Today’s ride took me down the hill and to the left and over to Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center at 601 North Caroline Street, though it’s not really on Caroline Street, as far as I can tell. I’ve been here many, many times. I remember posting a similar picture when I rode over to meet with my breast surgeon for the first time after my diagnosis with breast cancer, almost two years ago–November 21, 2017 is when the news came in, but I knew it was cancer a bit before that. Radiologists know, and mine told me. If the biopsy comes back benign, I’ll know the pathologist made a mistake.
I did the six months or so of treatment–surgery, chemotherapy, radiation–and then I was set loose in the world as a breast cancer “survivor.” What I didn’t understand before I went through this myself is that breast cancer, though talked about as a curable disease, isn’t really curable for a lot of us. When I finished treatment my doctors didn’t say I was cured–they said I was “fully treated.” I was treated with the standard of care to maximize the chance that I will not have a recurrence to my breasts, or a recurrence to another part of my body that will kill me. Once it spreads beyond the breasts and regional lymph nodes, it’s metastatic cancer, and it kills you.
Learning to live with the fact that I’ll only know I’m cured when I die of something else, and the same is true for my twin sister, has been quite a trick. It’s already easier than it was. I think about cancer every day, multiple times a day, but not with fear. It’s a part of my life, but mostly I spend my life teaching, riding my bike, taking up running, talking on the phone to my siblings, and making a home with my boo. Cancer is already in the background. Living in the fear of recurrence means, if I do have a recurrence, living it twice. That’s not my preference.
But every six months I have to have a scan–a mammogram or MRI–to check and see if my breast cancer has returned to my breasts. And in the lead up to these scans the rest of my life fades into the background, and CANCER is back to the front. It’s terrifying. For the past week I’ve been nothing but tears and fear and mood and wondering if I can do this every six months or if I should just have my breasts amputated and be done with it, even though I know amputation doesn’t mean my cancer isn’t already hiding in my bones or my liver or my brain, waiting to grow. And no one understands how that happens, or how to stop it, though I do what I can to maximize my chances it won’t. I take my hormone blocker, exercise, religiously attend every follow up appointment, but I’ve watched too many people do just this and die too soon. Cancer is really just the worst.
I was all jitters in spite of a whole lot of anti anxiety meds on board this morning when I rolled up to the hospital. I went upstairs, checked in, undressed from the waist up, covered up with a giant gown, and waited. The technician came in, and she was all kindness. I was so grateful. We chatted as she pancaked each breast in two directions for my 3D mammogram. You have to hold your breath when they take the pictures. I kept anticipating and holding, and by the time the real holding was over, I was gasping. And then I waited. I heard the woman before me get her results–she has to have a biopsy. 80% of the time those are benign, but 20% of the time, everything changes. My technician came in to apologize for the wait–only one doctor in this morning. “Should I read anything into the wait?” I asked. No, she said. Another woman came in and got her disrobing instructions. And then the technician was back.
“You’re all clear!” I didn’t even have to do an ultrasound this time. I was free to go. So I went, a thousand pounds lifted off my neck, another six month reprieve, six months guaranteed (mostly) to live my life as if I don’t have cancer. Because right now I don’t. But also, I do. It doesn’t just go away, at least not yet, at least not for me.
And then I rode home, bike lanes almost the whole way. Thank you, Bikemore! Time to get back to work–papers to grade, webinars to give, runs to go on, packing to do. I’m headed to Honolulu tomorrow with my boo, for a work conference where I’ll see so many people I love who I haven’t seen in at least a year, and I don’t have a scan hanging over my head when I get back. I can’t believe how lucky I am to live this magical life.