As the above “Keep a Breast”organization´s (http://www.keep-a-breast.org/i-love-boobies/) catchy slogan indicates, the subject of this week´s blog post is yes, you guessed it: breasts. So if you are at all giggly or embarrassed to read about things like silicon gel and nipples, then perhaps you should read no further. But don´t worry, I too felt very strange listening to a doctor talking to me about these things, so you are not alone in your feelings. But I have never shied away from the tough topics on this blog, and this blog is about breast cancer, so it is only natural that at some point I would have to actually talk about breasts.
I am writing about them this week because I recently found out the details of my upcoming surgery and they were a little more difficult to process than I originally thought they would be. Let me preface this by saying that I have been feeling pretty great recently. In fact, if I had written this blog a day ago, it would have been titled: “Nature-it does a body good”. After our fabulous trip down to Patagonia last weekend I have felt emotionally and physically renewed. American environmentalist, John Muir, definitely had it right when he said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” I most recently found this strength while visiting Coyhaique, Chile (population 50,000). This difficult to pronounce town is pretty much the only center of civilization in central Patagonia and is surrounded by stunning natural scenery. Jon and I travelled there for four days with two friends from school. We stayed at this amazing bed and breakfast just outside of town that had great views over the valley. April is the beginning of fall in Chile, so the leaves had just started to turn color and the air had that crisp, fresh, fall smell to it. Ahhhh… wonderful! Our bedroom was the top floor of the house and had this amazing panoramic view from the windows. What a joy it was to wake up and watch the sun peaking up over the mountain peaks, casting an amazing pinkish glow over the valley. Don´t worry, I´ll attach pictures so you can view it also… Although, truth be told, pictures never quite capture the true glory of nature since nature is 360 degrees of beauty, and a camera can only capture a tiny piece of it. The highlight of the trip, however, was our twelve-hour cruise from Puerto Chacabuco to Laguna San Rafael. We had to wake up at 5:00 in the morning in order to drive to the boat for a pre-dawn departure, but it was definitely worth it. The trip was not cheap by any means, but I would highly recommend it as it included three meals, snacks, and an open bar. As I mentioned in last week´s blog, the main point of the trip was to see glacier San Rafael, and despite the build-up, it didn´t disappoint. The blue of the ice, the massive size of it, watching and listening to chunks of ice fall from the glacier and crash with a loud shotgun explosion into the water below was an experience I will never forget. Also particularly enjoyable were the delicious homemade dinners cooked for us in the kitchen of the bed and breakfast. Watching the sun come down in a watercolor of reds, oranges, and purples while sipping on wine and engaging in hilarious yet meaningful conversation with our traveling companions was truly refreshing. Shout out to Carrie and Angela who are such fun to travel with- we had such a great time. Thanks ladies!!
Because of this trip, and also my renewed interest in good diet, exercise, and health, I began to believe that life was grand again. I also have realized that there is no “right way” to recover from traumatic experiences. Therapy is whatever you need it to be. And for me, what I needed was a little of this and a little of that. I have recently been reading excerpts from a series of books entitled “Crazy Sexy Cancer” donated to me by some kind person at the time of my diagnosis. I hadn´t attempted to read them while doing my chemotherapy because I didn´t really see the point. For me, the only way I could get through chemo and still keep a smile on my face was to not let cancer rule my life. If I spent each day thinking and pondering about my illness, I never would have made it. But now that I can sort-of see the light at the end of the tunnel, I have started to read more about possible theories about how to be a cancer survivor and how to prevent the cancer from returning, etc. Of course, this is tricky because no one knows for certain where cancer comes from. I mean, there are a lot of theories and studies and lots of evidence to suggest it is linked to this or that, but let´s be honest… there is nothing definitive or certain about this disease. I can agree to eat less meat and less dairy and less sugar in case the hormones we put in our food these days really is the cancer culprit. But also, I´m not going to agree to become a vegan and start eating almond butter and drinking green juice morning, noon, and night, because Kris Carr told me it was the way to prevent cancer. Honestly, to me- that just sounds too drastic. Even Buddha realized that to go to any extreme is never the solution. You need to find a middle way. But for the “Crazy, Sexy” author, veganism worked, so good on her…. Who am I to criticize what someone does or chooses to believe in, in order to help them survive a deadly disease? I am certainly in no position to do so, I just don´t necessarily have to believe everything she advises.
Another thing that I felt good about this week is that Jon and I have managed to repair our relationship. I had alluded to the fact that we were having some problems in the recent months, but both of us have let go of our anger. And to be honest, neither one of us was actually angry at the other, we just were angry about the situation that we have had to deal with of late. On a personal note, I also decided to stop being so angry about my job situation. To quote the Buddha again (sorry… I taught ancient religions to 8th and 9th graders for too many years to not let this stuff stick), “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” What´s the use of me continuing to be angry about something that I cannot change? It is what it is. People have their own reasons for doing things and sometimes they make mistakes. If you want to be happy in life, you just have to forgive and get on with it. As a wise and eternally optimistic friend recently told me, you can´t control what other people do or how they behave…the only thing you can do is choose how you react. I truly believe that. And so, on Friday, I made my first appearance at school since before the summer break. The students had been writing me recently and asking about me, so I thought I would stop in and say hi. It was so nice to see them again and I am always so incredibly amazed at how excited and happy they are to see me. These teens here in Chile are truly extraordinary: so caring and so kind… No matter what has happened since, I know that without the students and the school´s generous support after my initial diagnosis I never would have been able to face my illness with such optimism and positivity. So I will always be grateful for that. Despite the constant questions of, “How are you feeling” and “You look so great” and “Ms…. When are you coming back?”… I finally felt a flicker of my normal life again. Even though I was watching someone else teach my class I really enjoyed filling up my water bottle in the teacher´s lounge, making small talk in the hallways, and helping students pick research topics. But alas, this normalcy was short-lived.
