The Enormity of 3 Small Words
Editor's Note: This is part of Amber's series Surviving Cancer: A Personal Journey. Please see other posts in this series.
TGIF. The weekend was coming. The week had been miserably difficult and uncertainty hung in the air. Still, all week, I had to contribute to my day-to-day obligations. I had to get up, get my family going, get myself to work, somehow be productive and participatory, get my family home, get our evening responsibilities accomplished, and get back into bed just to have to do it all over again the next day. It felt like I was skimming the surface of existence. I was barely engaging. I was keeping myself at a safe distance from caring about anything. I was investing the bare minimum. I was holding onto things as loosely as I could. I was remaining aloof. And I was only pretending to be totally fine to avoid tipping anyone off (including myself) to what my subconscious already seemed to know — that I was totally not fine. And I checked my phone’s ringer volume, again.
A couple of months earlier, I’d found a mass. And though I’m pretty certain there’d been signs for quite some time, I told myself it appeared overnight (because, if it appeared overnight, it could disappear overnight as well). I tried wishing it away. I tried thinking it gone. I tried denial and detachment. I tried to ignore it. But, while trying so hard to pretend it didn’t exist, I also couldn’t stop myself from confirming its existence, every single hour. My mind played games: It’s not there anymore! and Darn, it’s still there, but it’s totally smaller. And It’ll go away if I don’t give it attention. Try to go 2 whole hours without checking. And It’s all in your head so don’t even worry about it. I’d even gone on vacation and told myself I would leave it behind, at the bottom of that lake, and when it was time to go home, it wouldn’t come with me. That all would be well. It just had to be because there was simply no way *that* would happen to me.
But that’s not actually how it went.
I tried wishing it away. I tried thinking it gone. I tried denial and detachment. I tried to ignore it. But, while trying so hard to pretend it didn’t exist, I also couldn’t stop myself from confirming its existence, every single hour.
While on vacation, I found a second mass. That was not what was supposed to happen. Things were going in the wrong direction. Home we went, as did the now 2 masses. Of course, I checked to make sure. Several times. But no. They were still there, certainly making denial more difficult by the day. So much for leaving them behind at the bottom of the lake.
A few weeks after returning home from vacation, while sitting in the parking lot of my office waiting for a work meeting, I forced myself to call the doctor. “I’m certain it's nothing,” she said. “We can have you checked out anyways for peace of mind, though.” But the facial expressions of the medical staff at my mammogram and ultrasound a week later weren’t so ‘peace-of-mind’ like. And the urgent scheduling of a biopsy the very next Thursday did not give me that promised peace of mind, either. Instead, I was a mess. My emotions and my logic dueled — denial and reality. I knew just enough to be freaking out but not enough to know anything for sure. And there I was, stuck in the unknown and stuck in the waiting, 2 of the most unpeaceful places ever to be.
So “TGIF.” I sat at my desk at work staring at my phone. Checking the volume again. Willing the screen to light up. My fingers white-knuckle-crossed that it would ring, just like they promised it would before the weekend. Simultaneously hoping desperately that it never would ring, ever again, so that I could climb back into the solace of denial. 1:37 p.m. The usually soft and sweet tinkling of the ringtone, now so loud and abrasive. I didn’t recognize the number, but of course, I knew who it was.
“Hi. Is this Amber?”
“I’ve got some news. Please sit down. I’m so sorry to confirm what we suspected yesterday. It is cancer. Now, you’ll want to write some things down because I have a lot of information to give you. While we won’t know official pathology until after your mastectomy, we’re looking at advanced invasive ductile carcinoma, ductile carcinoma in situ, and Paget’s disease. You got the trifecta, girl, darn it. Take down these dates and times. Next week I have you scheduled for a follow-up breast MRI on Monday at 9:00; a genetics consultation Monday at 1:00 — since you’re so young and have daughters; an appointment on Wednesday at 9:00 with a general surgeon who will discuss your bilateral mastectomy; and then they’ve scheduled you to have a consult with their number one plastic surgeon Wednesday at 1:00 to discuss reconstruction. Oh, and here are 3 oncologists to consider for your care team. I’d suggest you call them and set up a consultation prior to surgery so that no time is wasted in starting treatment. Oncologists tend to be busy people and are scheduled pretty far out, and you don’t have time to waste. Again, I’m so sorry.”
She just kept saying words. There were too many. They were engulfing. I couldn’t breathe. The voice on the other end of the line, albeit kind, was suffocating. Time stopped. The picture of my life in my head suddenly turned blurry and void of color, now with the word “cancer” in bright red, etched onto my mind’s eye. My vocabulary drastically changed in an instant. As did my life.
“It was nice to meet you, Amber. I’m sorry it’s cancer. We’re pulling for you, though. Good luck.”
Cancer. In all of those weeks and months prior to that phone call, I’d refused to say the word out loud. I’d think about the word. I’d hear medical professionals use it in detached tones, unemotional and clinical. I’d read the word in a variety of contexts, the word itself — common, known, vague. But now, as I sat in a little chair, in a little office at work, the claustrophobia closing in, I had to say it out loud. I had to hear my own voice articulate it. But not only that, I had to hear my own voice speak of its invasion in my body, in my story, in my world.
Time stopped. The picture of my life in my head suddenly turned blurry and void of color, now with the word “cancer” in bright red, etched onto my mind’s eye.
All I could muster was a whisper, “It’s cancer. Cancer. I have cancer.” I heard it, and though it was barely audible, it was ear-splitting. And as I stated it, my denial was obliterated. That was one of my hardest moments, but it wasn’t my only one, because next was saying it out loud beyond my own ears.
I called my husband. “I have cancer.” It didn’t get easier.
I called my parents. “I have cancer.” It didn’t get easier.
I talked to my boss. “I have cancer.” It didn’t get easier.
I went home, and we told our 3 young daughters. “I have cancer.” It didn’t get easier.
I shared the news with my community of support. “I have cancer.” And even though MyLifeLine.org* made it very easy to share my news virtually, it didn’t get any easier to say.
The days that followed that phone call came with more words, worse words. What was once uncertain was now my tragic reality: surgeries, port pros and cons, tumor markers, treatment plans, chemo rounds, medications with lots of letters, radiation, side effects, timelines, prognosis stats, recurrence rates, long-term expectations. Each requiring me to show up, participate in the wretchedly hard, learn of new uncertainties, and accept new tragic realities. And all this time later — almost 5 years from that phone call to now, in survivorship — it has yet to become easier. But that’s where I’d like to leave you for now.
Every day, I continue to live out the enormity of those 3 words, “I have cancer.” I’ve also learned to live out the enormity of 3 other words. Words that I have come to believe in deeply, fully, and wholly because of this crazy-hard story of mine:
Nothing is wasted.
Hope isn’t about desperately seeking ease or wishing away adversity. Those things aren’t realistic, and they use up precious capacity and energy. Escape from cancer wasn’t an option for me. I didn’t get to wake up to the miracle of the sudden disappearance of my tumors; instead, I had to show up to all of my appointments and treatments and surgeries.
And today I still have to show up to surviving. Therefore, hope for me is about making it all mean something. Pursuing purpose. Trusting that the unknown becomes known at some point. Knowing that the waiting in between has value, as well. Believing that hope can permeate hardship and grow in the midst of it because — even when things are wretchedly hard — nothing is wasted. And when I cling to that hope, I can keep showing up.
Every day, I continue to live out the enormity of those 3 words, “I have cancer.” I’ve also learned to live out the enormity of 3 other words: Nothing is wasted.