Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Five Stages

When me and my cancer woke up this morning, we were immediately plunged into a horrible quagmire of worry and depression. In fact, waking up is pretty much the worst part of the day when you have cancer, because every single morning, for just a few seconds, I think to myself, “What an awful nightmare! Thank God none of that was real!” But the relief melts away in seconds when I realize that actually, every single part of it was and is totally, completely, undeniably real.

When the radiologist called on the day after Christmas to tell me I had cancer (worst Christmas present ever), she warned me that I might experience the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. She didn’t really give me a timeline for experiencing these, and I would say I experienced all five of them within the first 30 seconds of finding out. Then, as the days went on, I realized that those five emotions are not really sufficient to explain the runaway emotional rollercoaster that is a cancer diagnosis. So, these are my new and improved Five Stages of Finding Out You Have Cancer!

1. Temporary deafness. I don’t know what it is, but when someone says the word “cancer,” you lose the ability to hear the rest of their sentence. I know I was on the phone with this radiologist for like 20 minutes while she explained what the next steps would be for my now-cancerous self, but the call right might as well have been a text message that said “u have cancer lol” for all I remember of it. Even afterwards, when my parents and my brother tried to talk to me about it, I felt like I was lying at the bottom of a pool and they were shouting at me from above the surface, their words distorted and muted.

2. Manic inspirational Pinterest quote searching. A few hours after my temporary deafness subsided, I morphed into Oprah. I was like a fountain of crappy needlepoint sayings, spouting out bullshit like, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger!” and “God wouldn’t give me anything I couldn’t handle!” I wouldn’t call it hopefulness, exactly; it was more like last-minute, panic-induced mania, probably induced by the same biological response that causes all your capillaries to explode to warm you moments before you die of hypothermia.

3. Public crying. Once I realized that no amount of typographic posters talking about hope and love were going to undo the fact that I would have my breasts cut off, my body pumped full of poison and my bald head on display for all to see for at least six months, I couldn’t stop myself from crying. I mean, like, not even for a few minutes. I cried when I woke up. I cried over the breakfast I couldn’t eat. I cried while watching CNN for hours, hoping to hear some news stories of people that were even worse off than I am. I cried while looking at Facebook. I cried on the toilet. I cried in the shower. I cried in the car. I cried in the yard. It didn’t matter who was around or if they were looking at me or if they were looking alarmed or what. I cried on the airplane (if you recall, I was in Costa Rica when I was told that I had cancer – the one perk of this was that United then upgraded me to first class, but I was sitting away from my family). As I was sobbing hysterically, the woman next to me said comfortingly, “Oh, honey, what’s wrong? Boy troubles?” I think that’s when I really realized I was too young for this bullshit.

4. Googlemania. If you are ever diagnosed with a deadly disease – and I pray to God that you never are – STAY. THE. EFF. AWAY. FROM. GOOGLE. Dr. Google is not a very good physician. He’s full of statistics that will get in your head and make you certain – and I mean certain – that you are going to die. After a few hours of Googling horrible things like “how long before breast cancer metastasizes,” “how many people are stage IV breast cancer at diagnosis”, “what if my lymph nodes are enlarged with breast cancer”, I was pretty much ready to roll over and wait for the cancer to ravage my body and leave me a dead, hollowed-out shell of myself before age 28. Finally, I vowed that I just didn’t care what Google or the stats had to say. Only 0.3% of breast cancer cases occur in women under age 30. Statistics already screwed me once. I ain’t listening to them again.

5. Drugz. Finally, some kind-hearted doctor realized that a 25-year-old girl who can barely even cope when Modcloth is sold out of the dress she wants really just is not equipped to deal with a cancer diagnosis on her own. This wonderful doctor wrote me a prescription for a combination of anti-depressants and benzos, which is something they often give to soldiers with PTSD. I feel that the comparison is appropriate. After all, I’m about to go into battle.

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The worst dubstep concert I’ve ever been to

Today, I had to get a breast MRI. If you don’t know (and why would you?), a breast MRI is a mildly uncomfortable procedure where you lay face-down on a table, go into a massive tube and a technician bombards you with the sounds of clanging magnets to take approximately 1 trillion pictures of the inside of your chest. The whole thing takes an hour but you can’t so much as twitch or the pictures all become worthless. Oh, and for the pictures to come out your blood has to be injected with a contrast dye.

The MRI checks everything – all your breast tissue, all your lymph nodes, your spine, your lungs and plenty of other areas of interest. Then you spend a few days in total agony wondering whether or not the results will show a single cancerous lump – a relatively curable condition – or a million distant metastases to every vital organ in your body – the disease’s final, terminal, incurable stage.

So no stress, right?

When I was on the phone scheduling this procedure, the nurse asked me, “Are you claustrophobic?”

I thought about it for a second, then said, “Hmm, well, no…I don’t think –”

In the corner, my mom was frantically waving her hands. “She’s asking if you want to be sedated!” she mouthed emphatically.

“Actually, I am highly claustrophobic. Like, very,” I corrected myself. “I want all of the drugs. All the ones you have. Like, lots of them.”

“How much do you weigh?” she asked, gauging dosage.

“1,000 pounds,” I said. “I need…like…a lot of sedation.”

See, one thing about a cancer diagnosis is that once it happens to you, it becomes the only thing you can think about. And I mean, the only thing. When people ask me, “How’s it going today?” It’s all I can do not to blurt, “Terribly, oh my God! So terribly! I HAVE CANCER!” Meeting new people, shaking their hands, it is honestly a struggle not to blurt out, “Hi, I have cancer. My body is full of cells, mutating at this very moment, acquiring the ability to reproduce at unprecedented rates, travel to my distant organs and choke off my life force with their immorality.” I had not thought about a single thing but cancer since my diagnosis – sometimes in a hopeful, I-can-beat-this way but mostly in a despairing, wailing, sobbing, planning-my-own-funeral kind of way. So the thought of being sedated, even for an hour, was so tantalizing that it’s almost impossible for me to describe it.

