Monday, August 22, 2011

Attack of the Killer Boobs

Six months ago, I found a lump in my breast. I'm a big advocate of regularly feeling yourself up, because I've walked the breast cancer walk with my mom (not the fundraiser, the real thing) and I'm determined that my kids won't have to go through what I went through with her. So while it is empowering for me to regularly check myself for lumps, it takes some major courage to monitor that aspect of my health. Hands trembling, I do it anyway.

That night I hadn't expected to find anything, as a week before I had seen my doctor for my annual checkup and breast exam. So when I found this lump--this hard, marble shaped mass just below the skin, I freaked. I tried hard not to ask Dr.Google his advice, and I tried so hard not to compare myself to my mom. I'm 35 years old--I never smoked (like she did for 14 years), I breastfed my two kids for a year and a half each because I've heard it lowers your risk for breast cancer, and I eat my 5 fruits and veggies a day. I work out at the gym two to three times a week, unlike my mom who never exercised. I load up on antioxidants on a daily basis--turmeric, broccoli, kale, blueberries, you name it--I'm a walking farmer's market. My mom never did any of those things--I can't end up with her disease, right?

After a preliminary appointment with my doctor, faxed referrals and more scheduling, I'm finally standing in the mammography room. Not so bad--a bit of squishing, arranging, more smashing--whatever, just tell me what this thing is! Then an ultrasound--back to the scene of a happier time when I was pregnant with my boys--a dark room, warmed-up gel, gently whirring computers and sounds of the technician clicking and typing. After playing the worst-case-scenario scenes in my head (I'm really, really good at this), the doctor takes me in the dark image viewing room. The news is good--WHEW--just a fatty deposit. A big, round, hard? fatty deposit. After three years of breastfeeding and a bout of mastitis, it should be no surprise. A few clustered calcifications to check back on in 6 months and I'm good to go. So, so very good.

...and here I am, 6 months later! I'm just back from the re-check, and although I got no sleep last night and I was scared to death of what they might find, again I'm in the clear. Just a simple "Everything looks good, come back in six months so we can keep charting for changes, then every year after that!" from the doctor and I walk out of the Women's Imaging Center, a new (and very relieved) woman. When will I stop feeling like I'm walking in my mother's steps? When will I forget those nights spent by her hospital bed, the days spent in the chemo clinic with patients of all ages and ethnicities, fighting for their lives while the cars zoomed by outside on their way to work, ignorant (or perhaps not) of what life is like on that side of cancer?

Scary stuff, hard stuff to bear, but stuff that I need to start letting go. Although it is a tired metaphor, it is so very much like a war, and those survivors have all the battle wounds you would expect from someone who has stared death so closely in the face. It changes you. You never look at life the same way, you always have a sense of the fragility of life and if you let that sense become the center of your life, you run the risk of letting some of life's greatest moments pass you by. Others may not understand the fear you still carry around like an overstuffed purse, the anxious sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, the heavy burden of memories that never seem to fade. But as life continues to (try and) teach me, it is meant to be lived. So here's to life, to hearty laughter, to becoming a better person, and to simply enjoying my good health. I lift my cup of green tea with a long sigh of relief.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Sometimes, this is what love looks like

I attended a women's retreat at a Franciscan retreat center when my youngest was just a few months old, toting him along with me and sharing a room with a friend of mine who had also just had a baby. I remember those early days with my son, staring at his tiny new face, marveling at his fingers, his toes, his wispy dark hair and feeling an overwhelming sense of mama-bear love. It's the love of fabric softener commercials, Hallmark specials, baby announcements and the first buds of spring. But there are other kinds of love, of devotion, of moments that you find yourself willing to do whatever it takes for another person. A tougher, more raw kind of love. A love that has grown strong, shredded, raspy with time and pain.

That weekend at the women's retreat we listened to a story about a woman caring for her alcoholic husband, and one thing the speaker said really hit me. She said, Sometimes, this is what love looks like. It hit me because I know what it's like to love a family member who is in the pit of despair. I know what it is to feed a loved one, pull down the shades when he wants them pulled down, put away fresh groceries while praying that they are eaten, putting dishes away quietly so as not to disturb troubled sleep. And at the end of the day as I drive the hour back to my own home, to hope that I've made a difference. But the almost impossible challenge? To know when it's time to step back into my own life, to care for myself in the same tender way, to remember that my life is just as important. And the even harder part? To acknowledge the fact that I did not cause this, and I cannot control it's outcome. In the meantime, I'm learning these lessons and doing the best I can to live life with gratitude and the enthusiasm that life deserves.