It’s a little surreal now, but it was 3 years ago today that I found the damn spot that turned out to be breast cancer. I know that’s a crazy anniversary to celebrate, but finding that damn spot is why I’m sitting here today, three years later, doing one of my favorite things in the world: playing with words. I’ve been playing with them a lot over this past year, writing a book. A book, if you will, to close the book on the story that damn spot once upon a time tried to rain on the parade of my happily ever after.
Here’s the way cool cover (in progress) by my even cooler cover artist, London Glover, who, with digital media guru Mikey Evans as her sidekick, has done what nobody, to my knowledge, had even thought of doing before—turned me into a cartoon. I’ve always wanted to be a cartoon.
Being a cartoon definitely ranks way up there on my list of 1000 gifts, currently at #162. And since I wouldn’t have “grown up” to become a cartoon if I hadn’t been so blessed/fortunate/lucky to find that damn spot 3 years ago today, let me not forget to record that most obvious gift I was given: the gift [#163] of finding said damn spot when I did, and consequently #164: Take 2 at life.
So because this is such a happy day for me, I feel like sharing my happiness, and just because I’m feeling extra giddy, a few words from my book about that day 3 years ago today. A teaser, if you will, from chapter 2 of my book: SHAKEN NOT STIRRED…A CHEMO COCKTAIL.
SHAKEN NOT STIRRED…A CHEMO COCKTAIL is sort of my postcard from the other side of breast cancer/chemo. It’s a comedy about my tragedy. Now, I know it’s kinda a spoiler to tell you it’s a comedy up front, but then again . . . I figure you are pretty smart anyhow, and have already figured out that if I’m sitting here writing a book that there is a happy ending to it.
I’m all about happy endings. But I’m not giving the ending away tonight—just the beginning. And by beginning, I don’t mean to imply that I began my book with chapter 2. That would be ridiculous. Although, now that I think about it, it sounds like a fun challenge. Anyway, by beginning, I just mean the night I found the damn spot.
As a special bonus feature, here’s the song I had on loop while writing Chapter 2:
When the Stars Go Blue
On August 11, 2008 there were meteor showers[i] over Cincinnati. My world was rocked that night, but it had nothing to do with the meteors that my teenage son Mikey and I watched in the wee hours of that sleepless summer night.
Previous to Perseus’s fireworks display, somewhere in between the lines of August 11th and 12th, I’d awakened, particularly parched from the end-of-season cocktail party I’d thrown that evening at The Evanshire, aka my home sweet home. Being somewhat of a newbie tennis freak, I’d played on three tennis teams that summer. My neighborhood team had just won the division championship. My USTA (United States Tennis Association) team had just played in the district championship tournament. We actually won the districts . . . but . . . the win pushed one of our player’s ratings into a higher bracket . . . and that officially disqualified all her matches . . . and our team from the victory, not to mention a road-trip to regionals. The trophy didn’t have a chance to slip through our fingers; we never even got to touch it before the ruling came raining down on our parade. For the cocktail party, I’d grabbed several bottles of a certain Grenache that had caught my eye from across the wine store where I was searching for just the right red and/or white to go with our blues. It had a hot pink label with elegant “cursive” lettering that read: Bitch. Bingo! My tennis girlfriends cracked up when I presented the wine. Then we all sighed, and said, “Yeah, it sure was.” We uncorked the wine. It was the best of times and we were making the best of the worst of times. We ate and drank and made merry[ii]. I went to bed thirsty.
I knew I would wake up in the middle of the night, dying of thirst, thirsty. What I didn’t know was that dying of thirst would end up, sort of saving my life.
It was 5 o’clock somewhere, but for me it was the middle of the night when I woke up from a dream in which I was practically dying of thirst and trying desperately, though unsuccessfully, to quench it. “Need . . . H . . . 2 . . . Ohhhh,” I sputtered out in a dry whisper like I was some kind of a tumbleweed, searching for an oasis. “So. [click] Very. [click] Thirsty.” I couldn’t even peel my tongue off the roof of my mouth. I’d dealt with similar “middle-of-the-night dehydration” before, so I had the drill down, practically in my sleep. I tumbled out of bed, crawled across the bedroom floor, slithered down the stairs more like a Slinky than a snake, and somehow found myself in front of the kitchen sink. I guzzled down a glass of water, diluting the dehydration and dousing the dream. Then I poured another, and headed to the study to sip on the second one while checking Facebook. And I played a little Scramble, to try and unscramble the fog in my brain.
That’s when I bumped up against my desk . . . Ouch . . . I felt . . . and heard . . . an unexpected thud. Something had gone bump in the night—and the bump was on me: my left breast, to be more specific. My jaw fell on the floor and my eyebrows formed a question mark as I held my breath, brought my hand to my breast, and felt the lump.
I cannot explain the shock and awe I felt. It was like a meteor to the chest, literally. I remember the lump felt like a shooter marble right beneath the “milky way.” I’m pretty sure it wasn’t there the day before. My husband, Dave, is pretty sure it wasn’t there the day before. I’m sorry if that’s TMI, but I don’t see how we could’ve missed a meteor like that.
