As summer 2015 unfolds I can’t help but think about last summer, 2014. “That Summer” was the theme of a writing contest I entered last July, right when I was in the thick of things. Pastemagazine.com’s submission rules invited me to, “Think back on a summer that was pivotal in your life, one that remains memorable for being transformative in some way, big or small.” Memorable is certainly one way to describe it. My challenge was to somehow summarize my breast cancer summer in less than 600 words. My entry wasn’t selected (fire flies and first kisses it wasn’t), but it did elicit sympathetic best wishes from the editor. Reading this boiled down summary now that it’s nearly a year behind me is surreal. Even though it re-hashes some of the things I’ve written about in my blog posts I thought I’d post it anyway.
On the first day of summer, 2014, I had one breast and I was bald, weak, in pain, and irritable. My husband pretended that he didn’t mind cooking dinner, but his wine consumption doubled. My children were useless and mean, which I suppose is how all children seem when scrutinized from the couch, 24/7, by an irritable mother. My dog was sick of me, sleep deprived and barking at the slightest provocation. Weeds had taken over the flowerbed and moss was growing on the patio. Who knew what the heck was happening at work in my absence. Yes, the story of this summer sucks, at least at the beginning.
My February mastectomy preceded sixteen weeks of chemotherapy, complete with side effects: nausea, fatigue, constipation, hair loss, bone pain, neuropathy. On the good days I sat on the patio and let the sun bake my legs. Best tan ever for a freckled red head. I started a blog. I read a lot. I went to lunch with friends then, exhausted, took a nap. On the bad days I took more pain meds than during the rest of my life combined, soaked in hot baths, and binge-watched back episodes of Breaking Bad. Every two weeks a nurse pumped me full of paradoxical, life-saving poison. And on the off weeks a nurse pumped saline solution into a tissue expander implanted just north of where my new breast will be. The pain that followed was not unlike a hot poker in the armpit.
But by mid-July, with chemotherapy behind me, water no longer tasted like oil and soft peach fuss covered my head. I found the energy to clean up the cat vomit under the bed. Although I had to nap afterward, I could swim 10 laps and walk for an hour.
Through the mastectomy and the chemo, friends said things like, “You’re strong. You’ll make it through.” And they told my husband, “Linda’s a strong woman,” which he recounted to me in a craggy voice, evocative of a Grandpa talking about Grandma who’s chopping wood over by the log cabin.
I suppose a breast cancer diagnosis prompts some people to freak out, some to break down. My natural tendency is to just deal with things, and this is just one more thing with which I deal. Am I strong? I guess I am. Do I have a choice?
The current state of affairs in my chest area is that my remaining breast is where a 53 year-old breast should be, vertically speaking, and my temporary, mid-reconstruction breast is where one would expect an 18 year-old breast to be. I can almost rest my chin on it. Before leaving for his summer vacation my plastic surgeon will put my new breast in the same general vicinity as the old one.
On August 21st I’ll start six weeks of daily radiation therapy. I’ve heard radiation is just like a bad sunburn if the remedy for a bad sunburn is to go out and lay in the sun again the next day, and the next day, and the next day. When summer ends I’ll have 2 weeks of radiation treatments left. My skin will be so red and angry that wearing clothes will be a challenge, like my fair-skinned, ten-year-old self trying to put on pajamas after a long summer day at the beach.
Yes, it’s that summer.
So how does this summer story not suck all the way through, as promised? Spoiler alert: at the end of the summer I will be alive and cancer free. I’ll have beaten stage-three breast cancer.