Ten years ago this week, I was deconstructed and reconstructed by two surgeons methodically bent on ridding me of cancer.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I remember saying to myself, with great regularity in the days leading up to surgery, “I just need 10 more years. Just 10 more years…”
At 41, I was officially overdue for my first mammogram when I learned that my younger sister had found a lump on her own breast. I wept loudly at the thought of losing her as my mind raced to the worst possible outcome, and I made an appointment for myself out of respect for her.
My sister’s scare proved to be benign, but, for me, that first baseline mammogram led to a different outcome. I was diagnosed on March 21st with an early, but aggressive, breast cancer.
The call came while I was at work, my surgeon’s detached compassion offering extensive details and diagnostic information which I tried to absorb, but it’s hard to hear much after the word “cancer.” I hung up the phone and looked down at my right breast, thinking it felt like a large poisonous snake, and I just wanted it cut off of me, on the spot, anesthesia be damned. Then I wailed and keened, in mourning for myself.
Ten days later I underwent a mastectomy and reconstruction. It was April Fool’s Day, and the irony has never been lost on me.
Like so many cancer survivors with whom I’ve spoken, the illness is often surrounded by mystery and magic. There was no history of the disease in my family. Mystery. I was immediately surrounded by astounding support and love from family and friends and strangers who came out of the woodwork to help. Magic. And I am quite sure I would have continued delaying that first mammogram had it not been for my sister’s scare. Mystery and magic.
Survivors also talk about the gift of cancer. No, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy, but it’s true–cancer offers its share of gifts as well. For me, the greatest gift of all was a perfectly placed, well-delivered kick in the ass from the Universe. The kick came with a notecard. It said, “What the hell are you waiting for?”
If we’re lucky enough to get past a Major Obstacle, like cancer, it’s like getting a second chance to do the things we want to do–and do them right. Our perspective shifts. Lifelong fears of failure or success or whatever dissipate, because time now seems truly short, and there’s a lot of living to be done.
I just wanted ten more years to get it right.
Other than cancer, and the loss of my father that same year (also to cancer), this has been the best decade of my life.
Two months after surgery, and slightly against medical advice, I flew to Tucson for a music competition and came in third. The next year, I went into the studio and made my first record. I fell in love with my producer, we married, and made two more records. The new one just one a nifty award. We’re working on a fourth recording right now.
Seven years ago, I took a job that became a passion. Through it, I’ve met hundreds of men and women who rise every morning in an effort to make their communities and schools safer, happier, healthier places. They light the world with their work.
And on my 50th birthday, I started this blog to experience a few new things and report on them. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know how to do that, but I can learn.” In fact, it’s a good feeling.
Like Dorothy returning to Kansas, having faced her fears and slain a wicked witch, I’ve learned that everything I need to live fully and happily will always be within arm’s length.
I still haven’t paddled down the Amazon, seen the pyramids, or sipped wine in Tuscany. To be sure, I’d like all three of these adventures and many more. But they’re not necessary to my happiness.
Cancer, however, was.