July 14, 2010
It’s hard to know how to pass the time while you’re awaiting a phone call from your breast surgeon. You attempt to work, but it’s tough to stay focused. You try making light of the situation: “Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it was cancer,” I remark to my fiancé, Peter. “New breasts!” (He looks unamused.) You try not touching the cherry-size lump in your right breast that caused the radiologist to exclaim she was “very worried” while she performed the biopsy.
And then you take a deep breath when the phone finally rings, at 7:28 p.m. “The biopsy is showing a cancerous growth,” the doctor says gently. Other words are said: invasive ductal carcinoma. Surgery. Chemo. Radiation. I’m a reporter, so I scribble down notes. When I get off the phone, Peter glances at the notes and immediately envelops me in a hug.
This will change everything. My health. My wedding plans. My hope to have a baby in the next few years. My financial stability. My hair. My body. I start dialing the most important people in my life—my parents, my three sisters, my best friends—to tell them the news. I make every one of them cry.
Peter and I wander around Miami in a daze. We’re here—in one of our favorite places, where we first vacationed together—to pick a wedding venue. (The trip was paid for before we got the cancer news, so we decided not to cancel it.) Normally I’m a nervous flier, but on the trip down I felt fearless, thinking: Go ahead, plane, crash. It sounded better than cancer treatment. I hate being poked and prodded. A few days ago, I wept as a nurse inserted an IV—just the first in a long series of sticks.
In South Beach, we sit with event planners and pretend to care whether the macadamia-crusted mahimahi can be served poolside. The rest of the time, we try to enjoy the ocean, the mojitos, and the desserts. But I can barely eat. Any day, I should receive the results of a scan that will show whether the cancer has spread beyond my breast to my liver or lungs, meaning it could be terminal. I watch my BlackBerry so obsessively that a pickpocket takes the opportunity to remove my wallet from my bag.
I’m not sleeping well. I’ve never been a morning person, but lately my eyes pop open at 6 a.m. I used to wake up thinking, Coffee. Now I think, Cancer.
Why didn’t I go to Paris/Ireland/Disney World when I had the chance? Why didn’t I buy that dress/bag/apartment? I just purchased 10-year rights to the URL of my name so I could create a website for my writing. Will my URL outlive me? I think about my two adorable nieces, ages 3 and 5, and calculate how old they’ll be if I die in two years. In five years. In eight.
On the third day of the trip, I get the results. Clear, except for the breast tumor. A giant sigh of relief, and another round of phone calls to the family.
Peter and I spend our last day in Florida with friends, swimming in Coral Gables. I’m able to have fun, but I feel a heaviness weighing on me. I’m scared to go back home to New York City, where my cancer treatment will soon begin.
Most big decisions in my life have come only after lengthy deliberation. Not so with cancer. The doctors laid out my options and gave me a week to make the call. Should I have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy? If I pick the latter, should I have just the right one taken off or, to be on the safe side, go for a bilateral mastectomy (meaning both breasts are removed)?
And I’m facing more tough choices. The first is whether I should take steps to preserve my fertility. Chemotherapy could make me infertile—and even if it doesn’t, I will need to take antihormonal drugs, because my cancer is fueled by estrogen and progesterone. So I’ll be 41 by the time I can safely bear children. But the process of extracting my eggs, fertilizing them, and storing the frozen embryos is expensive (about $9,000 out-of-pocket for one cycle, plus $1,000 a year for storage) and arduous (10 doctor visits, 30 needlesticks, and surgery to retrieve my eggs). I want the best chance of becoming a biological mother. So I decide: yes.
I struggle even more over which type of breast surgery to have. My sister Pam has called me every day since my diagnosis. When I explain why I’m leaning toward a lumpectomy over a mastectomy, she says, “I think that makes a lot of sense, and that’s the right decision.” She says the same thing when I ultimately choose to have a bilateral mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy. It’s the perfect response both times.
Before this diagnosis, Peter and I probably both assumed I’d live longer than he would. Women tend to outlive men; plus, he smoked a pack a day for 12 years. Still, Peter proposed to me thinking I was a healthy woman, able to have children, with a career, not to mention breasts and hair. I wonder out loud if going ahead with our marriage is fair to him.
Peter has no patience for this sort of talk. “What would you do if I were diagnosed with cancer?” he asks. I say I’d do everything I could to help him get through it. “And that’s what I’ll do,” he says. “What happens to you happens to us. If you’re going to die, you’re going to die married—to me!” We joke that as a widower, he’d get lots of sympathy sex. Humor helps us cope. But, quite honestly, the only thing that makes the idea of dying on him remotely tolerable is knowing we could have children. That’s why we are the proud parents of six frozen embryos.
In quieter moments, thoughts of death come unbidden. One day, lying in bed, I think about what I’ll wear to my funeral. I settle on my navy blue knit jacket with three-quarter sleeves and a Peter Pan collar. Very Jackie O. I think about my family’s grief and I start to choke up. And then I become exasperated: Am I really going to sit here and ruin my afternoon worrying about the (hopefully distant) future? I tell Peter about my daydream, and that jacket is henceforth known between us as my “burial jacket.” I feel uncomfortable every time I put it on.