It’s been a week since my surgery. I feel so good as I strut in for my follow-up appointment with Dr. Philipson that I practically high-five the receptionist. Theresa, the doctor’s nurse, sticks her head out into the hallway and I zip over to give her a hug. I am all smiles and she is warm and calm as always. Maybe she seems a little sedate, in fact, but I write it off as her way.
Dave and I take a seat in the waiting room and I beam at the women who are flipping through magazines, glancing up at the approach of footsteps, fingering the clasp of a pocketbook, each with her own fear and story. In my near-giddy state as one who has made it through surgery and is healing like a champ, I want to assure them that they’ll be fine. That they’re in the best hands possible and that the anesthesia cocktail is a dream. That recuperation hurts a bit, but the medications soften the edge. And that, if their people are anything like mine, they’ll be cared for with unbounded love.
Speaking of my people, Mom and Dad are coming for the weekend. They’ll probably beat us home in fact. Phone assurances have been inadequate; they want to see me for themselves. Like Dave, Mom has said, “I wish I could do this in your place,” but she will see that I don’t need a surrogate; I’m great and she needn’t worry.
When my name is called, Dave and I hop from our seats and saunter down the corridor to Dr. Philipson’s office. I give her a hug too, but her eyes do not reflect my jubilation. We sit across from her and I don’t really follow what she is saying about “micro-invasive cells.” I’m still smiling because the significance does not register. My lymph nodes were clear. The cancer is out. What more is there?
Apparently, the pathology on the breast tissue revealed something else. Cells that could send out seedlings. Cells that require preventative action. “The good news is that a drug, Herceptin, has been made available within the last two years that targets these specific cells,” says Dr. Philipson.
Wait. She’s saying it doesn’t end here. She’s talking about chemo. Scarier than cancer. Chemo.
“You did the right thing in having the double mastectomy,” she concludes. “but I know this is not what you expected. I’m so sorry.”
I am slow to process her words. I think about what might have happened if I’d not had that mammogram. What might have happened if I’d not gone for the double. What might have happened if the medical world had not continued to paw through my breast tissue in some lab somewhere even after removal.
I could have died.
But I don’t feel relieved. I’m thinking about chemo. And I’m thinking about Mom and Dad waiting at home for me to come dancing through the back door, maybe minus a drain or two, to be doted on. Again, I must tell them hard news.
We leave the office and I call my parents by cell phone. I tell them about Herceptin – so new, so specific to my case – and remind them that all of the other good stuff still holds true – early stages and clear lymph nodes and margins.
Mom and Dad rush out of the house as our car pulls up. They are somber, but glad to hold me, to see me. To see that I’m the same, minus a few body parts.
For lunch, we sit on the back porch and pick at a platter of tuna chunks, olive tapenade, roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, cheese and Italian bread. The food tastes fresh and tangy, but it’s hard to sit still. I restrain myself through the meal, then say,” I’ve gotta make a few calls.”
I fly upstairs to call Wendy. She had a double mastectomy two years ago and has been a voice of experience and comfort since I was diagnosed. She did not have chemo herself, but says, “Lea, I know many women who are going through treatments now. We still walk together; they go to work, they feel okay. There’s some fatigue, but they’re not sick. They look great. This is a disappointment, but you’re going to be fine and chemo will make sure of that.”
Okay. Good. Thanks. Breathe. Breathe.
I call Joanne.
Joanne had a double mastectomy thirteen years ago. She did have chemo. And she has a spirit that barrels through that phone line to hug me and lift me up.
“You want this, Lea. Believe me. You don’t want little cells floating around making trouble. Chemo’s so different now. You won’t throw up. I know you won’t. You’ll be tired maybe, and then you’ll be through this and you’ll be fine. You want this.”
I want this. Well, not exactly, but Wendy and Joanne have said the right things and I can breathe again. I am fortified. And I can go back to the porch and tell Dave and my parents what my two friends said and I can say it with cheer and confidence. And they will believe me as I believe Wendy and Joanne.