How I’m Getting Through Diagnosis and Waiting for Surgery

I’ve always had a good relationship with my breasts. They didn’t get in my way, and I didn’t get in theirs. I was a perfect 34B — a size, I discovered in years working in women’s magazines, that matches fashion samples. One fashion editor I worked with used to hand over the unsolicited samples that manufacturers sent to her. Nothing quite like coming back from lunch to find a lacy 34B in your inbox.

Then I had children. One by one, my boys — born two years apart and nursed for a year each — changed my breasts, and my relationship to them, entirely and forever. I’m never going to climb Everest or run a marathon. Purely as a physical accomplishment, breastfeeding is quite literally the best thing I’ve ever done, or ever will do.

And now, my breasts have betrayed me. Well, the gentlelady on the right did, anyway.

This spring, after a routine mammogram prompted another, more intense mammogram plus sonogram, which in turn necessitated a needle biopsy, I got the news: I had invasive lobular carcinoma, stage 1. It was a disorienting blow. For the next week — as I told a precious few people, as I went to work and loaded the dishwasher and drove to the high school to pick up my son — there were moments in which my consciousness would blink off briefly, and the world in front of me would tunnel down to a narrow point, while everything seemed to whoosh past me, leaving me alone and in a state of stunned and abject fear. And then I’d come back to myself, and I’d make a phone call or cup of coffee or do the Wordle, and the sensation would subside.

The good news, said both my breast surgeon and my husband, is that I was not going to die, at least not yet. The doctor: this is early and treatable. My husband: We have plans.

The surgeon, of course, also had plans, different ones than my husband, ones that involved a lumpectomy, followed by radiation therapy — and chemo, maybe, but only if lymph nodes had decided to join the party, or if the results of genetic testing revealed a mutation that left me more vulnerable to recurrence. It did not. (I’d known this, instinctively. the women in my family live a long time, free of cancer of any kind. But the test results were a nice touch.)

My surgeon drew little pictures on a notepad and explained how, research shows, lumpectomy plus radiation offers the same cancer-eradicating results as mastectomy, making the former the standard of care in my situation. My cancer (“my cancer” being one of those phrases that, still, can trigger that tunneling effect) was also hormone receptor–positive, which I learned was good news. It meant that the cancer was responsive to a wider array of treatments.

I’d have the surgery, which wouldn’t even require an overnight hospital stay. I’d recover, I’d endure the radiation, I’d take a hormone-blocking drug for a number of years, and that would be that.

Except, of course, if my right-hand girl had other secrets to reveal upon further testing. And, as it turned out, she did. A subsequent MRI “lit up” with some other notable nodules.

Let me just say, an MRI-guided biopsy is an activity I don’t recommend. After two biopsies in as many weeks, my right breast looked like it had lost a prize fight, badly. And it showed one other spot, a sister lesion to the first. This one, though smaller, was in a totally different part of my breast. Lot going on in there. “You have busy breasts,” said the radiologist. You’d think they had nothing to do since I weaned my baby in 2005. But, apparently, they were busy.

Lumpectomy, my surgeon regretfully told me, was no longer the best option. To achieve the twin goals of removing the cancer plus clean margins and leaving behind an acceptable cosmetic result, it appeared that mastectomy was now the best plan.

The good news? Mastectomy (again, barring the lymph nodes) would be virtually curative, no chemo and not even any radiation.

The bad news? Well. Bye-bye, boobs. Both of them.

If I wanted anything like aesthetically pleasing reconstruction results and didn’t want to play a game of roulette with the lady on the left, I’d be best choosing bilateral mastectomy. In for a penny, etcetera. After consultation with yet another surgeon, I chose to undergo DIEP (deep inferior epigastric perforators, pronounced “deep”) flap reconstruction. Surgeons will remove skin, fat, and blood vessels from my lower abdomen and create new breasts out of that, reconnecting that tissue to the blood supply that once fed my original pair.

It may involve removing some bits of rib to make room. It will involve pulling taut and stitching my abdomen back together, hipbone to hipbone. It’ll take hours under anesthesia, two nights in the hospital, and a recovery that’ll involve four surgical drains and living, for a while, in a rented recliner. Extremely cool stuff, except if you think about it happening to your body.

So here I am, on the cusp of summer, with a scheduled surgery date in mid-July that is (checks calendar for the hundredth time) six weeks from now as I write. In that time, I have a couple of medical tasks to complete: a magnetic resonance angiogram to map the blood vessels in my abdomen and pelvis, and a meeting with an oncologist to discuss the hormone-blocker regimen and go over the results of my oncotype test, which gauges your likelihood of recurrence. It’s like an SAT for tumors, only a low score is preferable. My tumor, I’m proud to say, has such a low score it’s getting in the school of “very low likelihood of recurrence.”

Summer will be bisected, with the front half full of a high school graduation, a beach vacation with my brother and his family, my 56th birthday, the Fourth of July, a college orientation weekend, and hopefully a few Friday evenings at our local beach to watch the sun set and some s’mores in the backyard fire pit. The other half: surgery and recovery.

I exist, for now, in this strange liminal space, going about my life with my Benedict Arnold breast just sitting there on the right side of my chest. Waiting.

This content was originally published here.

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