Sharing the Guarded Facts of My Upcoming Surgery

(I think) I am ready to write publicly about my upcoming surgery.

From the beginning of my breast cancer experience, I have been very open about my diagnosis and comfortable with anyone knowing about it. I have felt rather private, however, about the details of my surgery; for the first months, I only discussed them with close friends. Though many people in my life surely know by now, they have yet to hear from me that on May 20th (just got the date this past week), I am having a left mastectomy.

uncertaintyAnd after months of being utterly torn, undecided, all-over-the-place about whether or not to do reconstruction—and about when and what type if I did reconstruction—I have decided to go with an implant at the time of the mastectomy.

Now I am staring at the blank page, not sure how to go on. Especially after baring my soul in so many other ways these past months and in so many past posts, why does sharing the fact of my upcoming mastectomy and reconstruction feel like one of those dreams where you (or at least I—have you had such dreams?) show up to work, or to the biggest party of the year, or to your children’s school, stark-naked?!

In one of her blog posts, Hareem Atif Khan shares that talking about her breast cancer—and even seeking medical attention at the first signs that something might be wrong—was hard because it meant talking about her breasts. Perhaps it’s because I am an American not a Pakistani woman that I am more comfortable talking about my breasts…. though only up to a point, it seems. I can talk breast  Imagecancer and chemotherapy for breast cancer and even surgery for breast cancer (breast, breast, breast). But talking about my actual breast—no, talking about the removal of my actual breast—suddenly makes me want to cover every inch of my body and point in the opposite direction so that no one will look at me. The real truth is, knowing that people will inevitably look at me and think, “She lost her breast,” made me feel “less-than” (and a lot of other unpleasant adjectives, too).

It took me many hours, days, weeks of thinking, talking, writing, researching, reflecting to get me to a decision about reconstruction. Though it feels like there were dozens of reasons for my uncertainty, I think I can actually pinpoint four of them.

One the one hand, there were my reasons to not reconstruct:

  1. My desire to resist a culture that makes women feel less-than for not looking a particular way.
  2. My commitment to not rush the healing process by trying to replace what is lost.
  3. My fear of surgery.

On the other hand, there was:

  1. My desire to feel comfortable in my body as I move through the world. My fear that I would not. (Is that two reasons?)

It is not that my list of “one” won out over my list of “three.” It is that the thinking and feeling behind my list of three changed.

Reason #1: I still want to resist a culture that makes women feel “less-than.” But I no longer feel the intense self-judgment about not resisting with my own, un-reconstructed chest. (I still don’t fully understand why I’d been so burdened with guilt, seeing as I’ve spent a lifetime resisting plenty on the one hand, but perpetuating the culture on the other with all kinds of behavior, such as donning make-up and high-heeled shoes.)

Reason #2: I still don’t want to rush my healing process. But I no longer feel like immediate reconstruction would be rushing my healing process—presumably because I’ve had more than five months to digest the fact that I have breast cancer and will need a left mastectomy. (Which doesn’t mean I don’t anticipate the need for more healing on the other side of my surgery. It just means that I am in a very different place than I once was.)

Reason #3: I’m still afraid of surgery. Which is why, when I started leaning toward doing reconstruction, I ultimately decided to go with immediate implant reconstruction—because if all goes well, I won’t need any additional, major surgeries (just a couple of outpatient procedures).

(I may share more about my decision-making process in upcoming posts. In the meantime, for more information about reconstruction, you might visit breastreconstruction.org. To read more about the choice to not reconstruct, I highly recommend breastfree.org.)

My Fear Is a Broken Dam

One week ago today, Josh and I met with my new surgeon (the old one being out of commission for awhile because of her own hand surgery). I wasn’t expecting the appointment to be emotional, rather just a “Hi, good to meet you,” and a standard check-in as I near the end of chemo and get ready for surgery (which is yet to be scheduled but should be sometime the week of May 18th).

It was just a “Hi” and a check-in, and yet, as soon as Josh and I were alone, I cried. I’m often surprised that I don’t cry more often, seeing as I am not only a deeply feeling person, but I also tend to wear those feelings openly. And yet, I’m not a big crier, can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cried through this experience. I admit, the crying feels good. (I also admit that though a full-blown cry-fest is rare, it’s not rare at all for my eyes to fill with tears; as my children will attest to, it happens almost anytime I read aloud a good book, for example.)

It feels good when my body makes tangible the inner emotion. It also feels good to cry with Josh, to feel his arms around me, to feel how much we are in this together.

