I actually had a very nice day at UCLA today in the care of the folks at the Revlon Breast Cancer center and the Iris Cantor Breast Imaging Center which, surprisingly, I had never been to before today. I have a ton of confidence in my surgeon and find her very presence reassuring. Her wonderful staff got me upstairs for initial imaging within a half hour (I am used to waiting weeks in between referrals and procedures).
I had a similarly great experience with the fellow who performed my ultrasound. She was exceptionally thorough, knew my history completely, and eventually corroborated her findings with the radiologist who read the MRI that began all of this last month. They decided together what to do while I waited. (Incidentally, for you Kaiser patients, she told me that she would be heading to the Kaiser system as soon as her fellowship was over, so you will soon be getting a great new radiologist!)
Not once today did I feel like a Stage IV patient. I felt like any other young(ish) woman who might find a suspicious lump in her breast that could be successfully treated. Everyone I came in contact with today was interested in being aggressive with this latest finding and assumed that it could be completely eradicated, regardless of my prior history. I LOVED that. They even took new baseline mammogram, which I was not scheduled for, so they would know the character of anything new that came up over time. I truly appreciated that long-term view.
I am in the very unusual position of not really caring all that much whether these lumps are benign or malignant. I know that sounds crazy, but if they are malignant, they are so early that they can be treated easily. Of course, I'd rather not have the lumpectomy and radiation that are sure to follow a malignant diagnosis, but in the grand scheme of things I'm certainly not afraid of the diagnosis, as I was the first time. It won't significantly change my life--that has already happened.
I read a beautiful account of this profound change in a book I'm reading called The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I hope you will indulge me as I quote it here, as it so perfectly captures the unwelcome portion of a patient's transformation during treatment for cancer:
The Italian memoirist Primo Levi, who survived a concentration camp and then navigated his way through a blasted Germany to his native Turin, often remarked that among the most fatal qualities of the camp was its ability to erase the idea of a life outside and beyond itself. A person's past and his present were annihilated as a matter of course--to be in the camps was to abnegate history, identity and personality--but it was the erasure of the future that was the most chilling. With that annihilation, Levi wrote, came a moral and spiritual death that perpetuated the status quo of imprisonment. If no life existed beyond the camp, then the distorted logic by which the camp operated became life as usual.This passage could not be more true. I wish I was not so focused on my own health, but no matter how hard I try to drag myself away from it, I cannot escape. Thanks to my family and friends, I do think of other things(like who has what practice after school and who has to remember to bring a share to school this week) but some days it is nearly impossible for me to not dwell on this battle I am constantly engaged in. It is often draining, but I am glad to know I am not unusual in this and that, indeed, it is par for the course if I am truly going to put up a decent fight.
Cancer is not a concentration camp, but it shares the quality of annihilation: it negates the possibility of life outside and beyond itself; it subsumes all living. The daily life of a patient becomes so intensely preoccupied with his or her illness that the world fades away. Every last morsel of energy is spent tending the disease. "How to overcome him became my obession," the journalist Max Lerner wrote of the lymphona in his spleen. "If it was to be a combat then I had to engage it with everything I had--knowledge and guile, ways covert as well as overt."
Anyone who has read this blog for long knows that I often speak about the positive things that this cancer diagnosis has brought, for there certainly are many. I honestly believe that I am a better person for it, overall, and don't wish the entire experience away (though it could happily end anytime now). But that doesn't mean that it isn't difficult at times.
Like, say, during a biopsy week. Wish me luck!