After learning I had tested positive for breast cancer (“probably Stage I or II,” according to the Nurse Practitioner), I got dressed.
Of course, I remembered very little from the conversation with my surgeon David McCready. That’s why it’s always good to have a buddy. My friend explained her shorthand and reviewed the discussion with me.
We walked out onto University Avenue. My friend gave me a big hug before I crawled into a cab. A few minutes later I received a text message from my family doctor, who returned from vacation that day: “Are you ok? I just saw the reports.” Remarkable timing, I thought. “Yes,” I wrote back, “It’s positive, and I’m ok.” She responded for me to come see her the following day.
My next message was to my daughter, Emily, who was in Paris, to tell her I would Skype at 10:00 pm her time.
As soon as I arrived home, I told my 16-year-old son, Solomon, that we had to Skype Emily. “It’s important,” I said.
“What’s going on?” he asked, and a wave of remorse washed over me. The news is going to change his life. And Emily’s. Crap.
When we connected a few minutes later, Emily asked, “So, what’s up?”
How to tell the people you love the most about a crappy diagnosis? This is something you never want to hear from someone you care about. And yet, there was no possible way I could keep this a secret, not from my family.
“I have some bad news,” I started. “I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.” And they were both incredulous. What? How? Why? And tears.
Solomon hugged me, hard, then squeezed my hand and held it through the rest of the conversation, hugging me at intervals.
“Look,” I said, trying to be practical, “they said it’s early stage. If you’re going to get cancer, early stage breast cancer is the one you want. Almost everyone survives this. If anyone else can get through this, then you know I’m going to get through it. I’m a tough cookie.”
We talked for a long time. So many questions and so many I-don’t-knows, followed by a lot of it’s-going-to-be-ok’s and I’m-going-to-be-fines. And it’s true, I really was ok with the diagnosis and highly confident that I was going to beat this and get on with my life. I was busy and didn’t have time for this nonsense. Although they were very scared, Emily and Solomon eventually believed me.
Then I called my older brother, Carl, who had kept my secret about the lump and the diagnostic imaging, then my parents.
My dad‘s first words were, “Fuck fuck fuck” and during the question-and-answer, he would interject with “I’m not ok with this” and “I’m not happy.” I wished I could have told him in person, to hold his hand and hug him. “It’s not so bad,” I told him. I’m young and healthy, except for the cancer thing. I’ll get through this.”
I disclosed to the rest of my family and close friends over the next few days. Sharing crappy news doesn’t get easier each time. It gets crappier.
Thanks to a cancellation, I was scheduled for surgery on March 28, just 10 days after my diagnosis. Good, I thought, get it over with. I can recuperate during the Easter long weekend and be back at work on Tuesday. When the time comes, I’ll sneak out for radiation appointments and schedule mock meetings in my work calendar to cover my absence. No one needs to know.
That was my plan until the pre-breast surgery class at Princess Margaret, two days before surgery date.
March 26: My jaw almost came unhinged when the facilitator said, “You’ll need to take six to eight weeks off work after surgery.”
What?? I can’t be off work for six to eight weeks. It’s simply impossible. I have so many balls in the air. Big balls. And it’s the end of the fiscal year. April is insane. I can’t transfer all of my responsibilities in a day and a half. Holy….
Two of my staff interpreters were scheduled to meet with me when I returned to the office after the pre-surgery class. “First,” one of them started, “you’re not allowed to go away again,” referring to my recent trip to California. She was smiling because I had just returned from Oakland and there had been a couple of incidents. In my absence, they’d cleaned up the mess, but some follow-up was needed.
It was killing me not to disclose my diagnosis. How could I tell them that I was going to be away for almost two months? Then the fog clears. Of course! I can work from home. I’m not really going away.
Over the next 24 hours, I informed my supervisor, my staff and my circle of friends and did what I could to brief the Acting Manager. “It’s just for a couple of months,” I told her, and since I live so close to the hospital, “You can come by any time. I’m not going to disappear.” And I truly believed it.
March 28: My posse of loved ones escorted me to hospital: my dad, my son, Solomon, and Emily’s father, Stephen Parkinson.
Before the surgery, I used a pink Sharpie to write on my right (healthy) breast “What, no dinner first?” Why not add a little humour to the operating room?
I woke up from surgery in time to say goodbye to my son, who was off to join his sister in Paris. My dad, who “came up” from the U.S. for the event, waited until we were alone before telling me what David had related to him when the operation was over.
In the best matter-of-fact tone he could muster, but without making eye contact, he said, “So…you’ll have to have some chemo….”
“What?!?” Who changed the program while I was under anesthesia? “Chemo??” But of course, my dad was upset, too,
And for the second time since that fateful night at The Drake, I wept. My dad wept, too.