You never know what the worst day of your life is going to be until it happens. For me, the worst moment of my thirty one years occurred on Monday, October 1, 2012, at approximately 1:45 in the afternoon. Before I get into the details, I must confess it feels strange to be writing about such a melancholy moment when currently I am sitting passenger seat in our Hyundai Tucson headed up the Chilean coast with my mom and Jon, on a quest to view the famous Humboldt penguins. The sun is shining, music blasting, and spirits are high. On that fateful Monday it seemed unlikely that I would soon be out enjoying life.
But let me bring you back to that day and to the start of my medical misfortune. At the start of the school year, Jon and I had decided that this was going to be the year of good health. After a summer of gluttony back in the United States I was determined to get back into shape, watch my diet, and lose some weight. A summer´s worth of trying to smooth out my double chin for pictures was starting to grate on me. In order to fulfill this goal of increased health, Jon and I joined the local gym and paid for personal training sessions for the entire year. This was probably a tad overzealous on our part, but I am of the mentality that once you´ve paid for something you are more likely to force yourself to go. I was determined not to fall into the trap of making a hefty monthly donation to Energy Fitness without getting something in return. Things were going well. Christian, our eager trainer, had succeeded in organizing several workouts that rocked me to my core. Muscles I hadn´t felt for at least seven or eight years were groaning in pain. Every day I felt sore, but in that gratifying way, where you know something must be working. Soon after, however, I began having some serious back pain. Bending over was difficult. Tying my shoes was agony, and even sitting up straight in the car made me wince. Soccer practices where I had to pick up the ball and throw it at the girls´ knees, feet, chests, or heads, were absolute torture. The training sessions grew increasingly more difficult, but I kept making myself go because I figured my body was just tired from being out of shape and that I shouldn´t be such a baby about it all. After several weeks of continuous pain, though, I decided to see a doctor. Jon and I hadn´t really had a thorough check-up the whole time we lived in China so it seemed prudent to do one now. I had already assumed that living in China had probably shaved a few years off of my life expectancy so I kind of wanted to see what damage had been done. Unfortunately what I found out had absolutely nothing to do with China and was much worse than I ever could have expected.
Our first visit to Clinica Alemana, my new home away from home, was interesting, indeed. We were told in advance that a check-up would take all day, which seemed rather impossible to me, but turned out to be entirely true. We had blood drawn and were poked and prodded for this test and that. The gaggle of gals who work in the international patients section of the clinic were very attentive and escorted us to our various appointments throughout the day. Finally, at 4:15, after all day of fasting for our various diagnostic exams, I was called to do a mammogram and breast ultrasound. I was a little nervous for this one as back in July I had felt a lump in my left breast. At first I wasn´t too worried about it because it seemed quite improbable for it to be a major problem. I´m only thirty, after all, and our insurance doesn´t even cover mammograms for women under 35. About halfway through the ultrasound, however, I began to get a bit more nervous. As I lay there with that icky blue goo all over my chest, I spotted it. There it was up on screen: a big, black ominous spot that the technician continued to measure over and over again. I began to sweat a little more profusely and was anxious to leave. The technician told me that the lump was abnormal and that I needed to schedule an appointment with an oncologist to take a closer look at it. I tried to breath deeply and calmly, but by the time I made my way back down to international patients the ultrasound doctor had already called down to make sure that I didn´t leave without scheduling the appointment. Suddenly the mood in the office changed. The ladies who had been laughing with me and joking around in Spanish all day suddenly looked at me with intense pity and some even ran over to hug me. Immediately I knew that something was wrong and I burst into tears. Jon had to lead me out of the office while I continued to sob. It was one of those body-shaking, nose-running, makeup smearing cries that happen every so often. I wasn´t a pretty site that afternoon, that´s for sure….
After the initial discovery of the lump, however, I still had another week before the appointment with the oncologist since the following week was the Chilean national holiday.. During this time I tried to remain as calm as possible. As far as I knew it could truly be nothing to worry about. As a result I managed to enjoy my trip to Mendoza by indulging myself in scenic vistas of the Andes, copious glasses filled with Argentinian Malbec, and several multi-course tasting menus. It truly was a fantastic vacation!
