One Family, Three Journeys

My mother

My mother found the lump in her left breast in 1985. She was 39 at the time and a few months before that had fallen off her bike. She thought it was just a bruise that hadn’t quite healed and continued with life. A life that included wrangling one rebellious teenage daughter and one absolutely wonderful one – I was an angel – packing up and moving from Cochin to Bombay, finishing up her computer programming course, finding a teaching job, and the 100 other things that were on her mind besides this annoying little lump.

But that lump didn’t go away and it didn’t stay little. So she had a lumpectomy to remove it and I remember the surgeon bringing it to her recovery room to show us. It was the size of a small egg with tentacles and managed to look both menacing and unimpressive at the same time. Then came the radical mastectomy and the chemo that wiped her energy out and the radiation that burned her throat.

But she recovered and was at the birth of all 4 beautiful grand kids. 20 years after her first surgery, she found the lump in the second breast. This one was smaller but she got a second mastectomy – the difference between her two scars and her recovery and her treatment plan is one of the many reasons why cancer research is so important!

Cut to 10 years after that and…..

My sister

My sister found the lump in her left breast after Thanksgiving 2015. Which was really crazy because just the year before that she had a genetic test that showed she didn’t have the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. Mutations that increase the risk of breast cancer to 85%. Genes that essentially act as brakes on the cell division control system.

Her genes were fine so what the fuck, universe of random chance?! Not cool at all! So like all well trained statisticians she went into research mode. Lots of reading and asking questions and data collection and looking at confidence intervals and power levels and regression analysis and there may have been some mild R programming – who can say! But she landed on the decision to have a lumpectomy.

The lump was analyzed and chemotherapy recommended. She lost her hair and had to wear a wig. Radiation followed and her hair grew back. Not the beautiful straight silky hair she had before, that looked like it came from a Pantene commercial – she got chemo curls! Soft curly hair that she had no idea how to deal with!

Cut to over a year after that and……

Me

I couldn’t feel the lump in my breast. Even when they told me where it was. That’s the sort of deep intimate relationship I have with my own body! It does stuff and hopes that I never find out – I know you’ve hidden 50 lbs of solid lard in there you asshole!!

Moving on…..

Every year I dutifully had my breasts pressed between two cold metallic plates down to the thickness of a Kraft single and imaged. This year, for the first time, I was also scheduled to get an MRI. Both breasts lit up on the MRI so a couple of days later I had an MRI guided core biopsy on the left side and an ultrasound guided biopsy on the right .

Side note: I know they say MRI is completely harmless but I came out and for a few minutes I drove north without a single thought….just sayin’……flipping hydrogen atoms around in a massive magnet seems super sketchy!

The left was a fibrocystic mass – benign and impotent. The right was an invasive carcinoma with both lobular and ductal features.

I had been expecting it. Breast cancer to me was like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman – a sure thing! Suddenly I was glad for my love of numbers because it became so much easier to deal with – you have a 16 mm mass that is Stage 1 and grade 2. It’s positive for estrogen and progesterone receptors and negative for HER2.

I decided to get a lumpectomy that I needed to get done before my semester started because I had two classes to teach in 3 weeks and the rest of my life to return to – aint got no time for cancer dammit! The surgery was a breeze, my oncogene dx type results suggested that chemotherapy was unnecessary so huzzah! I got back to teaching, my kids got back to alternately making my heart sing and my blood boil – so life was pretty much back to normal. Things are going great and according to plan I told myself……which is proof that I should really just stop talking to myself!

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Three weeks later the other shoe dropped. Unlike my sister, I am BRCA2 positive. Can I say that the X-Men comics and movies have not prepared me for this type of genetic mutation?! If I am going to be a mutant, why can’t it be of the beautifully toned, blue bodied, chameleon variety?! Or even the ass-kicking Ninja turtle with Renaissance painter names variety?! I’m calling BS BRCA2!

So alas no blue, but my cells want to divide. Not just the ones in my breast but in my ovaries and fallopian tubes and pancreas and skin and if I had a prostate, those too. They are just waiting for the right signal – which could come in 10 years or tomorrow or in a year or next month. My risk for a second really bad breast cancer is 20-40%, ovarian cancer 20-40% – and all the other cancers greatest hits get assigned higher than the average risk percentages too.

Suddenly it’s not simple and algorithmic anymore – it’s messy and emotional and I feel unmoored. I’ve never given so much thought to my breasts in a long time. They’ve just sort of been there – hanging around – first ornamental, then functional, and now just judgemental! I’ve joked about them – how they’re snowbirds who head south every winter and never quite make it back home, how I’m going to design an elaborate rope and pulley system I can use with counterweights to hitch them up every morning, how I can just toss them over my shoulder in a few years – that irreverence is coming to bite me in the ass a bit!

Thank god for my mother who asked, whats wrong. I tearfully tell her – if they take my breasts and my ovaries and my fallopian tubes – what part of me will remain a woman? It’s a stupid question and an even stupider fear – I get it – it’s not rational, but for one brief nanosecond, neither am I. My mother doesn’t miss a beat – you are not a woman because you have breasts or ovaries, you’re you, it’s in your brain and your heart! And in one minute my 72 year old science teacher mother has nailed the distinctions between gender identity, gender expression, and birth gender. Shockingly, it’s not about what bathroom you choose to use!

The plastic surgeon measures my breasts and tells me I’m a good candidate for a nipple and skin sparing procedure. Can I say that in the last month more people have seen me topless than in my entire life so far! I’d have fewer people see my breasts if I had strolled onto a topless beach in Spain….and I’d be in Spain!! But nowadays I walk into a doctor’s office and immediately find myself casually discussing my nipples – this is a level of familiarity I’ve not had with a lot of people.

He goes on to tell me that I’m also quite asymmetric – breast-ually speaking – which just strikes me as being super judgy! I mean these were working breasts man!! But then I have to admit my left breast has been riding the right one’s coattails for a while. The right one produced all the good milk, the left one has pretty much just been drafting! It’s the one that’s kept me from walking in a straight line – instead I’ve had to walk in increasingly larger diameter circles to get anywhere – it was getting exhausting but I hit my 10,000 step per day mark quite easily!

So at the end of October on Halloween, ironically Breast Cancer Awareness month, they will come off. My old, exhausted, tired, potentially malignant breasts will be put to pasture – sent to a farm upstate to live out the rest of their lives – thanks for the mammaries guys! I will get new ones – not upgrades or downgrades – just repurposed – like a shabby chic couch. I may have the body of an overweight menopausal old-before-her-time woman, BUT I’m going to have the perky breasts of a 16 year old – so, glass half full bitches!

Also, a big thank you to everyone who has reached out and offered support and wished me luck and told me they are praying for me and offered me a joint and volunteered to stop by and pluck out my chin hairs – I am verklempt! I don’t deserve you but I’m keeping you anyway! Oh, and get your boobies checked out!

And now – the songs that I’m listening to for some much needed positive vibes and girl power!! Feel free to contribute yours in the comments! Listening to them in a few days while high on narcotics should be da bomb!

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