The photo of my chest looked like the Milky Way, sprayed with clusters of stars. It covered almost my entire left side, also traveling outside my chest, up to my underarm and the surrounding lymph nodes. For something so deadly, it was strangely beautiful.
I was in shock. I knew I was going to have to go pick up my kids from my mom and she would never believe this. Childish maybe, but I asked the Dr. to call my mom and explain the seriousness to her because she had a history of invalidating everything I ever said and chalking it up as drama. I was terrified and alone and the last thing I wanted was to go pick up my kids from her only to be mocked or discredited.
When I returned to her house. She said nothing. Didn’t look at me, as if to not notice I was standing there. She was watching television. Completely motionless. I sometimes replay this vision in my head. It’s so surreal because when I imagine receiving such news about my children, I can’t bare it. I would be a wreck. Some people might say, “Why would you want your Mom to be sad?” The thing is, I didn’t. I just wanted to feel like I meant something. To see someone is worried about you is to know that they love you. I felt unloved. I wanted a hug, some comfort –and all I got was her staring at the television completely unaware of my presence (or purposely ignoring me), I wasn’t sure.
“Hey Mom”. I said. My eyes were puffy, red, wild. It was clear I’d been crying.
“What took you so long? I thought it was only supposed to be a couple hours. It’s been all day” she said flatly.
“I know and I’m sorry. The Doctor called you and explained everything right?” (hoping this would get me off the hook).
“Yes, she did. You didn’t have to have her call me Kim! You think I wouldn’t believe you?”
A little relieved to know she believed me but stressed and now to trying to appease my Mom I said “I’m sorry Mom, I just didn’t want you to think I was exaggerating. I’m really scared right now and need support-”
“I think you’re Doctor might be exaggerating”, she said. –There it was. Invalidation.
“Mom, she’s a Doctor. She knows what she’s talking about.” I stated defensively. “I just, I know it might not be cancer but (something deep down knew it was) I’m scared.”
“Well, they haven’t tested it yet Kim. You’re jumping the gun. I don’t know why you always have to be so dramatic. It’s probably nothing.” She sneered.
“You’re right. I’m just…how will I sleep while I wait? I’m so afraid. I just know something is wrong and the radiologist…she said she sees these things all the time and she said mine is so bad that she can tell just by looking at it that it is 99% likely that it’s Breast Cancer.”
“You’re panicking for no reason! Stop being so dramatic!” *she pounded the counter* ” I can’t believe she’d say that when they haven’t tested it. It’s most likely nothing.What -=do you want Kim. You want me to cry? Want me to cry for you Kimmy? You just won’t be happy till’ you’ve ruined my day!”
(All I wanted was some comfort. Validation. Understanding. I was scared and with good reason.) My heart was beating so loud now I couldn’t even hear myself talk. It sounded like I was in a tunnel. Adrenaline booming through my veins. I was flushed and light-headed. Without even thinking about it or realizing it, I was hyperventilating and began to sob like a child. “You don’t care. I could die and you don’t care.” The words came out as if my words were an automatic stream of consciousness. I didn’t even think about it or realize I said it.
My Mom in a mocking tone “Here we go. He comes the Kimmy-I-want-attention-tantrum! These things happen all the time and turn out to be nothing. I’m really mad at the Doctor for blowing this out of proportion! Look at what she’s done to you! Getting you upset for no reason. You need to get yourself together Kim!”
–I knew I had to get out of that house immediately.– She wasn’t going to give this “My daughter may have Cancer” story any credibility. At all. Regardless of how upset or scared I was.
Sobbing uncontrollably, I grabbed the kids. On the way out the door she said “Maybe you just need a nap. You’ve been really tired lately”. –in my head I’m thinking no shit lady! I have Cancer! But I stay quiet through the tears now–. As the door closes, she squeezes in quickly, “Call me when you know. I bet it’s not Cancer.”The days and nights spent waiting for my biopsy felt like an eternity. I felt like I had completely lost my mind. Almost an out-of-body experience. My insides shook. My nerves were shot. Tossed and turned in bed. Nightmares. Tears. Alone. The grip of fear was stronger than anything I’ve ever felt. If you can imagine the fight or flight adrenaline response you might experience if you were being robbed,– imagine that feeling lasting for days.
Finally. Biopsy day. I was awake on the cold, metal table as they removed pieces of one of the tumors from my chest.
Shaking, heart racing- but I tried to stay cool. Cracking jokes with the nurses and Doctor. I was rambling nervously when I stated that if the Cancer turned out to be “bad”, I would just move to Canada where healthcare was free. I thought this plan was genius. My doctor stopped in the middle of the biopsy, stared me down and said “You don’t have a damn clue what you’re talking about do you!?”
I was a little taken aback. I knew she was from Canada so I thought she’d be in favor of my new plan. Maybe even give me some insider Canadian tips.
She said, “Why do you think I’m here? That place is complete nightmare. The entire system is bankrupt. You think you’re clever huh? Go there. You’ll die.” She quipped matter-of-factorily. ” I have to fly my Dad to the states here because there, he would sit on a waiting list for a year and a half. Be grateful for what you have here, immediate access to top technology and professionals around the world.” Then she sighed, “Look. The Cancer IS bad. I don’t even have to test it to know that. This is just a formality. Obviously we need to know the exact type it is which will help us form your treatment plan.” She continued,” But if had to guess right now, I’d guess you’re in between a stage 3 and 4.”
