This week marks the 5-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. Hooray?
I've gone back and looked at calendars to try to determine the exact date, because for whatever reason, I can't hold on to those numbers in my head. Most cancer survivors red-letter the diagnosis and remission dates and mark them every year; the only date I am ever able to remember as late winter/early spring comes around is the anniversary of my first chemo, and that's because it's the same date as another landmark event in my life, which the uninitiated can read all about here and here.
So February 25 marks the unofficial diagnosis day, the day that my doctor called me to give me the preliminary results of the CT scan and blood tests. March 7 is the day I got the official results of the biopsy handed to me by my surgeon.
I don't make a big deal out of these days (not big enough to remember them off the top of my head) because for me the big day to celebrate will be the 5-year anniversary of the day my remission was confirmed by a second biopsy(July 25, 2008--mark your calendars! I'm gonna party like it's 1999!) But seeing as how many of you readers have never gotten the full story of the worst surprise I've ever gotten in my life, just my revisionist history of it (I've glossed over some of the gorier details in talking about it the last few years because I don't want to get consumed by bitterness, anger, and regret), let's honor Cranky's D-Days with the true, unabridged story. Can you handle the truth?
Early June of 2002 was a good time for me. Following the mildest, most snow-day-free winter I've ever had in my teaching career, we were out of school before Memorial Day (even with my extended employment days.) I was moving into the third trimester of my pregnancy, and I was thrilled. I knew I was having a girl, my friends at work had already thrown me a shower, the baby was healthy, the all-consuming nausea I had had the first 4 months had gone away, and I could feel the baby move happily around in my swollen (but still small enough to be cute) belly. I was extremely tired, though, and got every cold that went around, but I thought I felt pretty good. My due date was Labor Day (oh, the irony) but I had a feeling the baby would come early enough that I would not be returning to school those first days of the new school year; I was looking at a break from work that could possibly last until after the holidays.
The first week of my super-long summer break saw me lounging in bed well into the morning, eating peanut butter and graham crackers with chocolate milk (my strongest pregnancy craving) whenever I darn well pleased, and buying the supplies to start painting the nursery. One morning that week, though, I woke up in pain; my right armpit felt bruised and sore. I investigated and was immediately in panic mode. I had a lump the size of a ping-pong ball under my right arm. This can't be good, I thought, and called my obstetrician's office. After all, my body was doing some weird things, swelling in a lot of different areas, and so far every oddity had been pregnany-related. I assumed this was, too.
Over the phone, one of the seven doctors in my Ob/Gyn group diagnosed the problem as a clogged milk duct. This made sense to me. My previously tiny chest had gotten rather, um, voluptuous. (Oh, if only it had stayed that way!) I was already having to wear protective pads in my bras because I was already producing milk (oddly enough, from the right side, the same as the lump.) I didn't question. I was told to ice the area, take Tylenol for the pain, and to show it to the next doctor I saw in my rotations through the group at my prenatal visits. And to watch for symptoms of infection.
So, I iced. The lump never got any smaller, but the pain slacked off. And it provided for some fun show-and-tell with my girlfriends and the women in my family. Unlike my other pregnancy side effects, though, I never heard any of these women confirm the doctor's diagnosis by saying, "Oh, yeah, I had that same thing when I was pregnant."
That summer was the hottest I could remember. It was not a good summer to be pregnant. My limbs swole to proportions that stopped strangers in the street who told me on more than one occasion to go get my blood pressure checked. My blood pressure was always fine, but my doctors were a little baffled by how much fluid I was retaining. They never seemed baffled by my lump, though. Every doctor in the practice had seen it by August, and all agreed: milk duct. One doctor alarmed me by saying, "I'm 90% sure this isn't cancer." Was that even an option? For once, the hypochondriac in me hadn't assumed a malady was cancer. He never brought up the option of getting any images done, though, or blood tests, or sending me to my regular doctor for a second opinion. Everyone was so sure. So I was sure, too.
I worked a few weeks through a temp agency to squirrel a little money away to fund my extra-long maternity leave (I always said I would take a full semester off with each baby I had, and hubby thankfully agreed.) When I wasn't at work, or in our friends' well-air-conditioned basement playing darts, all I wanted to do was sleep. But I was pregnant, and huge, so I didn't think too much of it.
During our childbirth classes, I also had a lactation consultant look at my swelling under-arm lump. She confirmed that it was fine, though she did give me a deadline that may have ended up saving my life: if the lump was still there several months after the baby was born, after my milk had come in and feeding had become routine, go have it checked out.
By late summer, you couldn't ignore the lump. All summer I wore sleeveless tops to combat the heat, and when I brought my arms down to my sides the pressure smooshed the lump out to where it popped out under my shoulder. My mother was beginning to get worried.
On a Saturday morning in August, my water broke. Ainsley came almost three weeks early. We were overjoyed, but my body finally began to tell me that something was wrong. Nursing Ainsley was very difficult, and very painful. The lactation consultant I was working with was concerned at the level of fluid I was still retaining weeks after the birth; all this fluid was concentrated in my upper body. She mentioned that I must have a "drainage" problem. I had lumps all over my chest now. Above my collarbone. Below my collarbone. In little clusters above my breasts. Then another golf-ball-sized lump under my left arm, which the doctor I saw at my post-partum checkup said was another milk duct, and possibly mastitis. I was told to keep icing, to massage the lumps while Ainsley fed, to keep trying and they would go away and things would get easier. I was also told my extreme fatigue, frustration, and frequent sore throats and other illnesses were symptoms of severe post-partum depression. And I agree, even now, that that was a huge part of why the first three months Ainsley was in the world, I felt utterly and completely weak and sick and hopeless. But it wasn't the only reason. Not by a long shot.
To be continued...