Immediately following my visit to school I had an appointment with Dr. Buhler who is going to be performing my surgery. The last three times I had spoken with my doctors they all kept mentioning that I was going to have a small, non invasive lumpectomy. So of course, that´s what I had envisioned and what I had spent all day telling people. I really believed I was just going to have a little surgery “cita”. Unfortunately, that is definitely not what spewed forward from Dr. Buhler´s mouth as we sat down in his office in the breast surgery wing of the hospital. After the initial phrase,“Based on our discussions with the oncology committee, we decided that we will achieve the best results if we take the entire gland.…” At this point, my mind kind of glazed over and I began having another out-of-body experience. When involved in serious doctor discussions like this I do know that it´s me and my body that we´re talking about, but I feel like a stranger listening in on some strange conversation in an alternate universe. I asked why the doctors had changed their mind and decided to go with the more radical mastectomy, and the doctor said that because I had responded so extraordinarily well to the chemo that they want to be really aggressive and preventative with their treatment from here on. They are going to treat my cancer, not like a typical stage four treatment, but more like a stage one or two where you do everything possible to keep the cancer from spreading. So I guess that´s good news, but still- I hadn´t really expected to have to lose the entire breast.
I know that mastectomies are a pretty common treatment for women with breast cancer and I know that I will eventually get over it, but for right now I feel unnecessarily distraught about having to say goodbye to such a personal body part. Apparently they are going to be doing a skin-saving surgery so that I can have a more “natural-looking” breast reconstruction once I´m done with all my treatment. Of course, here is where he also mentioned that I will most probably be doing radiation, something I have not been looking forward to. He then showed me where they were going to do the incisions and assured me that I would still be able to wear low-cut shirts, dresses, and bikinis. “Whew! What a relief!! It´s going to be so fun to show off my new fake boobs….” Seriously, is that something I´m supposed to care about when we´re talking about removing cancer tumors?? Anyway he referred me to a plastic surgeon who is going to discuss the specifics about how to reconstruct a breast from scratch. Initially they are going to put some sort of liquid-filled sack in place of the original breast so that the skin will continue to stretch and leave room for whatever type of more permanent implant we decide to go with after the six weeks of radiation.
And here is where I will now go into my diatribe about breasts and my feelings about losing one (and apparently probably both if I can stay cancer-free for two more years). To be honest, I´ve never really understand the world´s obsession with breasts. They seriously are two mounds of fat and tissue attached to the front of your body. Yes, when they are pushed up and trussed up in lingerie and fancy dresses, they can look downright sexy, but I think if you asked most women, they are more often a source of embarrassment or pain than a source of pride. And now that I know women who have had children, I know that the true purpose of this mound of fat and tissues is to feed babies. I´ve heard enough stories of leaky breasts and scabbed over nipples to no longer think of boobs as sexy. Personally I´ve never really had a problem with mine. I like them well enough, but I know that some women are never comfortable with the size of their breasts. I also realize that many women would actually be happy to have fake boobs and voluntarily get breast implants, but I have never had a desire to do so. I think it´s going to be super, super weird and almost Frankenstein-ish to know that part of my body is fake. So, I came home from the doctor´s appointment in tears. Not to mention that I have a bunch of other medical things I´m supposed to take care of before the surgery. Apparently my last pet scans indicated that I have ovarian cysts that might need to be surgically removed at the same time that they do the mastectomy. And no one told me about it until just now… awesome. Chemo is known to mess with your hormones (Oh really? You think???) which can sometimes cause the ovaries to go haywire. If they rupture, it can be very painful. I know this is the least of my worries right now, but I am annoyed that there is still a long list of strange and scary experiences to go through before I am officially done with all my treatment.
After I came home feeling sorry for myself I flipped to CNN.com to find a horrific article about an attempted honor killing of a young Pakistani girl. She survived 15 axe wounds to the head and face given to her by her own brother. So very, very, sad and amazing that she survived. Of course, who really wants to live a life like that, knowing what happened to you and that your life will never be the same. But I figure, if this girl can get through that, and if a friend of mine can handle her full frontal surgery scar with collapsed lungs, etc, than I can surely deal with saying goodbye to my left breast. And so, boys and girls, wear those “I love boobies” bracelets loud and proud. I always used to believe, if you´ve got ‘em, flaunt ‘em. So when you go out this weekend, ladies, find an outfit that celebrates your decolletage and embrace your body. And that´s enough discussion of breasts for one day… I hope I wasn’t too crass and didn´t embarrass you too much! If anyone has personal experience with mastectomy or breast surgery in general, I´d love to hear from you so that maybe I can stop being so nervous about April the 16th.
Post Script- While posting this last blog entry my lovely nana, Agustina, told me I need to drink a cup full of bull’s milk and put snake fat on my wound and that will help me to heal after the surgery… I wonder what Kris Carr would have to say about that.
I have also included a link to an apropos article concerning the realities of living with breast cancer: