anesthesia, break-up after breast cancer, breast cancer, Cancer Kitten, Cathy Kenney, DCIS, DFCI, Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, Faulkner Hospital, fertile hope, fertility, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, mammogram, relationship loss and breast cancer, Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma, surgery, thirties, young woman with breast cancer
Hi blog followers! My friend Jeannette told me about an annual real-life story essay contest Glamour magazine offers, which closed this past Saturday. The summary of what the judges are looking for: “Every woman has an inspiring true story somewhere inside her—and we want to hear yours. Is it about the time you overcame an obstacle, tested your courage, met the love of your life, or found your passion…or the day you met the love of your life?” I decided to go for it and enter my story, albeit, an edited version. Here is what I submitted! I could have edited it forever, but given the time constraints with working and life, I did the best I could! It’s mostly pieces of my blog entries put together in chronological order, with a few new connecting paragraphs.
Thanks to all who read my blog and encourage me to pursue writing as more than a hobby. I am very excited about the potential in this field and am “going for it”!!!
Glamour Essay Submission, 2014
I was taking a shower and just found it. I always wondered how women can differentiate between normal and abnormal lumps. I discovered that even if you don’t know your breasts like your ABCs, you KNOW when something is awry.
My long hair dripped water on knotty pine flooring as I trotted naked across the house, my hands supporting my boobs, being careful not to slip, to get my fiancé’s expert opinion on the newness of this lump. He felt the hard pea that had taken up residence in my right breast, and expressed concern, but hugged and reassured me. I trotted back to my steamy shower and he immediately got online to research all of the reasons why I probably didn’t have breast cancer, primarily given the fact that I was thirty-two years old with no family history of the disease. We rationally pushed the idea of cancer aside until I had further tests. I irrationally slept on my back that night, to prevent dislodging a cancerous cell from my lump, my instinct perhaps aware that life was about to change.
It was the end of spring.
A week and a half later I had an ultrasound-guided core needle biopsy and mammogram. When the radiologist entered the mammogram waiting room, her face told me what I needed to know. “I am nearly positive that your pathology results will show that you have cancer.” I asked her if it was OK to cry now, and she said yes, so I did. Then there was a flurry of activity while the nurse and the radiologist debated calling my fiancé, or trying to find him in the waiting room. They eventually found him in the waiting room and when he appeared in the doorway, I blurted out “It’s not good.” Fear shrouded his face. We hugged each other, not knowing what else to do.
The energy in the room became controlled panic. People scurried to find a chair for my fiancé. Then the doctor had to explain the next steps to me two or three times, as it was increasingly difficult for me to hear, never mind listen to her words over my inner shouts of “CANcer! canCER! CANCER!” The nurse, who was my age, buzzed around, making sure that I had a cold ice pack on my incision site and stuffing extra gauze into my hospital goody bag. My fiancé asked few questions.
Seven months before, I became engaged to the love of my life. Only a few months into the relationship, we discussed where we wanted to live, eventually deciding on Colorado, and planned to move to British Columbia in the future. Within nine months of meeting him, I had quit my job as an environmental attorney in Florida, we bought a three-horse slant-load trailer and a four-door Silverado, and moved all of my animals out to his home in Colorado. Everything in my life was brilliantly perfect (albeit hairy). Even now, I can’t recall a time when I was happier. Following that move, we drove farther northwest and spent six weeks in Tatlayoko Lake, a remote area of British Columbia, hiking, four-wheeling, canoeing, dirt biking, horseback riding, and traveling with our three pups while living out of the living quarters of the horse trailer.
We were preparing to leave British Columbia and return to our new, more civilized life together in Colorado when he got down on one knee on top of a knoll, in a clearing we made for our future house. Water trickling and trees rustling magnified in my ears as adrenaline coursed through me, sharpening my senses in reaction to this expected unexpected moment. He asked me to marry him. I barely recall what he said, but it was oddly perfect for us. He was perfect for me. I felt lucky. I felt elated. I felt pure joy.
I recall many moments before cancer when I paused and recognized how fortunate and happy I was with my life. I remember specific moments in time – while planting a garden, while riding my horse, while cuddling with my fiancé – when I reminded myself to treasure those moments, since my idyllic life was guaranteed to change someday.
After my diagnosis, at the end of July, his parents drove down from British Columbia to our farm for a visit. It was a few days before I left for Boston for my lumpectomy surgery, and they had come partly to help care for the farm while I recovered in Boston and he was away working. There were lots of old friends and dogs at the house when he returned from a trip. He was fairly livid that I didn’t have some sort of dinner game plan. I told him to heat up a hot dog (it was July afterall). I didn’t live that down for weeks.
