The first time I felt the lump, I was breastfeeding my 1-year-old daughter, Lindsey. I thought it might be a plugged milk duct because it was the size of a pea and painless. I wasn't yet due for my annual exam, so I made a mental note to follow it through my cycle to see if it changed. We had recently moved, and by the time I found a new ob-gyn, the lump was marble-sized. The doctor and I chatted about different birth control methods and when I might want to start trying for a third baby. Then I asked him to examine my breast, and at 34, I felt my life as I knew it come to a screeching halt.
I started chemo on a warm October morning, sunshine streaming through the windows of the infusion room. Normally, I would have been dropping Natalie, my then 4-year-old, off at preschool, making a to-do list in my head of errands to run, phone calls to return, what to cook for dinner. It might have been a day that beckoned us to take a walk in the nature area near our house, Lindsey bouncing in the baby backpack and Natalie refusing to stay in the stroller because she needed to examine every leaf and rock. Instead, I watched the slow drip of toxic chemicals, longing for the small joys of life I had been taking for granted.
During four months of grueling chemotherapy, I did a daily guided imagery meditation. My favorite lines became a mantra as I told my cancer the following: "Thank you for teaching me to stop and listen. Thank you for reminding me of what is truly important. You can go now." Then I would envision myself slamming the door in cancer's face. Me not around to grow old with my husband, Matt, and see my children grow up? Impossible! I welcomed the chemo into my veins.
There are pros to having a 1-year-old in the house when you have cancer. Toddler antics provide much-needed comic relief, plus Matt and I didn't have to explain to Lindsey, the way we did with Natalie, what was happening to me and why. But the downside to Lindsey's lack of understanding was that she didn't know how to be careful around me. I picked her up after having a chemo port implanted in my chest (to reduce the hassle and pain of needle sticks in my arm), and she kicked me twice, right in the center of the tender incision, causing blinding pain unlike anything I've ever felt in my life. Everyone said, "Don't hold her anymore," but that was not a realistic option.
Dealing with a sick toddler who is up all night, crying and sleep-deprived, is particularly challenging during chemo. The morning after a very rough night for Lindsey, Matt had to go to work, so it was up to me to get her to the pediatrician. There were lots of curious stares at my bald head in the waiting room, the other moms simply unable to imagine what it would be like to have cancer and young children. I'll tell you what it's like: I worry about passing on defective genes to two daughters who will grow up wondering if they'll get "it," too. But in my weaker moments, it's more about me. After I lost my beautiful hair to chemo and my body was thrust into early menopause, I had a major pity party at 2 a.m., crying my eyes out because my children would never remember me as youthful and "pretty." The next morning I got back on track, focusing instead on how much more they will benefit from having a strong mommy who has been raked over the coals and lived to tell about it.
I had around five months to accept the fact of cancer and fight it with chemotherapy before I learned that, while heartbreaking and wildly unexpected, having both breasts removed would offer me the best chance for long-term survival. As the news sunk in, Lindsey laid her sweet little head on the pillow of my chest and melted right into me, sensing that Mommy needed a hug. I closed my eyes and felt with every fiber of my being that quintessential mother/child position, the rise and fall of my breath, the gentle rocking. I was storing up the experience so I'd be ready for the surgery.
The week before my double mastectomy, I threw myself into planning a "Bye-bye, Boobs" party. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I was figuring out the menu, moving our furniture around to make a dance floor, and hanging a disco ball from the ceiling. The moms of my daughters' friends, my neighbors, and my own dear friends and family rallied around me. We all got our grooves on: It felt primal, like early humans dancing to music made by banging sticks on rocks. I was shedding demons and drawing in strength, surrounded by an incredible tribe of women there to remind me that, boobs or no boobs, I am loved. I will never forget that night for as long as I live (which is like 50 more years, at least!).
When we realized Lindsey was still up at 11 p.m., it was time for the room to come back to Earth. I'd gone from wildly flailing myself about in front of a strobe light to sitting on the floor with my friends, cradling Lindsey in my arms for the last two songs, "Que Sera Sera" and "Moon River."
I'm proud of my choice, of overcoming the fear of losing my breasts. That doesn't mean there aren't gray days, but I plan to greet each experience with my new body and a new life that I cherish. My scars were fashioned with love, reminders for me to lead with my heart, now so much closer to the surface. And if I forget, wise-beyond-her-years Natalie is there to remind me: "Your scars look like two mouths smiling at me."
I am forever changed. I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel life differently. And that's a good thing. Lindsey and I recently went to the mall, and when we pulled into the mostly empty parking lot, I saw tons of rain puddles. I decided to let her splash in them. The old Cary would have had five other errands to do before rushing to pick up Natalie at preschool, and there would have been no time for puddles. Lindsey was so joyful in her tiny bug boots, holding my hand and looking up at me. I'll never forget that little face. Cancer, thank you for giving me that perfect moment with her.
Cary Goldberg lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon, with her husband, Matt, and their two daughters.