I’m never really sure when to count my “cancerversary” and the moment I was free of it. Is it the lumpectomy or the mastectomy date? I usually go with the date of the lumpectomy probably because it comes first and I can’t wait to count off yet another year. In the long run, I don’t think the amount of years past the “main event” even matter. I know people who have gone 20 years and then the nasty little death star (a term used by Scorchy over at The Sarcastic Boob) lights up.
My mastectomy anniversary was this past weekend. It coincides by a day with Bastille Day and I have linked the two in my head. No, I don’t sing I Dreamed a Dream but there were many moments during 2010 that song would have applied. I have a paper calendar from that year with little notes on the days. The year 2010 was the year I walked through hell and those calendar notes are a bit like postcards sent to my future self with whom I now have become. Why would I want to remember these events? I have a weird sense of accomplishment about the whole thing and when I look back I am amazed.
Two days before my mastectomy I gave my mother her last shower. Nursing does not come naturally to me and so this was an absurd moment for both of us. I remember the day was hot and my brother and father left the house I think to return an air-conditioner that was making too much noise. The moment they walked out I said, “Mom, do you want a shower? I know how to give one.” My mother had been tethered to an oxygen tank for months but the cord was long enough to make it into the bathroom and the shower. She had a fear of enclosed spaces, which is normal for someone who can’t breath. “I’ll leave the door open,” I assured her. My sister Lisa was there and she joined me in convincing my mother we could in fact do this. What we were really battling was my mother’s modesty.
My mother and I had been fighting all morning in a hushed manner we had perfected years ago. “Don’t let them cut your breasts off. Try and save them Mae.” My mother was pleading for a stay of execution of my right breast and what she considered a mutilation of my left as I was having it reduced. “You will never be happy with anything less than what you have,” she warned. My mother was a 1950’s woman and she feared no man would ever want me if I didn’t have both of my breasts. To her they are her femininity and if truth be told, a large part of her identity. I know it seems strange that she would argue that I should keep my breast. I think she was trying to protect me from a loss she could not imagine surviving herself. She wasn’t really thinking through the ramifications. She did not know that after years of making decisions about her cancer, I was now stronger when making decisions about my own. There was no question in my mind about the surgery and I have my friend Vita who pushed and taunted me when I felt weak to thank. My mother argued from her hospital bed with oxygen tubes up her nose and I ignored her plea to keep my “gifts”. Her health had been deteriorating rather quickly and I wasn’t sure I would ever see her again so I firmly sidestepped any huge arguments. Whispered plans were made in the back garden. If she died during my recovery, they would bury her quietly and have a memorial service for her when I was well enough to attend. It was hot that summer and the cicadas sang in the yard at full tilt as we planned the most painful events of our lives. I was in emotional hell and concentrated mostly on inhaling and exhaling. Whatever my mother said at this point didn’t matter. I was losing her and as was my mother’s way, she didn’t want any emotional nonsense. No hugging, no Terms of Endearment moments. In hindsight, her arguments may have been her way to keep control of her own emotions. I’ll never really know.
I knew how to give my mother a shower because two months prior I had a lumpectomy. Dr. C couldn’t find clean margins and left an abscess so large I could barely move two days later. I didn’t tell my job about any of this partly because when I initially was diagnosed I told 10 friends. Two of them walked away. I swear, I never heard from them again. I am the sole supporter in my life and I can’t afford to lose my job. Yes, it is illegal for them to lay me off due to illness but I know so many in other companies that a year after the incident of illness the job they held disappeared. If my friends could walk, what would keep my coworkers from tossing me too? I had to discern whom to trust and so the year 2010 was the year I slashed and burned many friendships because I knew down deep, they wouldn’t keep my secret. I needed true friends and not the ones who will just go out for fun. I used my intuition when deciding who I wanted around me for the rest of this journey. It wasn’t really that hard as the truth had always been staring me in the face.
Cortnie and my sisters were there two days after my lumpectomy. I was so weak I knew I couldn’t take a shower by myself. It was Cortnie, my Pilates instructor, who had experience bathing her grandmother that led my sisters in unison to help me. Coleen has good memories of this afternoon because we worked together as they cared for me. It is not as pleasant a memory for me. I was vulnerable and weakened sitting naked on a stool. It was a lesson and that moment taught me how to give my mother a shower and anyone else in my future that needs one. Until that moment, I was never the patient.
I stripped down before I gave my mother her shower so she wasn’t the only one sitting there naked. She was shocked and comforted by such a primal gesture. She was so weak and thin at that point but wanted to feel clean one last time. It was a turning point in our relationship and after that she no longer questioned my decision. We still had bumps in the road to smooth out but we were getting there.
I left that afternoon thinking I would never see her again. I did though. She died two months later to the day of my mastectomy. By that time, we had found our peace. She admitted she was proud of my strength and I admitted, I had no choice in the matter.