That I got a get-of-jail-free card and she didn’t. That I most likely won’t have to go through what she did.

Which leads me to another point. This time last year, with the countdown to surgery reaching single digits, I was still terrified of breast cancer--terrified that they’d open me and have to sew me up again, my breast too full of tumors and black goo and all that to make any difference. This time last year, I was actively afraid of breast cancer. My risk weighed on me. If Elizabeth Edwards had died on December 7, 2009, I would have had only one thought: that’s going to be me.

And yet, as I approach the one-year anniversary of my risk reducing surgery, I realize how precipitously my fear of breast cancer has also dropped. Not only did I greatly lessen my chance of getting breast cancer, I’ve all but eliminated the fear of it, too. And that’s incredible. I can read news of Edwards’s death and not be afraid. I can be sad, but I’m not afraid.