The end of March has forever been a special time of year for you, as it is for many people. It is when winter sheds its dark, cumbersome and constricting cloak for the promise of light, freedom and the rebirth of spring. It is a time of change, and a time to reflect. And so, I write these words to you.
Today is March 21, 2012. You are sitting in your doctor’s office as you have countless times before, but today is different. You know what you are about to face and you know what it means but you still hold a glimmer of hope that Dr. D has simply pushed you to the last time slot because she adores your witty humour and doesn’t want to rush the appointment. Her receptionist is giving you kind, encouraging and empathetic smiles. Not nervous, anxious or worried glances, but bold, confident reassurance that you will face whatever is behind that door. He already knows, as do you, that you are about to be diagnosed with breast cancer, but he knows something you do not. That you hold in your heart everything you need to overcome this challenge.
Ten minutes later you are exiting the examination room, reeling from the news and yet strangely comforted in the knowledge. You stop at reception. He tells you, “Be aggressive. We have at least 10 patients who have faced what you are about to face and they are all still with us”. You smile, happy to hear this, but wonder if you will still be standing here in two years time. You will.
You manage a meager smile, bid thanks and rush home. You’ve been away for almost two hours and have a hungry newborn waiting for you. As you sit nursing her from one, bulging breast, you glance down at its neighbour, a sad shadow of its former self, and now understand its failure to thrive and lactate. Your eyes turn back to your darling baby. How will she thrive without breast milk, you worry. She will thrive, in fact, she will grow into a lovely, healthy and strong toddler. How much longer will we be able to nurse? Long enough. It is not important. All she needs is your love. But won’t our bond be different from that of her siblings? Absolutely. In the most magical way. When she looks at me, it’s almost as if she understands what I am going through. I feel as though she wants to help me. You are right, she does, and she will help you in more ways than you could ever imagine. Such is the bond between mother and child, and there is nothing on Earth that can sever it. Will I feel guilty, will I feel like less of a mother? Yes you will, and you will hide many tears from her, but the guilt will one day fade, and it will be replaced by a new pride in how you mothered this child from infancy to toddlerhood and never looked back.
The sun is now setting and you’ve tucked the kids into bed. You are on your way to the hospital for your first ever MRI. As you sit by yourself in the small waiting room, staring through a magazine, you finally have time to react. You cry. You wonder how your husband will take care of the children without you. You realize you don’t have a will. A million thoughts and tasks enter your head, and you don’t know where to begin. How will I get through this on my own? You won’t have to. You will be the furthest thing from alone and will have more help than you could ever hope or dream of having. Will people see me differently? Yes. But they will see your true character. Will my kids see me differently? No. To them, you are mom, and you are perfection.
The radiology room door opens and you are led to a chair to receive your contrast dye injection. You’ve been instructed to interrupt breastfeeding for 24 hours. Guilt creeps in again and you wonder if Imogen will have any trouble drinking expressed milk from a bottle. Or if she will not want to nurse when it is ok to resume. Then come the waterworks, just as the nurse returns. “Sorry”, you stifle out. “I received some bad news today”. You wonder if she knows. She tries to make small talk, and asks how old your baby is. “15 days”, you tell her. Her tone changes ever so slightly, and you can sense the discomfort. Is this how it is going to be from now on? Unfortunately, yes. It is a crappy situation and really, what can you say about it? Get used to this reaction, try to make people feel more comfortable, and lighten the mood. Before she sticks you with the needle, she asks if you mind needles. You reply, “I just gave birth with no epidural, everything else is a walk in the park”. This is going to become your new mantra, and what you will focus on every time you are poked for diagnostic testing, blood work and chemo and even when you undergo mastectomy. When she tells you you will need to lie down for 45 minutes, you are excited at the prospect of doing nothing for 45 minutes, a rarity as any new mum would agree.
Now you are lying face down on the MRI bed. The headphones are placed over your ears and you decide to close your eyes and lose yourself in your thoughts. A bout of claustrophobia beckons, but you resist, and all is well. You envision the contrast dye navigating your bloodstream, honing in on your cancer cells. I don’t think my good breast is affected. You are right. I’m fearful that cancer has escaped through the lymphatic system and has taken up residence in new territory. It hasn’t, and even if it had, it will not be able to hide from the chemo, radiation and endocrine therapy you are about to receive. I wonder if this will be my only MRI? Sadly, no. But they will get easier and you will grow to love their kooky sounds.
The MRI is over, and you gather your belongings and head through the lonely halls and out into the brisk, late-evening air. Weaving through the cold air is an undertone of warmth, as if spring is slowly trying to creep into the changing night. You stop to look up at the hospital and realize that this is where your first born spent the first four weeks of his life in intensive care. He entered a fragile preemie and left a thriving, pint-sized newborn. This is also the hospital where, two weeks ago, you arrived as a pregnant mother of two and left the proud mother of three. I wonder if I will have more memories of this hospital? Yes, this is where your breast will be taken. But on that day, your oldest friends will be at your bedside, as they will be through each of your chemo appointments, keeping you in stitches and reminding you of how very blessed you are.
You turn your back to the hospital, inhale, and head towards the changing season.