By: Katherine Malmo
I was 31 the day I noticed something was wrong with my left breast. My husband and I had just returned from an 8-month round-the-world honeymoon. We were trying to start a family. I was writing an article about a national regatta for a sailing magazine and I spent the day on the race committee boat, taking notes and pictures. I did my best to stay out of the way, not just during the pre-race sequence when everyone was trying to find a clear line of sight to the starting gun, but the whole day, as if I could hide from my mounting fear.
That morning after my shower I had noticed the swelling and retracted nipple. Then I found the hard spot, and I knew it was all bad. For years I’d managed to get through life with mysterious gastro-intestinal health problems. The doctors all said I was fine. I looked fine – my teeth were straight and white and my hair was shiny. As soon as I saw my deformed breast I realized I may have been looking in the wrong place.
A week later, my husband and I met with a doctor who told us that breast cancer treatment had come a long way, and we found ourselves walking down a cherry blossom-littered sidewalk with a printout list of doctors’ appointments, and a brand new breast cancer diagnosis.
I went dark.
In the two weeks that followed I was diagnosed, more specifically, with Inflammatory Breast Cancer. I cried in unfamiliar parking lots. I laid on the grass in my back yard fully clothed in the full sun. I called friends and family. I yelled at them. I Googled. I read. I researched. I called help lines and begged them to find someone with exactly what I had. (They’re all dead, aren’t they?) I met with therapists. I sipped green tea while I read an article that said I had a 10% chance of living 5 years.
When I couldn’t take one more thing, my oncologist suggested my husband and I meet with a fertility specialist. We had a weekend to decide if we would delay my treatment and pump my body full of estrogen – feeding my hormone-positive tumor – to harvest eggs. We had 48-hours to decide if my life was more or less important than the lives of our unborn children. Over a mediocre dinner of pork chops topped with something sweet and tart, like cherries, we agreed we’d adopt. Maybe. Someday. After all, what was the point of having children if I wasn’t there to help raise them?
I went darker.
I wished I were the kind of person who could trust and listen and wait for the right outcome. I’m not patient. I’m a realist, a pragmatist. When I was told there was a 90% chance this would kill me, I believed it. I decided I would face my death and come to terms with it. My road would be short but sweet.
I stayed dark through 28 weekly chemotherapy injections, months of nausea, hot flashes, hormonal swings, neuropathy, insomnia; I was obsessed with my own death. I found a new therapist who said, “Katherine, death is a landscape. You can visit but you can’t stay.” I repeated these words to myself a million times a day. I wrote them on scraps of paper and carried them in my pocket. They went through the wash then the dryer; I slept them, ate them, drank them in my morning tea. I held onto them tightly when everything else was slipping past.
I had surgery. I had radiation. I learned to weld.
Of course my story is much more involved. There were support groups, complications, painful choices. There were saints and villains, artists, dogs, soups, nurses, compliments and insults. Doctors were abandoned, and new ones were consulted. There were new friends and dinners, candles and stories. Dead friends and lost years. I can’t write it all here in this small space. I’ve written word after word, filling blog posts, stories, and chapters. I wrote a book.
Last May I passed my five-year cancerversary (anniversary of diagnosis). I am told I am cancer-free, and my gastrointestinal problems are less mysterious and more manageable. Today I’m just another overwhelmed mother of a “spirited” child, trying to hold it together in the grocery store.
But there is always the threat of recurrence. You can still see fear in my eyes. I try not to think about the landscape to which I tried to relocate. I try not to think about the tumors that could be growing on my bones or in my lungs or in the lungs of my husband, child, or friends. I try to be more kind and patient with everyone, and to bring fresh broccoli from the garden to the renter who is dying of lung cancer in the apartment above our garage.
My grandmother turned 89 last week. We went to the beach on a hot day. She was too modest and ashamed of her “sagging skin” to wear a swimming suit but she couldn’t resist the lure of the water, and with some encouragement she walked right into the lake, fully clothed, up to her neck. I know that when I am old I will miss some things more than others. I’ll miss diving into that deep black lake on a hot summer day, carrying my girl on my shoulders, the slow shift from the heel to toe edge on a newly waxed snowboard, the slide of a small sailboat as I accelerate out of a roll tack. I hold onto all this and I try to appreciate that I am one of the few people who has a clear line of sight to the committee boat. And, because light travels faster than sound, even when it’s dark I can see the spark of the starting gun before anyone else hears the shot.
Katherine Malmo www.hystericalmommynetwork.com