Upon return, however, it was time to face the truth. On Monday we met with the oncologist, Dr. Buhler, who viewed the ultrasound images and felt the lump and concluded in less than five minutes that he was, indeed, concerned. The word “concerned” seems innocent enough on the surface, but when spoken with conviction by someone with years of education and experience, can really take your breath away. Right away he scheduled MRIs of pretty much every part of my body, more blood tests, a thorax, abdomen, and chest scan, a bone scan, and a biopsy. I had to take a lot of time off of work that week and realized that it was all becoming a little too real. I began notifying my family and some close friends. Again, though- I wasn´t sure what we were really dealing with so it was easy for me to forget about my troubles when I wasn´t at the doctor´s office. In fact, in the days before I received my test results I managed to teach classes as normal, grade five sets of essays, coach a few soccer games, and co-host a beautiful baby shower for our dear friends, the Flanagans. Life seemed to be progressing as normal….
Monday morning, October 1st, started out like any other day. The alarm rang at 5: 45 and I shoved the dogs off the bed so I could make my way, bleary-eyed to the shower. I remember choosing my favorite blue sweater as I, like most ladies, always feel better when I´m looking my best. I taught my morning classes as usual and Jon and I left for the doctor´s office at lunchtime. It was a bright sunny day and I felt peaceful, ready to accept whatever came my way. In fact, at this point, I still felt a little silly for alerting my friends since several of them knew people that had lumps removed that turned out to be totally harmless. I was worried I had made a big deal out of nothing. (At least that´s what I secretly hoped…) When we entered Dr. Buhler´s office he was on the phone and smiled at us with his brilliantly kind blue eyes. I looked down at my sweater and noticed that I had an extremely large stain running down the sleeve. How long had I been running around with that there? I wondered. Jon and I began to laugh about it and were making jokes when suddenly the doctor hung up the phone and faced us. Unfortunately, I could tell by the look on his face that instead of his previous gut feelings of concern, the doctor now had a variety of medical tests to verify his concern.
He began with, “I don´t have your biopsy results yet, but I do have some bad news. We found lesions in your spine, ribs, lungs, and possibly your liver. The image was a little too unclear to make out.¨ Immediately my pulse quickened and Jon´s hand shot out to find mine. In fact I was so distraught I don´t exactly remember all that was said. There was something about breasts not being vital organs and surgery not being necessary at this point in time. What we did need to do was begin immediately with treatment of the cancer cells that were at that very moment silently and surreptitiously attacking my body from the inside out. Dr. Buhler hypothesized that the lump had been there for quite some time and that I needed to immediately halt all physical exercise and consult a traumatologist to see what kind of damage was being done to my spine. He then asked if I had questions.
Of course I have questions….. “What is a lesion?” “Wait- my back pain is related to the lump in my breast?” “I have cancer? How is that possible???” “ I´m going to be okay, right?” “We´re going to be able to treat this… RIGHT??!!” But all of those questions were much too scary to ask so instead I held my hand to my mouth and shook my head. I think I blurted out something totally obvious like “I´m really worried” and the doctor confirmed that to be a normal reaction under these circumstances. We were facing a very serious situation, indeed. He didn´t offer any other words of comfort such as, don´t worry- you´re going to be fine.
After a few seconds of stunned silence, Jon immediately started in with the questions, all of which continued to alert all of my senses. “ Will she have to do chemo?” “ How long will the treatment last?” “The lesion in her spine: could she become paralyzed?” “ Do we need to cancel our trip to Brazil in January?” After the last two questions I said I didn´t want to know anymore, that it was all a little too much to take. At this point my entire body was shaking and all sorts of horrible scenarios began attacking my brain… chemo… no hair…. no trip to Brazil…. no 2014 wedding in the Mayan Riviera…. Poor Jon! The doctor finally showed mercy and said I didn´t have to ask those questions today, but that tomorrow I would have to ask them. Somehow Jon managed to lead me out of the office and into the car. We drove home with tears in our eyes, hugged our nana, Agustina, opened up our best bottle of wine and drank in the sweetness on our patio. The sun was so bright it hurt and life never seemed more bittersweet. My dog, Chingis, came over and put his paw on my chest and I put my arms around him in complete desperation.
Oh, Chingy!” I began sobbing until my body no longer held tears. My worst nightmare had come true… I have breast cancer.