I got one measly Xanax as my sedation. Then I was lead into a room where a nurse explained the procedure to me, making sure I understand just how incredibly important it was that I not so much as burp while on the MRI table or I’d cost my insurance company $1 trillion in wasted MRI imaging. All of the pressure was sort of starting to mount on me as she began to prepare my IV. She tied off both of arms with tourniquets trying to find a vein, which was difficult. Full disclosure, this was probably difficult because I have not eaten a single solid meal since my biopsy on December 21, I now weigh well under 100 lbs and I was probably dehydrated since I don’t care much about drinking water anymore now, either.

By now my heart was pounding. She inserted the IV and then started talking about how the MRI would check everything – my other breast, my lymph nodes – and how it shows all kinds of things, things you can’t even feel, I could have dozens of cancers, all floating around…my heartrate shot through the roof.

“I’m going to inject you with some saline now to flush your IV,” she said. She plunged some clear fluid into my IV and I panicked a bit. She looked alarmed, which made me more alarmed. By now I was approaching full-blown panic attack.

“Let me try that again,” she said. She pushed the plunger all the way in. Instantly, I stopped breathing and became unbearably light-headed and dizzy. Then everything went black.

The next thing I knew, several paramedics were yelling around me. As I swam back into consciousness, I could see the nurse’s concerned face. I sort of recognized her, but I found myself wondering what all these people were doing gathered around my bed. But then I realized I wasn’t in my bed. I was on the floor. I had passed out.

Any “syncopal episode,” as the paramedics call fainting, requires a visit to the ER. As I was loaded into the ambulance, the paramedic asked me the world’s stupidest question, “How are you?” Knowing that this was probably the only chance I had to be really honest when asked that, I said, “Oh, you know…cancerous.” He laughed. Then he invited me to come visit him down at the fire station, where his buddy is a bone cancer survivor.

As I was wheeled into the emergency room on a gurney, I heard a nurse say to the paramedic, “There’s another one coming in behind you. A full cardiac arrest.” I may have cancer, but it could always be worse.

In the ER, my vitals were all tested and found to be normal. I watched a few episodes of Law & Order SVU while they filled me with IV fluids to improve my strength and blood sugar. Then they gave me a generous dosage of the world’s greatest anti-anxiety drug, Ativan. I LOVE YOU, ATIVAN.

With the superhuman strength of Ativan coursing through my veins, I successfully returned to the MRI and had my breasts imaged by this obnoxiously loud machine. It sounded like Skrillex banging pots and pans together over the AOL dial-up tone while an InkJet printer from 1998 printed a full page of black ink and then faxed it to a New York City subway stop. Worst dubstep concert EVER.

Results on Wednesday. Oh, and the nurse lied. We still won’t know if my stage after this, but we will know if my lymph nodes are involved, which will help determine what kind of surgery I need.

The Boobpocalypse

On December 21, 2012, some lunatics were convinced that, due to some old Mayan calendar charter who ran out of room on a scroll, the world was doomed to end in an earthquake of rage and hellfire. But December 21 came and went, and for most people, not a thing changed.

I wasn’t one of them.

For me, the Mayans were right: December 21 was the end of my world. That day, what I thought was a routine gynecological appointment to drain a lingering breast cyst became something more when I was shuttled into a dark ultrasound room, probed and prodded for over an hour, forced to undergo an immensely painful and invasive biopsy, then confronted by a kind yet frank radiologist who said, “Unfortunately, it does look like a cancerous growth.”

On December 26, 2012, she called to tell me what I already knew: the biopsy results were back, and the lump in my breast was cancerous.

“Breast cancer?” I said incredulously, looking down at my 30As. “Me? But I don’t even have breasts!”

Invasive mammary carcinoma, she said. Invasive. As though it wasn’t even part of me, even though it was nothing but my own cells mutated into the horrible Mr. Hyde versions of themselves. Merry Christmas to me.

There’s something about the C-word that makes your brain shut down. I didn’t hear anything she said after that. All I could think about was how nothing would ever be the same. How I’d die young, which so wasn’t fair, because I ran every day and ate kale and did a 5AM workout boot camp and always wore sunscreen and avoided GMO foods and even wore a dorky looking bike helmet.

I went through a lot of emotions over the next few hours. Hell, I went through a lot of emotions over the next few minutes. Anger, frustration, fear, terror, depression, hopelessness…and some less expected ones, like relief (at least we had an answer), hope, galvanization, readiness and the desire to kick this disease right in the nutsack. Just…right there, right in the balls.

It’ll be a few weeks before we have the details. There’s a whole breast cancer lexicon, and here’s what I know so far. There’s a grading system – 1 to 3, with 3 being the most aggressive. There’s a staging system – I to IV, with IV being manageable over a few years but eventually, invariably terminal. There are also all kinds of receptors you can be positive or negative for, like estrogen, progesterone and a protein called HER2/neu. There’s a gene – the BRCA 1 and 2 mutations – that predispose young women to breast cancer and ovarian cancer. I’ll be getting tested for all of that, which sounds like a real barrel o’ monkeys. Once the deets are all settled, we can start on a treatment plan that most likely involves some combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

I already asked my brother to get his hair clippers ready. Bald is beautiful, baby.