The first time that I truly realized that I had cancer was the day all of my eyelashes, on both eyes, detached themselves from my eyelids and clung to my mascara brush, leaving me with two bald, red-rimmed lash-less eyes. As the tears poured down my face, I groped blindly for the number of a psychologist friend who had offered help, if I ever needed it. Gulping back sobs, I told the receptionist that I needed an appointment with the doctor as soon as possible. My friend called me back a few minutes later, listened to my incoherent babbling about eyelashes and mascara and being late for work, and scheduled me to come to his office as his last patient that evening.
The journey to the renegade eyelashes had started four months before when I was diagnosed with a hard-to-detect, textbook-perfect, malignant tumor up against the chest wall in my right breast. The biopsy was positive, so because of the location of the lesion, mastectomy was the only option.
As a hospital manager, I was entirely familiar with the standard procedure – the repeated mammograms, the needle biopsy, the lumpectomy that failed to remove margins, the modified, radical mastectomy, followed by rigorous chemotherapy. I had the best doctors who took a personal interest in me; I had state-of-the-art equipment and technology at my disposal; My outpatient mastectomy was uneventful and painless – I was in the operating room at 7.30AM, out at 8.30AM and in my own bed by 4PM. I spent two recuperative weeks at home practicing "walking up the wall" with my right hand; I read articles about Amazon women who deliberately cut off their breasts so that their bow harnesses would fit better, giving their arrows deadlier aim. Wow! Do-it-yourself surgery - compared to that, my procedure was a piece of cake.
Finally, boredom induced me to cut the sick leave short and go back to work three weeks after surgery. I had not taken a single pain-killer and I had had pedicures that caused me more distress than my mastectomy. I was fitted for a svelte, lightweight prosthesis and some new bras, which frankly looked a whole lot more "uplifted" than I had been before. Mentally, I was fine – cheerfully entertaining friends who came to call, marveling at my stamina; I basked in the attention.
As my treatment plan advanced to the next stage, the doctors who were managing the clinical aspect of my disease told me that I had an excellent chance of survival with a vigorous, new chemotherapy regimen. I did not doubt them and actually looked forward to commencing treatment six weeks post-op. I was determined that it would not slow me down, nor would I miss a day of work because of it. I was anxious to put the surgery behind me and get on with my life. My breast had been replaced by a thin, neat pink scar not unlike a lightning bolt, and I felt no particular anguish at the loss. I was a recent divorcee, my children were grown, and I was not in the least interested in another romantic attachment. I certainly did not miss my breast. By all accounts, I had made a remarkable recovery.
That is, until three months into the six-month chemotherapy regimen, when with no warning, I suddenly dead-ended into a wall of hopelessness, depression and self-pity. I was sitting on the sofa enjoying the 1992 Olympics being televised from Barcelona, and out of nowhere I suddenly thought, "Make the most of this, because you won't be around to see the games in four more years" Now where did that come from?
For the next month, I suffered from extreme exhaustion, shortness of breath, crying jags, sleeplessness, anxiety and deep depression. My oncologist shrugged when I related my symptoms to him and said they were par for the chemo course. With every treatment the symptoms worsened.
I found it difficult to sit quietly while the IV infused, thinking positive thoughts about "scrubbing bubbles" cleansing the cancer from my body, as all the cancer-sufferers advised. All I could I think of was that I was purposely poisoning the body that had betrayed me and it deserved it. My hair thinned just enough to look moth-eaten, but not enough to require a wig. My skin took on a sallow, yellowish tinge. My mouth tasted like the bottom of a bird cage and the only thing that took the taste away was jelly donuts, of which I ate five or six a day, shamelessly. Instead of losing weight as most chemo patients do, over the six-month course I gained 50lbs. I was losing traction on my life every day and I was powerless to put it back on course. Nor did I really want to, because by then I was convinced that I was probably not going to make it more than a few months before the cancer would recur, so why bother? I could see this knowledge sadly reflected in the eyes of my f! riends and co-workers. I mentally wrote and re-wrote my obituary, always stopping at "...after a heroic battle with cancer". CANCER. The Big "C". I had cancer. I have cancer. I will have cancer. Tough luck, try again next life. Until the final straw - my eyelashes fell out.
I can truly say that my friend the Psychologist helped me tremendously. What he did was to simply listen, while I poured out my heart to him, telling him about the pall of death that hovered over me, just beyond reason; the dread of never being well again, of being a burden to my family. I was only 52, but I felt that my life was over, not because I had lost my breast, but because I was harboring a killer disease in my body that was going to strike and strike again, and I just didn't have the will to fight back. Together, my friend and I unraveled the threads of fear that were so intricately knotted together in my mind – fear of death; fear of pain; fear of becoming a burden; and yes, finally, fear of living the rest of my life without my breast. That funny, silly, slightly lumpy little 36B breast that had just hung there quietly for most of my life, minding its own business, nursing three babies happily, floating contentedly in warm bubbles when I bathed; and now it was cut ! off, dead and gone without a goodbye, or even a decent burial. Finally, I wept for my breast.
Two weeks ago, on June 17th, I celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of the loss of my breast. Recently retired, I was on a Baltic cruise in the middle of the North Sea and I toasted life with a frosty Mojito. These last fifteen years have not been easy – as life never is – but I have been present at the births of three beautiful grandsons; I've seen hundreds of glorious sunsets and laughed at a thousand email jokes; I've learned how to peacefully co-exist with God; and I've learned that we need pain in our lives so that we can appreciate the good times that we are given. I take each dawn as a gift and try to live each day as though it is my last. The future will take care of itself.
Andrea R. Walcott is the mother of three grown children and proud grandmother of three grandboys. She was born and educated in Jamaica and has resided in Florida for over 30 years. She recently retired from the Healthcare Industry in which she was a Hospital Manager for more than 25 years and anticipates living each day to the fullest – writing, painting and giving thanks for showers of blessings.