I've written this post a thousand times over. In my head most of them, on draft a few others. But I could never hit the publish now button.
In the beginning it was just impossible for me to write without bursting into tears. Days, weeks and even months later it was just impossible to even start at all.
So I stopped writing because the words were not coming. Only the thoughts were happening. Many of them, at the same time, choking me up.
Back in May, a few days after I wrote about the Monastrell (four months ago yesterday) I got on a plane to be with my mother, who had called a few days before to tell me that the results from her tests were back and that yes, she had cancer.
You know the expression it hit me like a ton of bricks. Well, it did. It hit my father, my sister, me and the rest of the family. But mostly it hit my mother.
Out of the blue. Because I do not know anyone in the world who takes better care of her health and is more conscientious about going to the doctor and getting her yearly checkups than my mom.
Or not so much so. After all, two of her sisters had already lost their battle to the same bloody disease, one of them last year. My mom took care of her.
Now it was time to take care of mom. So I did the only thing I could. I told her everything was going to be okay and that I was going to purchase the first plane ticket I could find and make sure I would be there for her surgery and for whatever happened after that.
The day my mother went into the hospital for her mastectomy was without a doubt the longest and most excruciatingly painful 24 hours of our lives. Never before had we felt so scared. Never before had we prayed so hard. And those waiting room hours were the longest, ever.
Because, frankly, even when the big c word has entered your psyche before, even if on a daily basis you deal with it at work or know someone that's a survivor or a statistic, you hope in your heart of hearts that it never happens to any other loved one. Not to your father, or sister and certainly not to your mother.
And even with the dreaded family history and the motherly nagging to go to the doctor and the constant subtle tick-tock of that sneaky ticking bomb in your body waiting to go off at any minute, you come to believe that it is never going to happen to you. Until it does.
How easy we fool ourselves! We get complacent. We forget to follow up on tests, to go to the doctor, to care. We are too busy.
Until the day we find ourselves staring mindlessly in utter disbelief at a waiting room TV screen, drinking too many cups of bad coffee, hiding in a bathroom to cry only to come back out, tears wiped, concealer and sunglasses hiding the red eyes, to that dreaded room to spend time with family and friends, to show up with a good face and strong disposition while you watch other sick people's families and friends in the same boat, hoping, wishing. All of us in the same sad and terrifying place, waiting for a door to open, for a nurse to show up, for a doctor to give you good news, or not.
The last four months (or limbo as I call them)
The doctor came out of the OR to tell us all the cancer had been removed. That the two tumors (one invasive and one non-invasive) were localized, that she was stage I. That she was doing good, in great spirits and that he was confident she could go home in a few days.
Eventually the same amazing doctor would tell us that the cancer had not compromised any of her lymph nodes (sentinel and about five more were removed to be biopsied and were negative). That with three month check-ups and a daily dose of Arimidex for the next five years she had every chance of beating this thing.
That she would require neither chemotherapy nor radiation.
To this day I'm sure my mother is alive and doing well because of all the praying and good wishes we received. It's as if all the goodness my mother embodied, all the kindnesses and generosity extended to loved ones, neighbors, friends and strangers over a lifetime, now multiplied, were coming back to her in good news, in health, in years to spend living a meaningful and happy, cancer free life.
But little did we know we were out of the woods.
Soon after my mother's diagnosis and surgery, during the month of May, my cousin (the daughter of one of the two aunts I mentioned earlier) came up with breast cancer. And she is only in her mid-forties.
Then, my sister's mother in law was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and her daughter with a rare form of intestinal cancer. All of them would undergo surgeries of their own. All of them, under the circumstances--some on medication, others undergoing chemotherapy and radiation or both--are also doing good.
A few days before returning to Seattle came a friendly reminder from mom's oncologist: "Your daughters need to get themselves checked too. Because now it is not just two aunts with cancer but a mother".
It was then that I remember that back in 2000 I had a biopsy that required a six month follow-up appointment that I never kept and never re-scheduled. Oops! That voice in my head told me I was not the demographic, I was too young to have to bother, to have to worry, that I could skip the follow-up and every yearly test for the next six years.
Silly girl! Now the worry. If my mother's lab results had turned from come back in 6 months to you have cancer and need surgery in only four months, what were the odds of my follow-up turning into an unpleasant piece of news after six years of absolute carelessness?
I kept this to myself, of course, as the last thing my mother needed was to find out I've totally disregarded everything she always warned me about regarding breast cancer, about being vigilant about this aspect of my health.
So, after the time spent home with my family, taking care of mom, eating my father's delicious cooking at the family table (like the good old times), visiting with friends and neighbors and family I had not seen in years, reconnecting and visiting old favorites, after I counted our blessings over and over and over again and thanked G-d for sparing my mother of the same pain and deadly fate her sisters had endured, I came home to Seattle, booked an appointment with my family doctor and hoped for the best.
This was back in May, late May, the month of months.
After too many appointments, blood draws, mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy, needle aspirations and breast specialist referrals later, after a canceled holiday in San Francisco and my yearly September trip to Paris (I was supposed to leave this morning at 8am) finally, yesterday, I got my good news (mys sister got her all clear over a week ago). And a bit of closure.
Dr. Big Shot told me that the MRI I had last Wednesday, the one we had been trying to schedule for the last 3 months and the last and most important of the many tests and procedures done by my doctors over the last three months to figure out what my "various findings" amounted to and correlated with, said my two funky looking lymph nodes were negative, that they showed no signs of cancer. That the radiologists were recommending a follow-up MRI in six months to make sure there were no changes and to get check-ups from now on every six months. And no more skipping those yearly visits!
To say that I was relieved would be the understatement of the year.
The first person I called was mom. My sister came next and everyone else soon after. So it felt like the right moment, tonight, after a celebratory dinner for one--at a neighborhood restaurant that opened earlier today--to get comfortable, make myself a cup of coffee and even if I cried in the process, to write this.
To all of you. To tell you where I've been, what I've been doing and where I am going from now. That I've missed you and that I thank you all for the emails and comments and well wishes and prayers. That I am humbled and grateful for your concern, patience, understanding, and all the encouragement.
It feels so good to be back!