Like earlier in the month, which was a second time I cried. (Twice in one month!) Josh and I were propped up in bed, side-by-side with computers on our laps, him studying away, me surfing breast cancer blogs as I got ready to launch my own. In the last few weeks, it seems I have suddenly been flooded with stories of recurrence: of women who, like me, were diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. But then years later, they were diagnosed again, and for many of these women, recurrence came with metastasis.

Sitting in bed with Josh the night of my first March cry, I was reading about Lisa Bonchek Adams, mother of three who passed away a few weeks ago of metastatic breast cancer, several years after she survived breast cancer the first time. And I burst into tears. (A full-blown cry fest this time.)

Mostly, I am not afraid. Mostly, I don’t think about death and dying and leaving Josh behind and most heart-wrenching of all heart-wrenching thoughts, leaving my children behind. Mostly I don’t think about not seeing them grow up, about not watching them fall in love and about missing their first broken heart; about never seeing their first apartments, never knowing what they’ll do for work, not watching them become parents themselves.

But in moments, like the other night, the fear rushes through me like a pounding river, like a broken dam, like a flood. And in its wake is a tremendous grief. Grief about something that hasn’t happened yet and hopefully never will happen, but it could, it could. And Josh and I know that more than ever now. That life is tenuous. That this moment really is all we have for sure.

My Day In Gratitude

I woke up this morning feeling a bit blue and a bit sorry for myself. I think I was emotionally hung over from yesterday’s no-big-deal appointment with the surgeon that nonetheless left me teary. Surgery has always been the scariest part of my treatment plan—me lying unconscious in a room full of strangers, none of “my people” there to fight for me, to keep on eye on me, to keep an eye on them. And here it is, right around the corner. Real.

So this morning, after I pulled myself out of bed and pulled back the curtains to a gray, rainy day, I decided I would practice gratitude. (For a quick and beautiful and moving dose of gratitude, I highly recommend this video, brought to me by my children via their to-be-grateful-for elementary school music teacher.) Gratitude has proven itself to ease my woes, buoy my spirit, shift my perspective. As I walked through my day, I compiled a mental list:

I was grateful for Harrison, who always, including today, kisses me and hugs me and waves, “Bye!” before running off to his classroom and his independent life.

I was grateful that I got to hold Sophie’s hand as I walked her to her classroom.

Grateful that I got to leave her with Ms. Brown, teacher extraordinaire.

Grateful that I ran into a woman I adore but rarely see, and that we got to chat in the parking lot about gratitude.

I was grateful for the warm rain.

Grateful for the mysterious mist that reminds me of my hometown, San Francisco.

Grateful for a morning spent with my friend Nunia, meditating, sharing our intentions for the week, writing side-by-side.

Grateful that I as I yawned and yawned and yawned with fatigue, I was sitting on my couch, a blanket spread across my lap and nowhere I had to be and no one I had to take care of for hours.

Grateful for the Cancer Connection and for Mary Ann and her tender, healing touch during my reflexology session.

Grateful that I had a car to drive me home.

Grateful that I had a home to return to.

Grateful that when my children came home from school, the three of us laughed together in the living room while they bounced their boundless energy on the couch and I listened, really listened, to them share about their days, and for 12 whole minutes, I refrained from nagging them about putting their lunch boxes away and washing their hands.

Grateful that after they washed their hands and put their lunch boxes away, we all gathered in the same room again, where Harrison played with his Legos and Sophie played piano and I read the paper on the couch, the three of us together.

Grateful for my view of the branches through the window whenever I looked up from the paper.

Grateful for the article about giant salamander bones I got to share with Harrison and for the kids’ maze and crossword page I got to share with Sophie.

Grateful for the sound of the rain.

Grateful for my writing and my writing groups and my writing friends.

Grateful for my colleague, Julia, who always comes through for me.

Grateful for my cousin Cathy (Josh’s really, but I’m officially claiming her as my own) for giving my heart new reason to grow.

Grateful for my arms and my legs and for managing to eek out a few sit-ups and push-ups.

Grateful for the delicious quiche that Shawn delivered on my doorstep and for the time spent with my family of four—Josh, Harrison, Sophie and me eating together at the dining room table.

Grateful for my doorstep and my dining room table.

Grateful for the sound of Sophie’s snoring and the feel of Harrison’s skin as I rubbed his back.

Grateful to have this life and this day.IMG_0389

What are YOU grateful for? I would love to know. (Maybe you’ll share your own list in a comment?)