When discussing my dad’s internal “operating system”, my mom has, on occasion, described my dad as a “Ferrari.” She likens him to a high maintenance European Car that needs constant care and repair, and requires a lot of TLC. In a stroke of excellent genetic luck, I seem to have inherited my dad’s sensitive disposition when it comes to overall health and wellness. You name it, I’ve had it – irritable bowel syndrome, problems with digestion, stomach flu, issues with rich food, etc. My husband’s health on the other hand, I’d probably describe as a “Ford” – solid, dependable, long lasting with little complaints. It should be no surprise to anyone then that my husband the “Ford” has thrown down the dreaded H-word when it comes to describing me. Yes, the word I’m speaking of is Hypochondriac.
M and I have a long-standing debate: he thinks I’ve got the Lowest Pain Threshold On the Planet, and I think otherwise. I mention this to every Doctor, Physician’s Assistant and Nurse I’ve come across in the last 6 months. They’re usually stabbing me with an IV, taking my blood, inserting saline into my breasts with a large needle or pursuing some other methods of torture as I bring this little tidbit up. And their answer is always the same:
“You?” they ask incredulously, “You do not have a low threshold for pain. The opposite in fact! Your pain tolerance is very high.”
For those keeping score at home – JG 1; M 0.
But I digress. See, the thing about breast cancer is that it never really leaves you. Sure, the tumor is gone, gone, gone, and the big surgery is in my rear view mirror, and I have every intention of living a clean and healthy life. I’m grateful for the big and little things in my life. Every day.
But back in the dark parts of my mind, the dreaded R-word that I shall only whisper its name. Recurrence. I’m not gonna lie: it scares the shit out of me. It’s a crapshoot, whether my breast cancer comes back 5 years, 10 years, or 15 years down the line. And the thing about when it comes back is that if it metastasizes, it’s treatable, but not curable. My challenge, then, is to navigate living my life with intention but not fear, at the same time paying attention to what my body might be telling me. Early detection is key, so anything that I might feel is off, I’ve been instructed to tell my Oncologist, Dr M at UCSF.
But it’s a slippery slope. Am I a hypochondriac? Should I be worried about the headache I’ve had for the last 5 days? Must be a brain tumor, right? Or, caffeine withdrawal? How do I figure this out? And more to the point, how do I learn to tell the difference between what’s important to tell my oncologist and what’s not? I think my knee-jerk reaction post cancer diagnosis is high alert mode or Defcon 5. I don’t want to live my life waiting for the cancer to return, and self-diagnosing all the things that could be potentially wrong with me. This dance is, like it or not, my new normal.
Another new reality, is dealing with well-meaning sales associates in retail stores. Last night at 8pm, I had to make an emergency bra run to Nordstrom to get a racer back bra to wear with a dress for our trip to Hawaii. (More on that in a sec.) I make my way to the lingerie department and ask for help finding this bra. No need to try on, I explain, I know what my size is and I tell the sales lady.
She eyes me up and down. I want to say to her “My eyes are up here lady,” but I don’t.
“Are you sure you’re a 36B? Do you want to get fitted?”
Oh, the horror. I am not ready for primetime.
“Yes, I’m sure. And no I don’t want to get fitted,” I say confidently.
This doesn’t deter her, so she tries again. “You look much bigger than a B.”
Uh oh. I’m going to have to go there. “I’m wearing a padded bra.” And because I don’t want to continue this conversation anymore, I go for it. (“Sweep the Leg!” I hear in my brain) “I had a mastectomy in November. So I know exactly what size I am.” And then I give her a little fake smile.
She panics and runs away. “Ok, so let me find some other styles for you.” And disappears.
Uh, yes. It was that awkward. I hindsight, I realize I didn’t need to go there. But I was so – fill in the blank – frustrated, annoyed, put-out, that I did.
When she rang me up later, we both acted like nothing weird had happened between us.
“So you’re a Survivor?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said smiling. This time it was authentic. “I am.”
Ps. Aloha! We are in Hawaii for the week. In preparation for our trip I’ve been sampling safe organic and non-toxic self tanners and bronzers.