I spent the ten days after my cancer diagnosis driving to doctors’ offices, arguing with insurance companies, undergoing various body scans, and trying not to think about—or at least to not latch onto—worst case scenarios. Am I going to lose both breasts and my ovaries, too, and pass along a cancer gene to Sophie and Harrison? Does that pain in my stomach mean it’s spread? Worst scenario of all: Will my babies grow up without a mother?
When Josh and I met with the oncologist for the second time, ten days after my initial diagnosis, and she told us that the MRI and CAT scans showed no signs of metastasis, I gripped Josh’s thigh and teared up for the first time in a week. I was going to live. I was going to live! (Or at least I wasn’t going to die any week now of cancer.)
I wasn’t planning to say anything to the kids, but when we got home, it slipped out. I told them that we had just gotten good news from the doctor. Harrison stopped in his tracks to ask what. (Rare that he hears me the first time I say something. Rarer still that he actually responds right away. But he literally stopped in his tracks.)
“I still have breast cancer,” I said, “but the doctor says I’m going to be okay.”
Harrison ran over with a big smile and a big hug and such big relief in his nine-year-old body that I wanted to scoop him up and never-ever-ever let go.
Now I really have to be okay.
Last Sunday night, the night before my triple biopsy, I had a dream that seemed meaningful at the time and perhaps even more so now that I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. I don’t remember the details; I remember the heart of the matter. Which is that I had my period (to which I didn’t give any thought at first), and I was also quite pregnant—6 to 8 months so.
I was looking at myself in the mirror, noticeably pregnant, with a definite belly. But as I looked at myself, I thought about how my belly was smaller than I would expect on someone as pregnant as I was. I think I felt good about this at first—good that I wasn’t gaining tons of weight.
But then I registered the fact that I had my period and the mood shifted. I realized that I shouldn’t have my period if I were pregnant, what a bad sign that was! And the fear flooded in. Something was wrong. I don’t remember what happened next except that I knew then that I was having a miscarriage, that Josh and I would not be having another baby, and I was terribly, terribly sad. Graspingly sad. Wanting things to be different, desperately wanting to have this baby that I was losing.
(It feels important to share that Josh and I decided a couple of years ago that we do not want to have more children. So the suffering I felt in my dream is not about losing the chance of a child. I assume it instead has everything to do with a cancer diagnosis.)
One week ago today I got the news. Breast cancer. Josh and my folks and I meet with the oncologist today (after I get an MRI), and I wonder whether the information we gather will impact my mood. I keep saying (and feeling) that I feel strangely okay—and have since Saturday. Like I’ve settled into this new reality with a Zen-like acceptance that, I admit, leaves me feeling impressed with my “spiritual evolution.” Though I do also feel myself lingering in the sidelines, watching, waiting for some other emotional state to hit—wondering whether this is all some state of shock that will lift and leave me fetal. But I don’t feel in shock. I feel like I am putting one foot in front of the next, receiving what comes. Marsha, the closest thing I have to a therapist, often tells me that there can be sorrow without suffering—that suffering comes from resisting what is. Somehow I am not resisting and not suffering.
The other day a friend said what my mother has often said: that we only get what we can handle. (And that what we get makes us stronger.) I find more fear than comfort in that statement because more and more, I feel like I can handle…. Well, more and more. (Not physical torture. Please not the loss of my children nor Josh.) I feel like I can handle much more than I want to handle. I almost feel like I could handle the worst in this situation, but fuck fuck fuck I don’t want to leave my children without a mother, I don’t want to miss their growing up, I don’t want to leave Josh to do this life and this parenting without me, I don’t want to rip apart this incredible, happy life we all enjoy together.
But could I handle it? The way I feel these last several days, I think so. And that both gives me great strength and tremendous fear. I don’t want to get what I can handle.