Or the nicer way to say it is, ‘The day my life would change forever day’. In that moment, for the worse, but little did I know how much for the better it would turn out to be.
Anyone who knows me, will tell you that I am easy to panic. Catastrophic ruminating has been used more than once by therapists throughout the years. I have had panic attacks since high school and had horrible attacks while I was on performing on stage. If I'm being honest, this was the main reason I stopped acting. Back then anxiety wasn't discussed, or even acknowledged. After a show, I would spend the night in my bathtub, the only place I felt safe from imploding, Sometimes requiring my roommates Tasha and Justin to join me. I would count the days til the run of the show was over. My greatest love became my greatest fear.
Once I stopped acting, I was able to manage my anxiety and slowly stopped thinking I was going to die in front of a crowd of strangers, in a movie theater or restaurant and years later, after working on breathing and behavioral techniques I had studied, I thought I had divorced my angst.
And then, April 7th 2011 my "routine" mammogram day.
Although normally I would have a sense of dread at Dr's appts, this time I was not nervous. I had just been checked 3 months prior as I tended to have fibroids that needed to be sonogrammed when they arose and had an all clear the previous appt.
The moment the tech asked me if I had ever had Breast Surgery I laughed as my breasts are very much on the smaller size. Clearly I misunderstood what she was asking and said "do they look like I've had anything done to them?" and she said "uh, no, not that, but there is something here that looks like...hmmm. I'm just going to check with the doctor."
Okay, cue the panic button.
The Dr came in to look, and when I say this man is a SAINT I am not kidding. The most compassionate Dr I have ever met (and believe me, I have met A LOT of doctors these last 10yrs).
He started asking questions about my job as he could see I was visibly shaking. I said, don't worry about me, just focus on what you need to be doing. He then held my hand as he did his sonogram check. I will never forget that gesture.
Au Naturale Reflection day on the island of Bequia 2019
He then brought me into his office, sat me down and showed me what he was looking at. My mammo was clear but there was something definitely going on in my left breast per the sono. It was the end of the day so he had me go back in to do an enlarged pic of that area after all the appointments were done. This meant he had to stay late and he didn't bat an eye and said he was not letting me leave without more answers.
Based on the close up where he saw some calcifications, he thought it wise to biopsy. Luckily it turns out for me, he was leaving town that next week, but could fit me in on Monday before his other appts. I think he sensed I was going to be more fragile than most and wanted to see it through with me.
I'll never forget the moment after my biopsy, that Monday 9am, standing in his office, wearing my REALLY cute Real Estate broker outfit including my favorite 3 inch heels and asking him if he thought this was something I should be concerned about. The look on his face told me everything and he didn't have to say a word. But he did. He was 100% honest with me and said, "I can say with 99% certainty that we are looking at a malignancy." Cue the stomach whoosh... my thoughts went to, "Why on Earth did I wear these heels?! is it rude if I throw up?!! I don't think I can stay standing! I'm never going to be able to wear this outfit again!" Seems such a strange thought, but it was not only an act of brain protection, but something attached to panic disorder. You associate the bad with something tangible, something that you can blame the panic on. Still, to this day, I have not worn that outfit again. Maybe someday I will, as it is a REALLY nice outfit.
As I left his office I walked down Park Ave. The world suddenly looked so different, so odd, the colors were different, the buildings looked misplaced. The blue of the sky suddenly looked foreign to me. I was moving in slow motion and sounds were hitting me as if they were coming through a synthesizer. My mind desperately wanted to divorce my body, it had betrayed us, I did everything one was supposed to do, ate well, exercised, drank minimally, how could my body do this to me? I felt an instant disconnect. Walking in this new 'sick' body felt alien. Looking at people I suddenly thought, "Can they tell? Do I look different? Why did I choose these heels?!! Am I actually walking! Am I still breathing?" Can we leave this body here on the street and get a new one?" Then Suddenly things switched. I was looking at the people I was passing and wondered if they had something going on that I couldn't see. Clearly I couldn't be the only one. I kept trying to make eye contact as if I could make a connection to someone who understood what was happening to me. Making eye contact on a NYC street is not something normally done, for a myriad of reasons, but that day I was searching every face. Hoping someone was on my frequency, someone who could, in a nod of their head, explain all this to me.
Calling my mom was the hardest part of this day. She has always been my first call when things turn bad for me and she 'tough loves' me back to reality, but this was different, this was also going to be just as bad for her. I think that was the first and only time I heard her use the word fuck. She will deny this, but I promise you, it was used. She could not have been a better pillar of strength even when I could tell she was terrified.
Once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient. "Let's be safe" Testing is always arduous and stressful.
