Make no mistake

If I could choose to do one thing and actually make a living at it, it would be woodworking. I love wood. I love creating, making mistakes, fixing my mistakes. The whole process is something that I am in love with. It’s like a meditation. Just me and tools and wood for hours.

It took a long time to love making mistakes. When I first started woodworking 15 years ago, I would get upset and beat myself up for days when I made a mistake. I would abandon projects that I screwed up. Scattered around the house and in my shop were my wood orphans: table tops with no legs, table bases with no tops, cutting boards that needed planing, cabinets with no doors, warped cabinet doors. It was like the Isle of Misfit Furniture. But slowly I started figuring out that nothing is a mistake with woodworking. Wood is easily repaired and my mistakes are opportunities to learn how to build better. I actually look forward to screwing something up now; it means that I am still learning.

I always seem to be in the right place at the right time for free lumber. Several times I have been offered to rummage the contents of old barns containing treasures of dusty planks, splintery huge beams, and sections of trees. It’s like opening presents when I get home with a load of wood. I never know what I have until I cut or plane a board and find something amazing like tiger maple, red cedar, crazy grain patterns (which I love). Or four-inch thick boards I thought were pine turn out to be walnut. Score!

This week was the first time in 12 months that I stepped foot in my shop to work on furniture. I’m building a six-foot mahogany bar top and a large hutch from pre-used wood and local fallen trees that I milled. Time stops when I’m creating. I immerse fully and there are no thoughts of anything other than what it is that I am working on. Being 100% in the moment sounds so simple, but in the whirlwind of life I don’t find myself there near enough.

I forgot how good this feels.

 

 

 

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Letting go

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Tomorrow Amelia and I have to let go of our dog of 15 years. It’s time. I’ve been avoiding and dodging this moment for a while. I hate that we have to arrange his death, that tomorrow someone is coming to our house to euthanize him. To kill him.

I’ve not dealt well with his aging, with his mortality. It’s a mirror: he’s going down a road we all will go down someday.

When he blew out his rear knee, I couldn’t let him go.

When he blew out his other rear knee, I couldn’t let him go.

When he started shaking in fear while riding in the car (once a favorite pastime),  I couldn’t let him go.

When he started losing his memory, I couldn’t let him go.

When he started isolating, I couldn’t let him go.

When he started compulsively pacing in the house, I couldn’t let him go.

When he started to get confused which door he went in and out of, I couldn’t let him go.

When he started to get so weak that sometimes I had to help him up, I couldn’t let him go.

When he started pooping on his bed and sleeping on the poop, I couldn’t let him go.

When it became clear he had dementia, I couldn’t let him go.

When I started getting mad at him for being confused and scared, I couldn’t let him go.

When I started resenting him for getting old and frail, I couldn’t let him go.

When I stopped paying much attention to him because he was vacant, I couldn’t let him go.

Last week we gave him a bath together, something Amelia usually does alone, but because he is so weak I had to hold his rear legs up so he didn’t fall over. Seeing him wet was heart breaking and disturbing. There’s nothing left of him. He is bones dipped in fur, his hips and rib cage protruding like a starving animal, all muscle tone gone. There he was wet and confused, literally looking like a shell of what he once was. I had to let him go.

He was the best dog we could ever have. He travelled thousands of miles, hiked hundreds of trails, camped dozens of times, kayaked with us in many lakes in the Adirondacks, slept under trees in the pouring rain, slept on a king size bed at hotels. He didn’t have an aggressive bone in his body.

Death has always been a big question mark for me, and cancer has made that question mark bigger. So tomorrow his life will end. And what is the end of a life? A sunset? A transition? Darkness? Lightness? Re-birth? Nothing?

I don’t know, but I know that I will miss my dog. I will miss what he was, not what he is leaving as.

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Date night

Amelia and I had our first real dinner date in five months last week. Bad chemo (taxotere and carbolplatin) is over, my taste buds are almost 100% back, my liver numbers are at a healthy level, and I’m no longer neutropenic. I may be bald and a little fatigued, but it was an occasion to celebrate.