I don’t know how long I sat there trying to imagine what in the world the marble could be. I found myself checking and rechecking to see if it was really there. Then I kept checking and rechecking to see if it was still there. Part of me thought I was imagining things. But, no, it was still there. Part of me started imagining things. I felt the meteor again, and then stared out the window for a while.
My fourteen-year-old son, Mikey, was lying out on the driveway, gazing up at the meteor showers in the sky. I let go of my own gravity and let myself get pulled into his world for a little while—snuggling up next to him and watching the sky fall, like it was a movie.
That time with Mikey is etched in my soul as a perfect snapshot of—not my life passing before my eyes in the dying sense—but more like a haiku, capturing what it was all about.
When the meteor show was over, I had a hard time keeping my thoughts from spiraling out of control. A sensible part of me, that I had to dig way down deep for, took all the other parts of me, and put them to bed.
I lay there, not wanting to wake Dave, deciding to wait out the night. Wait for him to wake. Wait to see if it would just go away. Wait. And pray.
Since my thoughts like to play connect the dots, this would be where my inner Lady Macbeth started coming out, as “Out, damn’d spot” were the words that came out as I prayed. This seemed like a reasonable prayer, so I went with it.
I also spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to say to Dave when he woke. The truth is, I generally obsess over just about anything I even think of, processing it at least twice, before it gets “on deck,” on the tip of my tongue. Just to make sure I say what I mean to say and that I say it the way I mean it. Extroverting is not my strong suit. I can do it, but I don’t think I do it very well. And it wears me out. I had nothing, by the time he woke up. I was worn out, wound up, and on top of everything, I just had to wing it.
Some words tumbled out into the air and then seemed to settle in a cloud over Dave. He groaned one of those “groanings which cannot be uttered[iii],” (like he already knew, too) and fearfully, mechanically, reached over toward the spot.
Dave said that waking up to that morning was like waking up on the worst possible side of the bed ever: “I was still pretty groggy when Joules asked me about a lump she had found on her breast. She’s pretty random and often catches me off guard, but in 20 years of marriage, she had never asked anything quite like this. As soon as I felt the obvious lump, the fog instantly cleared and I was wide awake. My heart and mind started racing, but I tried not to let her see my fear. Outside I was saying, ‘Hmm, that’s strange,’ but inside I was frantically praying, ‘Please, God, no! Please, God, no! Please, God, no!’ Ever since we had a friend diagnosed with breast cancer, I held a secret fear that it might strike Joules one day. This fear only intensified when our friend lost her 7-year battle. Before that, cancer was something other people got. Old people. People with unhealthy lifestyles. People I didn’t know. But she was young, healthy, fit, even, a wife and mom, a good and godly woman. And she was one of Joules’s closest friends. Suddenly breast cancer was very real to me, and very scary.”
I won’t ever forget that groan. Dave’s middle name, Wayne, means wagon, and I could just feel him bearing the weight that was to come.
He felt the spot; I had not imagined it.
He got out of bed and made a pot of coffee. Dave makes coffee for me every morning and even brings a cup up to our bedroom and sets it on my nightstand to help me wake up and smell the coffee. Yes, I am spoiled. I admit it.
Then he headed to the study with his computer, and began researching what “not bad” things it could be. At first we were hoping it might be a cyst, or hormones. Or even a boil—at which point, I did channel my inner Job. Then he began adding big words that started with fibro- and pap- and ended in -oma, and my brain went all foggy again.
I poured another cup of coffee and called my sister, Jennie, who lives in Charleston, to tell her about the damn spot. She’s my baby sister, but also my best friend. She’s also a little ADHD, and I happen to love her rabbit trails, so I figured I could thumb a ride on her distraction.
Jennie later described the rabbit hole she fell in when I told her about the lump: “The day Joules called me and told me about the damn spot she found, I asked her if she thought it might just be a pimple or something weird like that. I tried to be reassuring for her and myself. The thing is, Joules has always been the strong one, and almost like a mother to me, all my life. And to me, nothing bad could or would ever happen to her. But, when we hung up the phone, the knot that seemed to have tied in my throat broke, and my tears broke free. My glass is not always as full as my sister’s, and it sort of felt like it had just tipped over.”
Dave made an appointment with my gynecologist, Dr. Allen, for 3:00 that afternoon. I had chosen her because I was not really into doctors at the time. She was a Naturopath, but also an MD. Basically, she was into alternative/non-traditional—with leanings toward Eastern—medicine. I liked that she was not a traditional medical evangelist, but had that training as well, in the palette of her doctor’s bag. I did not worry that she would jump to any radical medical conclusions, because that was not her holistic style. I felt we were sort of on the same page and that everything could be OK, because she was the most likely doctor to find alternative things the spot could be, and alternative ways of spot removal.
Meanwhile, Dave told me I should go ahead and go to a tennis clinic I’d already signed up and paid for, to try to keep my mind off that damn spot until three.
[ii] Ecclesiastes 8:15
[iii] Romans 8:26