Once she gathered her wits, she went into "let's get on this" mode as she is good at that. She already had people to "call" who would help us through, Doctor friends who would read my scan, other women who had been through this I could consult. She is a problem solver and a "there is always a way" type. Something that drove me nuts as a kid, but something I was so grateful for during this process and something I have come to realize is part of who I am. I am grateful for this.
By the time I got the call at 1:30pm the next day confirming it was in fact cancer, I was prepared. I took the news like a champ, sitting on my cream couch in my pajamas, my cat Imogen stretched across my lap with my reports all laid out in front of me. My doctor had rushed the biopsy as he wanted to get the answer before he left town. Before we hung up I asked "Am I going to be okay?" clearly I hadn't learned my lessons about asking him questions. His response. "You are going to have to go through some shit, but I do think you are going to get through this." I hung on to that through all the testing, waiting, panic when another doctor told me it was in a lymph node and through the test my wonderful Dr did when a potential lump was found on the inside of my arm. He got me in and came in on his day off apologizing for being in shorts and Birkenstocks. I told him he could be in fishnets and a garter belt for all I cared! I was just so grateful. (lump was inflamed lymph node most likely caused by biopsy, it was gone within a week.)
The two weeks after my diagnosis are a bit of a blur. It might have been the shock of what was happening or the 2 martinis I was drinking every night after not eating all day. (We all handle stress differently!)
Once you are diagnosed, something many people don't understand is that you have to make MAJOR decisions rather quickly. You have to educate yourself on the type of breast cancer you have. There are a myriad of subtypes, it's not just a one type fits all diagnosis. Every decision you make is based off of several options given you and Doctors can't tell you what to do, only agree with the choice you make. Something you knew nothing about a month ago, you are suddenly called on to become an expert without all the years of med school! Every decision you make, you know could result in whether you live or die. This sounds dramatic but when you are thrust into this, you truly feel that the stakes are that high. Words you don't understand, treatments you've never heard of, tests you are suddenly taking to look for "spread". Lung scans (I spent an hour on the floor of my shower sobbing over fear for this test), dye injected MRI's, blood tests, CT scans for mapping and on top of that suddenly you learn, Estrogen, the hormone which is meant to keep you looking youthful is what is driving your cancer and you have to suck it all out of your body (fun). You would think vanity would go right out the window, and a month prior I would have thought so too, but when you are suddenly losing what society tells us makes us a woman, and young women at that, those things seem important.
I had varying treatment option opinions. One was mastectomy, chemo and radiation, one was lumpectomy, chemo "lite" (yes there is such a thing), to save my hair, and radiation. The third choice, and the one ended up going with was Lumpectomy, radiation and based off of my low ONCO score, (which was a brand new way of analyzing your tumor to see if hormonal therapy would benefit you more than chemo), I followed that up with 6 years on Tamoxifen (a chemo like pill that acts like an estrogen hormone blocker). I was supposed to be on it for 10yrs but I begged them at 6yrs to take me off. I could write a whole blog post about Tamoxifen alone but I digress. Had I not been able to get this ONCO test, it would have most likely been the chemo route, and based on what we know now, that would have most likely done more harm than good. The good news, is many new treatment are coming out every year and and I was quite lucky to be diagnosed when I was. Majority of women do quite well on tamoxifen so those of you starting it, no need to worry!
May 2nd was the surgery date. My Mom and sister flew to NYC to be with me and to help David who was having a hard time keeping me away from google. My google sessions never ended well for any of us. I was "allowed" 2hrs of computer time a day and then it was hidden somewhere I wouldn't find. (don't think I didn't tear the apt apart at 4 am, yet never once did I find the computer)
The night before the surgery, as my mom and sister were leaving our apartment, after a beautiful cozy family night, My mom said I love you and kissed me on my forehead. Something so pure and beautiful. Well, my panic hit us ALL like a tornado. When I say I freaked out, I mean I FREAKED THE F*#K OUT!! I screamed, like I don't think I ever had before "WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!!! DON'T YOU KNOW THAT IS BAD LUCK?!!! KISSING SOMEONE OF THE FOREHEAD IS THE KISS OF DEATH!!!! WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT!!!!" (I was an actress after all so prone to the dramatic) I will NEVER forget the look on her face. It still kills me to this day. If you know my mom, you know she is never one to be stunned or shaken and I had managed to do both. She was also speechless which is another thing anyone who knows her would appreciate. I still apologize to her to this day and it's become a family joke, (after much googling we came to find out that this, in fact, is NOT a curse of death, in ANY nationality) but inside it kills me a little every time I think about it. I am her youngest and I was about to go in for surgery for cancer and she must have been terrified. That was my panic disorder rearing its head again. Mom, I am so sorry!!!
