For many years my best friend Marie and I would say to each other, “It could always be worse.” I didn’t realize how true that could be until the summer of 2014. I also came to believe in luck and how beauty can emerge from devastation.
Towards the end of 2010, anxious about my declining fertility, I tried to conceive (via sperm donor) but was unsuccessful. Six months later I was laid off from my well-paying but highly stressful corporate job. Luckily, the money I saved in hopes of being a single mother allowed me to support myself for over 3 years. I went on interview after interview. I began to feel like I was aged out of the job market. I started my own business as a personal organizer, helping people with hoarding issues and seniors sorting through medical bills and paperwork. Although it was satisfying work, it was inconsistent. I applied for a job at Container Store and was turned down.
One high point was meeting Brian. I was grateful for his calm and laid-back character. He never spoke a disparaging word of anyone. After so many melodramatic relationships, our time together was a long-awaited relief.
Eventually, though, I felt him withdraw and his feelings for me fade. The stress of our jobs or lack thereof added more conflict. When I suggested we take a break he did not object. We broke up before Christmas 2013.
I fell asleep on my couch at 10:30pm on New Year’s Eve. I accepted that I might not ever find the right partner. I was unemployed and lonely. Finally, I was offered a part time job with great people. Things were starting to get better. Or so I thought.
In the summer of 2014 I decided to schedule a mammogram, which I had delayed for two years. As in previous years I expected it to be a non-event. My grandmother Ruth, who I was named after, had breast cancer. I started getting tested at 38. This time I quickly received a terrifying diagnosis. My radiologist, a gentle, soft-spoken man, spoke to me bluntly and his urgency terrified me. I said, “Are you talking about the ‘c’ word?” He said yes and believed I had cancerous microcalcifications. Things were definitely getting worse, not better. He recommended a biopsy and surgery, within the month. Everyone believed the area was small and I would have a lumpectomy. Or so I thought.
The surgeon I eventually chose requested an MRI before we met face-to-face. I rushed to have it scheduled. She was kind and warm, but also straightforward and told me that not only was the cancer in the first breast twice the size originally thought, but there was also a large suspicious area in my other breast. The most shocking news was when she suggested a bilateral mastectomy, because to get clean margins, I would be left disfigured. My parents were with me, and after the surgeon left us in the exam room, I cried on my father’s chest like a child. I was upset the issues in my right breast were undetected in the initial mammogram and ultrasound, due to my dense tissue.
A previous event planner, keeping my ever-growing folder of slides and reports organized and “getting things done” provided me with a small but waning sense of control over my rapidly unraveling life. I felt crushed under all that was happening to me. I had cancer. The saying, “It could always be worse” was true. It can definitely get worse. My final diagnosis was widespread ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) in both breasts. From diagnosis to surgery two months elapsed.
I scheduled surgery for the beginning of September. I tried not to be consumed by worry but I was angry and afraid. Not only was I terrified of having surgery, but I was also losing my breasts and would have a body forever altered. I was single and 45. What man would possibly want me? My life was changing and I felt the better part of it was over.
After suffering through various invasive procedures and meeting with a plastic surgeon, I decided against reconstruction. I did not want additional surgery; I needed to move on quickly and heal. Instead of asking if I was okay, most people immediately questioned if was getting implants, and I tried not to get defensive, but lost patience. I wondered if my physical appearance meant more to them than my health.
I started falling asleep on my couch because TV distracted me; if I went to bed I would lay awake and cry. I lost weight.
I had been in touch with Brian erratically for several months. I never expected him to become a pillar of strength.
I was open with him about my upcoming surgery and he was concerned, but calm. I explained everything that was happening. He would take me out for a burger or drive us to Coney Island to distract me. He even joined me in the self-portraits I took, as I attempted to document my body. We did not fully resume our relationship but I was grateful for his quiet presence in my life, when everything else seemed unhinged and unpredictable. He sent me a text every morning before he went to work, and would call me during his lunch hour.
He offered to come to the hospital the day of my surgery but I said he shouldn’t; I would be under the influence of painkillers and knew he wouldn’t get paid for his time off. He offered to stay with me afterwards for a few days; one of our mutual friends spoke with him about what my condition would be and asked if he could handle the sight of blood or my incisions. He shrugged it off, which I attributed to his love of fishing and hunting. I wondered if his years of gutting fish and deer and bears might give him strength to witness my body.
The morning of my surgery Brian sent me a text: “Be brave baby, be brave.” My operation lasted over five hours and I struggled to emerge from the anesthesia. When I opened my eyes, I saw him standing by my bed. He reached over and stroked my hair. I later learned he arrived unannounced at the hospital while I was still in surgery and provided my mother with much-needed company. He stayed with me until I was moved into my room six hours later. He was going to sleep in a chair but my mother arranged for an aide to stay with me, and I whispered to him to leave and get some rest. On my bedside table he left a gift-wrapped box of my favorite cookies, which he had originally used to woo me two years earlier.
The day after I came home he brought over a duffle bag. He slept on the couch for fear of tossing in my bed and elbowing me in the chest. He washed my hair. He helped “milk” my drains, which is unpleasant as it sounds, and made sure clean gauze covered where the tubes exited my body. He unhooked my compression bra and examined my dressing; he was the first person to see my two 7.5” long incisions. One morning the bandages fell away and I shut my eyes and whimpered; I could not look at myself yet. He, however, was unflinching.
Two weeks post-surgery a small invasive area was found in my right breast, but my surgeon believed I was cured and my lymph nodes were unaffected. Unlucky in other areas of my life, perhaps now I was granted good fortune.
Two months later Brian tells me I am beautiful. He massages my scars and rubs my stiff back. When he lays his head on my chest he says he can feel my heart beating louder. Intimacy is new as I struggle with how my body has been transformed, but his quiet strength and tenderness is reassuring. Most importantly, I came to discover how love can be misplaced, and later found.