Sadly, it seems that I'm only interested in front page news these days if it relates to me. (Even Ebola's sway over my imagination owes a lot to the fact that my father works in Nigeria. That country has done a better job than this one in managing the couple of cases it has seen, but try telling that to the oncology nurse after you've given her an affirmative answer to the question: "Have you been in contact in the last twenty-one days with someone traveling from West Africa?" Even after I assured her that Dad is indecently well and currently biking across South Africa, she was justifiably spooked. These are scary times.)
As little as I've been keeping up on current events, the NY Times remains my browser home page, and this morning they posted an invitation for breast cancer stories. Here's the one I told. Most of it will be familiar (even the language in some places) from earlier posts, but it did let me articulate a little more clearly than I have before the uncanny but comforting sense of walking the path that my mom cleared:
I was born on my mother's twentieth birthday, and even at those times when we were at loggerheads and didn't understand each other very well, I always had a curious sense of living in parallel with her, looping my life with hers. When she was just shy of thirty-five (and I of fifteen), she was diagnosed with locally advanced melanoma. Only by a near miracle (comprised of an expert surgeon, two brutal years of chemo, and her own iron will) did she survive to relish ten cancer-free, adventure-filled years, following my geophysicist father all over the country and eventually overseas.
They were living with my little brother on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, when Mom's right breast swelled one day to twice its normal size; what appeared at first glance to be a tropical infection proved instead to be the most deadly and fearsome of breast cancers, inflammatory. Again, she had expert care and her own great heart to carry her further than we had reason at the time of her diagnosis to hope that they could, but rogue cells eventually found their way to her spine and brain, and treatment savaged her immune system. Three years after her diagnosis, a necrotizing staph infection took root in her jaw and gave us ten days to celebrate her life and spirit in her presence. We've been celebrating her in her absence for all the seventeen years since, living in her honor, with a vengeance.
For sixteen of those years, I waited for the other shoe to drop, and last December it finally did, when I found a lump in my own right breast. Dense tissue rendered it almost invisible on a mammogram, but it emerged clearly on a sonogram. A needle biopsy returned a life-altering verdict: triple-negative invasive ductal carcinoma.
Five weeks later, I learned that I carried a BRCA1 mutation, and three days after that I had a double-mastectomy. My sister tested clear: she and my niece are at no higher risk of having their epithelial cells rebel than anyone in the general population. Through five months of chemo, I drew closer to my mother every day. There were things I finally understood when she no longer had the benefit of my empathy; I felt partnered and protected at moments that could otherwise have been unbearably lonely.
An oophorectomy marked the end of my treatment in August. My husband and I celebrated by spending the last two weeks of September snorkeling and hiking on the Big Island of Hawaii. A week after our return and a week before I was due to return to my work as a dog trainer, stroke-like visual symptoms sent me to the emergency room. A CAT scan soon revealed a 1-inch metastasis in my brain.
I am three weeks out of surgery. It went as well as it possibly could have, and still my straw is but a stub. I've been told I may have six good months, and I mean to spend them recklessly, like the gift they are.
P.S. Yo, Ry-dog! Check out the colon-appositive pairs! (And no, for the rest of you, I'm not talking about anything to do with the lower intestine.) Those are in your honor, my friend, even if I haven't finished drafting the essay I'm supposed to be working on... Did I mention I'm still recovering from brain surgery? Why are you rolling your eyes?