I ended up turning on some serious waterworks, screaming and yelling and crying at him a day or so later, saying that I don’t think he knows what it feels like to go through this, and that he wasn’t being understanding enough. I remember sitting on the floor of the laundry room crying and folding laundry while he watched me with unfaltering and judgmental eyes. Typically when I become mad, I get quiet, think about what it is I want to say and then say it. Typically. I do expect to be forgiven on the occasion when I lose my marbles. Part of the irony of life is that those persons closest to us are lucky enough to see all of our beautiful moments, and in return, bear the burden of also witnessing our ugliest. I KNOW I am far from perfect, but I also don’t expect perfection from anyone. I did expect a hug and some love for what I was going through, even if I didn’t heat up the hot dogs. I can only imagine what was going through his head.
That minor Chernobyl meltdown happened around the time I was going for my final “real” hair cut. I swallowed back tears walking into the salon but held my head high and made it through the experience. I didn’t buy any hair product that trip.
That laundry room blow-up, as far as I know, led to his statement during the car ride home from Logan airport to my mother’s house, the night before my surgery, that “things aren’t going well with us right now.” I asked if he was cheating on me and he said no. I believed him, at least at that point in time. I didn’t know why else things would be going poorly in our relationship. We were dealing with cancer but surely, our relationship could weather that hiccup. I ended up reassuring HIM that this stress was temporary and we needed to hang on and get through this and see how we felt about our relationship once we had a “new normal.” I didn’t tell anyone about our conversation.
The next morning, he sat with me in the waiting room at the hospital, along with my entourage: my mom, aunt, sister and friend. I needed him there and he seemed like he wanted to be there. My surgery took a few hours longer than expected and he had to go to work before I woke up from anesthesia. I know now that he spent the time I was in surgery with my sister and friend. They walked through the nearby Arnold Arboretum, and unbeknownst to me, he mentioned to them that I needed to get a job. They felt it was an odd comment, but let it pass and certainly didn’t tell me about it. They relayed this conversation to me only long after the relationship was over. I woke up after surgery and repeatedly asked for him. He left me a note that said “Had to go make the bacon Kitten. I love you,” and of course, that was more than enough to keep me hanging on.
For me, loving him and my life with him and everything that lay ahead of us was like living Prozac. He calmed me. He was mine and I was his, and if I was going to suck it up and battle cancer, it was as much for him to have me alive for as long as possible as it was for me to be with him for as long as possible. While I was going through cancer treatment, I had to believe that he was still with me, that he had not checked out sometime soon after the beginning of my diagnosis. Had I truly believed for one minute that he wasn’t just “freaked out” and was actually mapping his relationship escape route since sometime in July, I am not sure I could have fought cancer the same way. I was already sad and scared and miserable, but laughed and lived and loved and cried myself through it, telling myself he would be better, that we would be back to normal, once I was better. And since he kind of stuck it out, I thought he, too, was waiting to see what life would be like for us together, post-cancer.
I went home to Colorado just a week after surgery. My doctors wanted me to wait at least two weeks before flying, but I had my sister-in-law and a friend flying in from Florida. We had made pre-cancer plans to attend a horse training clinic during the first few days of August. I flew into Denver and I drove the three hours home to the mountains. I opted to rest that night and then spent the entire morning rushing around cleaning the house. (Our three dogs were home with a dogsitter for the entire time I was away). I was supposed to limit lifting for a few weeks so it was lovely to have friends with me to pass the time and to help out with the animals.
It was during their visit that I spoke with my fiancé really late one night on the phone, and I knew something was very wrong. I pushed and pressured until he finally said he just couldn’t do “us” anymore, primarily due to my lack of work ethic. It was pretty late when we had the conversation, so I didn’t feel I could call anyone on the east coast for support, and for whatever reason I didn’t want to wake my company. Instead, I invited Mulder, my Rottie mix, into my bed (the dogs only get on my bed when I am extremely sad or drunk), and tossed around, cried and hugged Mulder until I finally heard someone stirring upstairs in the early morning hours. Thank goodness for jet lag! I padded up the stairs, bawling. My sister-in-law and I sat on her bed, me barely breathing as I explained the conversation from hours before. If I recall, she said that was unacceptable and advised me to pack up and leave. I wish I was stronger then, and I wish I followed that advice. When my fiancé came home from that trip, something had definitely changed and we felt strained. That was the first time I had seen him since I was rolled away for surgery.
