I read something the other day about a woman who felt she had two distinct lives – the one before cancer and the one forever changed by the diagnosis. In thinking about my own journey through cancer country, I am stuck on determining the actual departure date from the life I’d had without cancer. I may have had it for as long as seven years, I’m told. Still, I feel different. Something has shifted around and within me. Ostensibly, my life is technically the same. I wake up, take a shower, ‘prepare a face to meet the faces I will meet.’ I go to the same job every day with the same people, some of whom know that cancer has come to visit. I eat the same breakfast every day – a poached egg on toast with strawberries and overpriced blueberries, because it’s good for me to eat these Superfoods. At the same time, I continue to be pissed off by the same immaterial trifling things – my daughter running all the hot water in the shower, my husband putting things in the dryer when the label clearly says ‘dry clean only.’ I sign in to my computer every day with a password that amuses the IT guys, and I check email. Some is worth reading, some not. I sign purchase orders and leave requests. I talk to young people and their parents. I submit reports to various departments within the Department of Education. I am depended upon and depend upon others to run a school, a school that will run without me after the surgeons finish their handiwork and place me on leave for four, five, six weeks.
I am stuck. Amid mundane tasks or ordinary conversations, I grapple with not knowing exactly when it all changed, when I left my former life as a relatively healthy forty-something given to waves of hypochondria and more than a touch of the dramatic. Was it the day I found the lump on my right breast? The day I heard “tumors” from a doctor I’d never met before? The day my husband and I sat listening – well he was listening – as yet another travel guide in this foreign land read to us, as if by rote, a pathology report confirming that the core needle biopsy revealed a malignant tumor at 12 o’clock. Maybe it was the day the MRI pictures were slapped up on the screen, and the surgeon told me that a lumpectomy was not the best option, that the cancer was too close to the nipple, and it would be terribly disfiguring to remove only the lump in order to save the nipple. Or maybe things changed during my close encounter with Dr. Dashing (my petname for the first in a succession of very handsome young doctors, also known as my “hotdocs.”). I can recall without cringing that first exam, if I tell myself he was merely trying to figure out the combination of a safe as opposed to determining the appropriate size of a breast implant for me. Between my Breast Patient Navigator, my breast surgeon, my plastic surgeon, the front office people who always smile and genuinely seem to care how I’m doing, I am in very good hands. They all tell me so. Maybe it’s this knowledge that keeps me afloat in the more pedestrian and essential elements of a life that’s going on. Right now.
Right now I’m getting ready to run my first official 5K, and I’m preoccupied with this countdown to the mastectomy. I find it a bit ironic that the cancer will most likely be more real when it is removed along with my right breast. In forty-seven days. What might happen over the next forty-seven days? What if the cancer that has evaded detection for so long and grown so slowly, suddenly gets a new lease on life, grows at breakneck speed, and spreads through my entire body? What if I run my first and last 5K today? What if I die on the operating table? What if the headache I can’t get rid of isn’t really because of the stress induced by the last few discoveries, but is, in fact, another tumor? These are the thoughts that criss-cross my mind. Some aren’t quite so dark, and border on humorous – the experience with the plastic surgeon comes to mind and then there was the dose of retail therapy the night before Thanksgiving. It began with me spotting a black top on a mannequin in White House Black Market. It reminded me of a black dress worn by Sophia Loren to the Oscars years ago. Not that I would ever be attending the Oscars, or any event that would require such a dress, but I have always loved the very idea of it. It was such a clever dress for a woman of a certain age, with its sheer black around the neck and upper arms. The White House Black Market top offered similar camouflage . I had to have it, but the store was out of my size. The small was too big even though I willed the salesgirl to tell me it was just right. Not to be defeated, I had her search every White House Black Market in America to find an XS which is when I discovered, that there is, in fact, another person living in this country who bears my name. In that moment, when we ordered the XS with free shipping, I found my mind racing again. Perhaps my cancer could be attributed to a simple mix-up between medical records and records of shoppers like me who sign up for the 15% off club at White House Black Market. Some technological screwup that would deliver a Sophia Loren inspired black top to my door and render my namesake with breast cancer. How can I get word to her?
And so my wheels spin.