It was this time of year in 2006 when I had a routine post-cancer treatment CT scan. I had had no evidence of disease since my bilateral mastectomy in November 2003, and even after that went on to finish the triathlon with radiation, more chemo cocktail, and nearly a year of Herceptin. But it had been 9 months since my previous scan. I was used to having them on 6 month schedules. I wasn’t particularly concerned. But I knew better than to let 12 months go by.
I was working full time at the Regional Center. It was my lunch hour and I agreed to meet Al and his co-worker for lunch. On my way I stopped at the radiology clinic I had my CT scan at so I could pick up the paper report. It’s something I had gotten in the habit of doing, as staying on top of my medical records was something I learned from my years of being a social worker.
I got to my car and did a quick scan of the brief report. My world stopped again.
My pelvis was full of measured masses- things that weren’t supposed to be there. Really large masses. On both sides. With the words, “likely malignant tumors.”
I was in shock. How did my body grow such large tumors in 9 months time, and with no symptoms? I drove to the restaurant and tried as much as I could to go back to those seconds before I read that report. But my dear husband knew immediately something was wrong. Now in the presence of his co-worker, all I could do was bite my lip and shake my head ‘no’ when he asked if something was wrong. It was my way of saying, ‘please, not now.’ But he KNEW. He said, “is it bad?” And I burst out crying. I spent the next 9 months crying.
Two days after this lunch I was sitting in the OB/GYN waiting room. No breasts, 33 years young, and the waiting room full of women swollen with life growing inside them, their partners sitting by their sides. A quick exam, felt masses, and surgery was scheduled. That was on September 9, 2006. My mother’s birthday. An OB/GYN and a GYN Oncologist paired-up for my operating team. Because they were removing potential cancer, laproscopy was out of the question. It was a 12″ lateral incision. Five days in the hospital. I’ve always been one to prefer the uppers to the downers, and I remember in the first couple days the nurse would come in and firmly remind me to push my button, delivering more pain meds. I hate the way those make me feel, and my pain tolerance is exceptionally mastered. But she insisted that if I wasn’t pushing the button the pain would make me immobile for longer. She didn’t know me. 😉
Prior to going into that surgery I had my feet tattooed. I’ve gotten a lot of comments over the years about them. But I didn’t just decide to do that because they were cute. I did it because I was inspired by David Marenger’s story, as told in the movie The Blue Butterfly. Having had numerous surgeries before, and hating the anesthesia so much that I literally begged and got my surgeon to agree to perform one of them with no general anesthesia, I wanted to wake up from such a long and difficult surgery and KNOW I was alive. I wanted to see my feet poking out from under the hospital bed sheets and see those butterflies. When I look down upon them they are right-side-up. But to everyone else they appear upside-down. Because I wasn’t trying to make myself pretty for someone else. This was all about me and my hope of surviving another surgery and healing from cancer. 🦋
It turned out when the path report came back that the tumors were malignant and of the variety that is consistent with breast cancer. For those not in the know, I originally had Inflammatory Breast Cancer– no palpable lump.
The right side is my cancer side. That’s the underside of blue morpho- the side you see from down below as they flutter their large wings through the air, or if they land for a rest. The left side, my non-cancer side is the top side, the shimmery blue that glistens in the sun, which you would catch glimpses of from below, but which would be most prominent if your view was from above. So, the view from down here, and the view from up there. And the number 3 is deeply significant for me for a lot of reasons. A couple are that I was 30 when first diagnosed, and 33 when going through this metastatic recurrence.
That was 13 years ago. It’s almost hard to believe it. My mom got a blue morpho tattoo and said she was going to get one each year I survived to show her solidarity for her only child. I think she only ended up with 2 of them. No one expected me to live. And now she’s gone, and my dad too. Butterfly medicine was so strong with him in his dying process. A whole lot of living is done in 13 years. All 3 of my own children grew up, one married with 3 children, one engaged, one served in the Army, one about to start nursing grad school, and one a creative, amazing artist.
Those blue butterflies! They’ve faded a lot in 13 years. 😉