I can keep listing things that my ex-fiancé did during the months between my surgery and the end of radiation (the end of my treatment). He didn’t want to nor felt the least bit obligated to pay for any of my medical bills. He withdrew when I wanted to freeze embryos in case chemo put me into premature menopause. I took money from my 401(k) to pay for my deductibles and egg retrieval. In the meantime he spent thousands on a dirt bike and related fees to ride in an international race (I did completely support him in that venture though). He sold my truck that he had bought for me in Florida and gave me a Subaru station wagon we were given for free (and wanted me to purchase it from him when I left Colorado). He got mad at me for struggling on a hike when we returned to British Columbia before chemo but right after my egg retrieval, when my hormones were confused from all of the injections it required. We both had knee surgery in December, and he refused to help pay for my physical therapy. He joined a local gym and said I could once I was working. I dragged him to my therapist’s office one afternoon and all he could contribute to the conversation was that I didn’t have any work ethic and that we were two different people. I think he may have also offered up (I’m paraphrasing here) that I “had all the time since BC (the second trip) to convince him that we should be together.” I am still completely perplexed by how someone with so much drive for personal success couldn’t find that same drive to make US a success. Are not good and loving relationships fundamental to a successful life?
It wasn’t until the day I read his e-mail telling me that we were over and discussing the logistics of separating our lives, as I sat alone in my mom’s spare bedroom on a twin-sized daybed littered with my T passes and medical papers, slathering my burned boob with natural ointments and whatever gave me some temporary pain relief, that he was never going to marry me.
I immediately called him and tried to convince him with every bone in my body, tear in my eye, and compromise I had left in my heart, that we could make it. That this was our new beginning we had been waiting for since June. But he said “No Kitten, I’m done. You’ve shown your true colors. You don’t want to work, you will make someone a good trophy wife. We are two different people.” Or something to that extent. My body felt split like firewood. I wailed from the pit of my stomach, that primal cry that is nearly throwing up, and that which Kleenex cannot contain. I wailed like this on the phone to him. He told me he had to go, that he couldn’t understand what I was saying and that I was making him feel guilty.
By then it was February. I had about a week left of radiation and I had no idea how to console myself in Boston. I couldn’t jet home to see him and hug him, although I doubt he would’ve made himself available (what’s two years of your life with someone afterall). I couldn’t cuddle with my dogs, or touch my horse’s silken coat. I couldn’t distract myself with cleaning the chicken coop, or even, God forbid, with packing up my life.
So instead I rabidly called and texted him a million times. He had to change his mind by text #132, right? Especially when I told him he was the love of my life, right? That I would live in a shack with him if it meant I could sleep next to him every night? Just months ago we were “seeing what happened” in regards to starting a family. Then I was diagnosed with cancer. We had just settled down in a new, beautiful, wild place that I was excited to call home. Then I was diagnosed with cancer. I was meeting some wonderful friends who I know now will be friends long into the future. We had a whole fun life ahead of us – together – how could cancer destroy these plans? I have read lots of musings on cancer, and the writing that struck me then and still breaks my heart today is “Cancer cannot destroy love.” If cancer hadn’t just destroyed love, then what the hell had happened?
I barely told anyone about the decline of our relationship or complained to him about how I was being treated because (1) when we were finished with my cancer treatment, I didn’t want anyone to remind me of how unsupportive he was, (2) I was afraid to lose him, and (3) I wanted him to live as normal a life as possible while I was undergoing treatment. My life had to slow down quite a bit, but I didn’t want to prevent him from living his life at full-speed – I knew for sure if I did that he would leave me. What I naively didn’t see is that no matter what I did, he was traveling at full-speed away from me, away from whatever unconscious, residual suffering and pain I stirred inside of him.
I don’t want to be the “woman scorned” who cannot let go of her past. I want to be Cathy, a good friend and kind and loving partner to someone who deserves me. I want to be the young-ish woman who survived breast cancer, survived heartbreak, and who emerged with grace and dignity. I was and still am not sure if sharing the details of my story allows me to be that person. However, as I was driving to work one morning I realized that the deeper down I bury this black seed of anger and sadness, the more it is going to struggle within me to reach the light, and I don’t want it to have another second of power to hurt me. Although “the truth will set you free” is quite cliché, its meaning is eternally powerful, at least to me.
I mourned this past year the loss of the shared cancer experience with a life partner. To me, cancer was such a life-altering event that I wish I attended the cancer party with a man who loved me for the duration of the event, regardless of my fears, tears, and sometimes erratic behavior, and who trusted that the old Cathy, minus a few milk ducts but with a new-found maturity, would be back when the party was over. Some days were better than others with my fiancé. In the end, in many ways I suppose, he was like the cancer: I learned a lot about the disease over my nine months of treatment, and when all is said and done, I am now tougher because I survived the experience.
At diagnosis I felt so lucky to have a steadfast love-of-my-life beside me while I navigated the uneven terrain of breast cancer. But when I walked out of the hospital after my last dose of radiation, holding hands with my ten year old cousin and a broken heart, I knew I hadn’t found him. At least not yet.
There is another important law of nature we must face as we work toward inhabiting the sanctity of life. It is the fact that everything living is worn down and broken open at some point in its journey, and when enduring that rearrangement, the seed that has been living within us, once given air, will grow out of that break. So stilling our heart and living a life of openness also means letting the unexpected break in our life heal in the light that finds us. ~Mark Nepo