Last Sunday I pulled on my bathing suit and headed outside to the pool. This is an anomaly. I rarely inflict the Ruins upon an unsuspecting world. I typically enter September rueing the evaporation of Summer, and the approach of shorter, cooler days. I miss the rabble of little kids. I wish I had splashed around more, eaten more ice cream, read beach books. This summer, my body was a No Swimming Zone. For health reasons. This was the summer of Janet’s dance with breast cancer. Jancer, if you will. (Sorry, I could not resist.)
Two mammograms and a biopsy had not convinced me that I might have cancer. No lumps, no family history. I was purposefully bleaching the silicone in our shower when my Primary Care Physician called. Hint: If the Doctor herself calls, it is not the best news. Cancer. She was very reassuring. Early, non-invasive. I would not die from this (cool). Scrubbing resumed. It would be 5 hours until Steve came home. You really cannot drop this nugget into an air shift. After the bathroom, I attacked kitchen drawers. This adrenaline would not be wasted.
He thinks “what’s happening?” is a rhetorical question, and he asks it every single night. On this night, he got more than he bargained for. Cancer. He is a man of action, and he started working the phones in search of surgical recommendations.
It’s a good time to have wise friends. Doctors Don and Patty Higgins recommended Dr. Colleen Hagen for surgery, and she moved heaven and earth to get it scheduled. (We were meant to be: we share the exact same birthday, including the year.) I will treasure her scribbled pre-op drawings, with droopy, age appropriate breasts, as long as I live.
I programmed my cancer treatment along holiday lines. Therefore, lumpectomy: Friday before Mother’s Day. Lymph nodes removed. I woke up to my 3 sons, Steve and news of clear lymph nodes. Yippee. Best. Day. Ever.
At the post surgical consult, a fast check up was followed by a request to go to Room 4. Hint 2: If you need to go to the a consultation suite, you need more surgery. Non-invasive cancer turned out to be a little peskier, hence a second surgery to get better margins was scheduled for Memorial Day Friday. It was a snap. I knew the drill. I felt good enough to walk the entire Pet Parade route two weeks later with the family, Rosie yanking me on her leash, and a fabulous sports bra immobilizing my shape shifted chest. Best. Day. Ever.
Next stop: Radiation.
After a few weeks of healing, I set up a radiation schedule. Again, my daughter-in-law and good luck led me to Dr. Kapila Kalakota at Amita in Hinsdale. I scheduled 16 daily sessions of broad radiation (weekends off, YAY!) followed by 4 hyper focused hits. I started the week of July 4th. Ernest and Patrick administered Dr. K’s plan and I cannot begin to express how kind and wonderful the medical care and staff support was.
Oh, the courage I saw. It is humbling to have a good prognosis (cancer lite I called it) and to huddle in a waiting room of brave women. Some are awaiting treatment that is a long shot, some adding radiation insult to chemo injury. Some, like me, are there for better odds against reoccurrence. Every woman I spent time with in the dressing room with has a big, hard story. They each inspired me. Changed me.
As custom demands, I rang a bell to mark the end of radiation on July 29. Best. Day. Ever.
There is a sign next to the bell that says “Let your Faith be Greater than your Fear” and I must say that it comforted me. I have faith. My friend and Steve’s fellow broadcaster, Tom O’Toole was treated by Dr. K. last year for a far more ominous cancer. On my first day there, he visited me and modeled strength and optimism. He and his wife both talked me through glimmers of fear. He told me that an image that helped him remain positive was to conceive of the beams supersizing strength and prayers. Every time the door was closed and the machine started whirring, I picked someone who needed prayers and I sent them via my force field. To be honest, the treatment was so short in duration that I never made it beyond one decade of the rosary or one free-form prayer. I hope they hit their marks. I sent some to Tom and Colleen for being sturdy and inspiring.
Radiation is cumulative, with burn and fatigue peaking a few weeks after the conclusion of treatment. On the day predicted to be my nadir, August 11, Steve and I headed to Detroit to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary and my Shrine High Class of 1968 (crap) reunion. It was a ceremonial declaration that cancer wasn’t scheduling us any longer. New goalpost. Best. Day. Ever.
This last weekend of Labor Day finds me free to frolic in the pool, to get wet, to hoist grandkids and to look forward. I can sleep on my stomach again. I will throw away underwire bras. I will take medicine for 7 years, and I will work my butt off to counter the side effects. Every day is a bonus. Best. Day. Ever.
I decide to finally speak about this because I boxed Steve in for months with an ever-shifting “date to talk about Janet’s cancer.” It was hard for him. He respected my desire to control the narrative (to borrow an expression from Hamilton). He stumbled into some dead-ends on the radio, extricated himself, and never once complained about this detour from his open-book broadcasting model. (Remember, this IS a man who announced my first pregnancy on the air before I had told my Mom.) He has been the sturdiest of partners, and a wonderful nurse. My family has been a joyous distraction and cheering section. Friends overwhelmed me with kindness. I want to share, and I will. I will answer questions, address curiosities. There are some moments that require dissemination. (My boys, each returning to their childhood personas..)
I reject the notion that cancer is a gift. It has brought me more gifts than I can count in one outing, and I need to highlight the grace I received. Bear with me.
Hint 3: Get a mammogram. The timing of my screening was miraculous. Even 6 months could have created a very different script.
I am not finished talking about this detour, because I have vignettes of joy, silliness and courage to share. Best. Life. Ever.