Breast Cancer: The Journey Begins

I learnesomeone-needs-youd this week that I have breast cancer. It has only been a couple of days now, and I think there is still a bit of disbelief. Having breastfed five babies from birth through ages one to three, I suffered from some sort of illusion that this would protect me from breast cancer. My mother had it, but I was bottle fed, so I thought I had some extra protection that she hadn’t had.

Because of this illusion, I hadn’t been terribly concerned when after a routine mammogram they called me back in to get a second mammogram and ultrasound. I’d had a friend have that same experience and it had been nothing, so I was completely unconcerned. I had to wait until the next week for the appointment, and in the meantime I didn’t even give it a thought. It wasn’t until I was walking from my car to the clinic that I felt a jolt, that it occurred to me that what I was doing might possibly be a significant moment in my life. After that I couldn’t shake it. I went to the bathroom, which smelled like a hospital bathroom, and I remember thinking how I really like hospitals for some unfathomable reason, and maybe that was a good thing. As I sat waiting for the radiologist to review the new mammograms and then the ultrasounds, I thought about the book I was reading at the time, and how I should remember that (Afterward by Jennifer Mathieu, about two abducted children who were found and came home).

The radiologist came in and told me that there was something significant there. He showed it to me on the ultrasound, and it looked like a storm cloud in my breast. He said that I needed to get a biopsy. I calmly accepted all this. There was still some sort of a disconnect here, but as I walked to my car I found myself feeling choked up, found tears coming to my eyes, completely unattached to any thoughts going on in my mind, just a spontaneous well.

It was another couple of weeks until I had the biopsy. My daughter and her husband work for a theater company, and she was actually acting in one of the shows and it was performance week, so I wanted to be able to help care for my grandson. So the biopsy was put off until the next week, Thanksgiving week. And because it was Thanksgiving week, I had to wait the long holiday weekend before I could get the results.

Early Monday morning I got a call from my doctor’s office asking me to schedule an appointment to come in to talk to her. I knew that meant bad news. She is a busy, busy doctor, and would not schedule an appointment to say, you are okay, just get your yearly mammos. When I got off the phone again I got that inexplicable feeling of being choked up and teary.

The reason I say it is inexplicable is because I don’t think I am afraid. Well, I am. In some ways I am shaking in my boots terrified, but that is more about my ability to take care of my family in the here and now than the c-word itself. Like I said, my mother had breast cancer. I remember when she was diagnosed she told me that her first thought was, “At least I will get to find out what happened to Michaela.” What she actually meant was, “At least I will get to see Michaela,” but she couldn’t say that, because that would be saying that she believed Michaela was dead. But that didn’t happen. She had a lumpectomy and some radiation treatments and it was over. Cancer was gone, and never came back. She died some years later of emphysema instead.

My dad also had cancer. Lung cancer, inoperable because his lungs were too severely damaged from emphysema, so he also had radiation therapy. This was 30 years ago when the word cancer equaled death in my mind, so it surprised me that my dad just went on living and living and living, year after year. His bad lungs left him disabled, but having cancer seemed kind of to assume the importance having crooked teeth, only less noticeable. He also died some years after his diagnosis, of another condition completely unrelated to his lungs or his cancer.

So I’m not so afraid of this C word diagnosis. My mother blazed a trail through this breast cancer, and as I told my doctor, I figure I will just follow her path until someone tells me different.

And yet, there is something else there, that thing that brings spontaneous tears to my eyes. And there is treatment to look forward to, one way or the other. According to my doctor I will have surgery to determine how far the cancer has spread into the breast tissue, because what I have is the “invasive” kind, and they can’t tell this on mammo and ultrasound. I will also have to have a lymph node biopsy to see if it has spread there. I am not a person with a high pain tolerance, and I remember my mother telling me in particular that the lymph node biopsy was the most painful part. So there is that. I also don’t like general anesthesia. Last time I had it I coughed for six weeks afterwards, presumably due to something they did with the breathing tube.

In other words, I am not afraid for my life, but I am a little bit fearful of the journey. Although at the same time, I am maybe in the far back of my mind just a little bit afraid. I am famous for being strong, it seems, having survived my daughter’s kidnapping, not that this is a sign of strength because it’s not as though it’s something you choose to do, like climbing Mt Everest. It’s more like you find yourself on the top of Mt Everest and have to make your way down or die there. You are there, you do it. If I have developed a skill here, it is the ability to deny, distract, and bury my feelings so deep I don’t even recognize them anymore. I think this is probably a character flaw more than strength, but it has certain benefits for survival I guess.

But. God. There is God. In my wandering ways, I wandered back into his arms awhile ago and made the decision to just stay there whether I had all the answers or not. So here I am. The day after I received the diagnosis my pastor called me, and he prayed a prayer for me that just made its place in my heart. He talked about Peter walking on the waters that should have consumed him. I have always identified with Peter. After all, he denied Jesus three times, but Jesus had foreknown this, had told Peter it would happen, had told him that Satan had asked permission to sift him like wheat, but that Jesus had prayed for him, that his faith would not fail, and that once he had turned back, he was to strengthen his brothers. I have always felt that deeply as a call to me in my own denials. But my pastor went on to pray for me, that I would be able to step out and walk on the waters that wanted to consume me.

I knew this would be what I would carry with me on this journey, that whenever I was afraid this is the picture that I would bring to my mind, of me walking on the waters that want to consume me, because God is with me. Jesus will hold my hand when the waters are smooth and clear, and when they are stormy and dark. The song Oceans by Hillsong came to my mind also, on a continuous loop.

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand
And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

I have always been one to believe that there is a purpose in what happens to us. This morning I was reading in Isaiah, chapter 30, and among other things, the following verses spoke to me.

He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry As soon as he hears it, he answers you. And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you saying,¬†‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.

They speak to me, because if I have a prayer, it is for me to know the way and walk in it, to do what I have to do, to accomplish what I need to accomplish. There are always so many things in the way of this, and I am so unsure of what the way is. If you want to pray for me, pray please that I find this way and actually walk in it, that my feet follow and my hands do what it is that I need to do, that I am able to sow the seed I have been given. And that I can care for my family while doing all this, please, as in the following verses, “And he will give rain for the seed with which you sow the ground, and bread, the produce of the ground, which will be rich and plenteous.”

So here we are, and off we go. I will check in along the way and let you know how the journey is going. And for those of you who are also going through hard things of any kind, let me share with you my song, Oceans by Hillsong, in this exceptionally beautiful video filmed on the Sea of Galilee.