Intimate Anthem

Intimate Anthem

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Healing For Your Breast Cancer Journey

Intimate Anthem

I stumbled upon my moment of “reality” in the middle of washing my dishes. The phone rang as loud as any alarm and I grabbed a towel to wipe my hands and answer it. It was my breast surgeon.

I sat down and Dr. Ward told me the news I had half-expected to hear for more than 32 years, from the time breast cancer first cast its shadow over my life with my mother’s terminal diagnosis. I was 14 years old, living the self-absorbed life of a young teenager, when my mother was diagnosed at the age of 42 with invasive breast cancer in 1978. There weren’t the cultural reference points back then about early detection, options, etc. Cancer was still discussed with hushed voices and averted eyes. Mom lived for two years, utilizing the three main weapons of burning (radiation), poisoning (chemotherapy) and cutting (surgery), none of which were helping.

In desperation, my mother went to the Bahamas to seek an experimental foreign treatment. Gone for almost an entire academic year, the experiment was a failure. She returned home during the summer, only craving relief from the pain and suffering, welcoming death’s cold embrace.

My father had depleted our family’s savings in desperation, and now I sat by my mother’s deathbed having my last conversation with her. She was not speaking much at that point, she was in pain. I started singing every song I knew to break the heavy silence. Suddenly she sang, joining me in the chorus: “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave; O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

With my mother’s death I lost the “lightness” of my life. I started to pursue literary introspection, the poet’s call to make meaning. I appreciated irony and contemplated how cancer cells are the “seeds” of the body’s ultimate destruction. It took me a few years to learn that appreciating life’s irony is like appreciating a punch in the face.

The shadow of cancer always accompanied my dreams of the future. I started visiting doctors as a college student and felt blessed to have found my husband early in college, marrying at the young age of 21, much earlier than all my contemporaries. Perhaps I was trying to get it all in before “my time” would come.

I had four children, and I was the poster girl for La Leche, nursing each of my babies for at least a year. I very much believed in the “myth” that nursing might make the difference. I avoided living in places like Long Island, where there were cancer clusters for a number of years. But, at age 37 my identical twin sister was stricken with her breast cancer, already between Stages 2 and 3. Both of us had had rigorous monitoring after my mother’s death: mammograms from our late 20s, ultrasounds annually, and now MRIs.

My twin followed an aggressive protocol of chemotherapy, radiation and then a lumpectomy. After a difficult year she beat the cancer. I supported her throughout, dreading the inevitable, trying to hold on to the myth about what neither my mother nor twin had done — the power of breast feeding your young. This was my “magic card,” my way to be “free.”

Then, during my seasonal monitoring, an MRI showed problematic information, and now I had my own diagnosis. My breast cancer was found early. I had DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma In Situ). I met my doctor at her office, and she said that I should seriously consider a bilateral mastectomy, even though my right breast was “clean.”

I cried only once, calling my husband to share my decision. I wanted to be there as my children grew up, to experience their weddings, their work, their children. I didn’t want them haunted by me only in their dreams, as my mother appears ghostly in mine.

I made the difficult decision, after much counseling with doctors, to do the bilateral mastectomy, and after my surgery it was confirmed that the cancer cells were already present in the other breast, that the MRI had not yet seen. The bilateral was the right decision, but what a terrible decision to have to make.

When I was being wheeled into my major ten hours plus of surgery and reconstruction I handed my husband four envelopes, one for each of my children: four letters of wishes, hopes, and blessings I saw in each of them. Four messages of love reduced to paper. Fortunately, he never had to give them to our children. But, in the moments he held those letters in his hands, he told me later they felt like the heaviest burden he had ever carried.

The surgery was longer than expected, and unfortunately there were the added complications of a terrible infection. Now, I pray I have left the long journey of my cancer world. I try to hold on to my comfort and hope and distance myself from the scars of fears and tears, defiance and denial.

I do not have to monitor anymore. I do not have to have mammograms, ultrasounds, MRIs, or take any preventive cancer relapse drugs. I only struggle with the fear of every little twinge I feel in my false breasts; I grieve the loss of the benefits of my real breasts, the intimacy that can never again be felt.

And now I worry for my daughters. My family is a conclusively “breast cancer gene” (BRCA) negative family; we are in the group of people who have different yet unidentified genes working in cooperation to create breast cancer within us. My daughters face a formidable breast cancer history: a grandmother, mother and aunt. The breast cancer shadow is on their horizons, but so are all the new developments in the fight — early detection, drugs, and breast cancer becoming more survivable every year. I want them to live in their land free and always be brave.

~ Roseanne I. Hurvitz ~

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