Surgery went so well that I wanted to walk through the park home after and my family had to fight me to get in a cab. (Maybe the drugs had a tiny bit to do with it), I was elated as I was told if I didn't wake up with drains, It was good news. Drains meant they had to go in for more lymph nodes and more lymph nodes meant it was already in them to begin with. That was all I focused on. I actually remember coming to on the operating table as they were getting my original lymph node results and saying to them “put me back under, I don’t want to hear this! I'm not ready yet!” Apparently they found this quite funny.
During the two weeks wait for final path report, my best girlfriends Fiona and Linda sent me challenges to do to keep me occupied. Every morning, I'd get an email in the am. saying things like "Go to the Frick Museum and pick out your favorite and least favorite painting, send us a report back." Another was “Walk to this building on 83rd and go down the stairs to the creepy looking basement, even though you won't want to, tell them we sent you." and a lovely reflexology massage was waiting for me. Everyday I had something exciting to look forward to.
Final pathology confirmed no lymph node involvement, clear margins and I was off and running to treatment.
It's weird to say this, and I don't want to be disrespectful to those who struggled, as the actual treatment sucks, but that time was actually a nice time in my life. It was a time where I was solely focused on my wellbeing and literally nothing was expected of me. It felt nice to be able to let go of the normal burdens and feeling like I always had to be the best and brightest. I lost a couple friends who couldn’t deal, but gained my two best friends to this day in the process. I learned to let go of people and things that don't bring me Joy (not in the Marie Kondo way) and the things and people I said goodbye to I have not once thought about. I look at that time of days spent in the parks. Deep conversations with friends and family, hanging out with my 22yr old niece who moved in with us (nothing like a 20 something in the house to keep things lively) sleeping in the afternoons and connecting deeply with fellow cancer patients. I also for the first time, started seeing a legit psychiatrist. She was amazing. Helped me understand my anxiety was easily managed, and helped me deal with so many fears I had from flying (I used to ask stangers sitting next to me to hold their hand as we were taking off), to ending up on the streets with no money, to fear of things associated to bad things that happened to me to dying of cancer. (anxiety makes no sense) I tell all women who have been diagnosed to get into therapy. It makes the journey so much more manageable. And a really good therapist will know when the time is right to cut the chord, just like mine did after 3 months.
Radiation and tamoxifen have affected my skin to this day. My once beautiful legs have aged (thanks tamoxifen) My breast is scarred and dented forever (thanks radiation), my left armpit will remain numb, (They take your lymph nodes through your arm, so thanks surgery) and I have scars on my body from "better to be safe tests" but I wear these badges of honor with pride. Well, If I'm being completely honest, some days my vanity slips in, I get insecure over what I see in the mirror and momentarily feel sorry for myself but I am a work in progress and am learning what I see is not what others do. I still have panic around Dr's appointments, medical tests I've had to take, headaches that last a little longer than usual, and days of the year that are tied to my diagnosis but I have made peace with this. I know the drill, have the tools and feel it's controlled chaos. I try to hang on to the gratitude and wisdom I gained going through this. To hang on to tight to the things that bring me joy (not the Marie Kondo kind) To be in in moment and to know that our time is precious. We shouldn't waste time on things that don't matter. I also have 5 pen tip sized tattoos that they use to "map" you during treatment. I could easily have these removed, but I never will. It's a daily reminder of what I went through. Plus it's fun when anyone asks if I by chance have a tattoo and I say, yes! Five! The looks I get are always of shock!
I won't bore you all with what came after this, as you all know by now the story of how Violets Are Blue was born. This is just the prequel and I've never fully shared this before. I thought this would be a good time.
As I think on this day, I have so much to be grateful for. My parents and family are healthy despite a few blips in the road this past year. Lifelong Best friends who faced health challenges that would have done me in had they not pulled through or had the gift of the right treatment. Beautiful, loving friendships from my teens that I have reconnected with after 35 years while spending time in Seattle this past winter. The new friends I've made because I had cancer. I can't imagine any of these people not being in my life.
And the knowledge that my journey, for what ever reason, was much easier than many incredible women I have met along the way. Those women should be put on pedestals. I am continually inspired by and will do everything in my power to make sure we find a cure. Too many young women are dying from this disease.
My friends and family's health and happiness at the end of the day are far greater than anything I can achieve in my business and that is why this post does not include the gift I was given through my time of cancer. You can easily find that story if you google (and if you dare read any more!)
Friends I would not have had if it weren't for cancer. Two of my dearest Leah and Sarah, founders Foundation4Love and my Warrior Revolution partners.
If you are reading this, we are connected somehow, through life, business or just coincidence. I want to thank you for taking the time to read this and hope it may help you understand what the diagnosis period can feel like.
If you can take some time today to think on what you are grateful for, even if in times of darkness, we can hopefully make the world a little brighter today and send beautiful energy to those whose diagnosis day will be April 7th 2022.
With much love,