I immediately went dizzy. It’s a good thing I was laying down, otherwise I may have fainted. Tears started to stream towards my ears as they fell backward, toward the table I was laying on. She squeezed my hand and said sternly “You don’t have time to sit on a waiting list in Canada. If you don’t start chemo yesterday, you may not last 6 months. But don’t be scared. Be brave. You are in good hands. You will have a team of doctors to put together the best plan possible for you.”
I was hyperventilating. And managed to whisper, my voice cracking “Do you think I’ll survive?” Her eyes became as lasers, and she responded “Do you believe in miracles?”
I got dressed while she jotted down a book she recommended for me about miracles and I left…by myself. Head buzzing. My ears were hot. The adrenaline was pumping my heart so hard I thought I could have a heart attack. I got in my car and was so distraught while trying to drive home that after some time passed I suddenly realized I was headed up a mountain. I wasn’t even driving in the direction of my home.
Tears streaming, I was praying, talking to God the whole way home. “God, I know I don’t deserve a second chance. I know the mistakes I’ve made …but please, don’t do this for me. Do this for my children. It’s not fair to them. I will do better. I promise. Just please, please God, help me.”
Days past and I waited for the results. If you’ve ever felt that heart-sinking feeling after you’ve lost someone you truly loved–that heartbreak, that’s what I was feeling. My heart was wringing in pure physical pain. I would zone out like a zombie. Just staring, as if into another world…
“Mom, MOM! …I’m talking to you! Can I have some Orange Juice?”
I’d snap out of it, shake my head, look at my sons eyes and my stomach would sink.
I was a single mom, in a tiny 4-plex apartment in a little ghetto we so endearingly referred to as “meth row”. Two boys, aged 10 and 7…and a 9 month old daughter.
Pretending to be strong for them is probably one of the hardest things I ever had to do. And I’m not so sure I succeeded very well.
More waiting for the results on the type and stage of the cancer. Days.
Finally the phone rings. It’s Monday. I know this because they weren’t supposed to call till’ Tuesday–it’s early.
“Yes. That’s me.”
“We’ve concluded the testing and we’ll need to schedule you to meet your team of doctors asap! The tests reveal you are what is called HER 2+. Basically, this means it’s highly aggressive. We need to do a full body scan to see if it’s gone anywhere else but as of right now, you’re a stage 3C. If we find Cancer anywhere else, I’m afraid that will make you a 4.”
-I didn’t know what this meant. I didn’t understand the different types and stages. Wasn’t breast cancer just breast cancer?-
“What does that mean?”
“Well”, he hesitated. “We are going to do everything we can but what it means is that you may have about 6 months. It depends on how well you respond to the treatments. Take some time. Talk to your family and when you feel a little more composed (I was obviously freaking out at this point), call us back so we can get you scheduled right away.”
I immediately called my Mom and my sister Sky, on a three way phone call. I told them before anyone. Though I would soon wonder why…
“Hi. Mom? Sky? I just spoke with the Dr. It’s Cancer.”
This seemed like the longest silence in history. It was deafening.
After a minute I said, “Is anyone there?”
Sky said sharply “Yes, I’m here Kim. I just don’t know what you want me to say!”
It cut like a knife.
Confused and trying not to cry too much I said “Um, uh…I don’t know? I just, I just…you wanted me to call… Remember? You asked me to call.”
Sky rebutted “Yeah I did but I just feel like you want sympathy or attention. Do you want me to cry? What you do want me to do?”
I was spinning. Why was she doing this? My heart was so weak and she was beating it with her words that were like bullets — and these words still replay themselves in my head to this day.
My mom was silent. Nothing.
I said “Mom? Are you there?”
“Yes Kimberly!” Whenever she was condescending, she made sure to say Kimberly in a tone that sounded like singing, going up an octave at the end. It was as if to say “Yes! I’m tolerating your drama!”
–They didn’t believe me.— That’s the only way I could make sense of their responses.
Either they didn’t believe me or they didn’t care. Either way, the pain was unlike anything I’ve ever felt in this world. I hope I never feel anything like it again for the rest of my life. I was reeling, drenched in a pain that was unrelenting.
I realized the conversation was over. I wouldn’t be getting any support, any love, any understanding, any help. I was going to battle this alone.
“I gotta go” I said quickly and I hung up.
I cradled my 9 month old and rocked in the corner on the floor. The tears didn’t stop. The pain pounded me like a drum.
Suddenly I realized my daughter was burning up and she was coughing terribly.
I put her in the car only minutes after finding out I had Cancer and took her to the doctor.
It took all I had at the doctor’s office to remain composed. They ran some tests and then informed me that my 9 month old had RSV– a serious respiratory infection that babies under a year can get. It can be very dangerous and contagious.
I picked up her medicine and went home. This was going to be a long day, a long week, a long 2 and half years. On the same day I found out I had Cancer, I also found out my daughter had RSV. I was afraid, without help and alone.
Somehow, someway, I made it. Somehow, someway my kids made it.
People say “If you can’t help someone, at least don’t hurt them.” I wish these same people saying this now, had those same sentiments then.
But I remember what my Grandma said to me when I asked her why God let us have hard times. Her response? “We are like silver in the kiln. The more we burn, the more refined we become.”
*****Please know, it’s been 8 years since I found out I had cancer. These conversations are not verbatim but paraphrased from my memory.