We recognized one of the waitstaff. She knew I had cancer and shared with us that she had breast cancer a few years ago and was just beginning to feel normal again. We talked about holding back the urge to talk to, ask questions of, and hug other women with cancer that we see out and about, but also not knowing where these women are in their process, not wanting to intrude and assume they wanted to talk about cancer at all. It was an amazingly genuine exchange.

I keep asking myself, Why do I see cancer everywhere now? And Amelia reminds me that cancer has always been everywhere; it’s my lens that has changed. I now experience cancer through strangers and friends alike because we’re in the Cancer Club.  None of us usually walk up to strangers and start talking about our cancer – unless we know that person has also dealt with cancer.

It’s not as easy as Gay-dar, which is walking into a room and usually knowing immediately who’s gay. Cancer is harder to identify unless someone is in the throes of treatment with a bald head or a donning a bag of chemo. It’s as though we are coming out to each other in whispers, I have cancer, I had cancer, my wife had cancer, I’m a survivor, I’m three years out, I’m a lifer, I’m Stage 2, I’m triple negative.

As Amelia and I were leaving, I paused near the door. I felt I needed to give our waitress a hug. I turned around, and she was standing there, waiting for me. A connection through cancer with a stranger is a powerful thing.

 

Just say yes to research studies

I will participate in any research study thrown at me. I feel like it’s my duty to give back in any way I can. I think about all the people who’ve participated before me in these studies and in doing so have made my navigation through cancer easier. I will pay it forward.

The first research study I was involved with was about using visualization to help control nausea in people receiving chemo. It was very much like meditation. I was given an mp3 player with a recorded visualization excercise that I would listen to once a day for three weeks – if I wanted to. I also filled out a few forms describing the daily level of nausea I had and what I did to counter it or prevent it.

The visualization study was very loose. It was based on suggestibility. They suggested I listen to the recording at least once and that was it, but it was made abundantly clear that it was just that – a suggestion. I could listen to the recording one time or every day, or do my own version of meditation, I could try ginger tea, or take the prescribed meds. I like that this study was about the power of suggestion: it planted a seed in your mind and they monitored what happened even when the subjects forget about it.

I’m involved with another study now. This one is inspired by the effects of led lights on improved hair growth in male pattern baldness. The researchers are now studying women with breast cancer who’ve lost their hair to chemo to see if it will have the same results.

This time I get a helmet with hundreds of tiny red led lights that I wear on my head every other day for 25 minutes. It’s really quite a sight, Amelia is calling me Elroy Jetson.

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Knock, knock. Who’s there? Cancer.

No one is exempt from cancer:  toddler, grandparent, serial killer, neighbor, asshole, rock star, plumber, homeless person, new parent, cop, cashier. I am not exempt. You are not exempt. Cancer is like a monster creeping around the house, waiting to scare the bejesus out of you when you least expect it and then refusing to leave like an uninvited house guest.

The number of people I know who have or used have cancer seems to be increasing by the month. Off the top of my head I just counted 12 people. It’s becoming a common occurrence. We can chock it up to so many things and debate causes and treatments, but one thing is for certain; cancer isn’t going away anytime soon.

Me getting cancer is now what I call a direct hit. It’s one of those things that you truly do not understand until it happens to you. For me a direct hit is something that happens to myself or Amelia, someone who I live with and see every single day of my life. I love my close friends and family, but when something bad happens to them, it’s a little more of an indirect hit. At least it was prior to my diagnosis. Now it’s different. When even an acquaintance gets diagnosed with cancer, I feel like my heart is taking a direct hit. Now I understand. Now I get it.

 

 

 

Creativity and cancer

I have epiphanies all the time. Most days I have at least one exclamation of, “I have an idea!” or “I need to….”  This morning’s epiphany was pretty simple, but quite loud, actually it was booming so I paid close attention. It was this: I need to get better at the things I am already good at. I need to immerse myself in three of my favorite things: woodworking, cooking, and music.

Each of these three activities feeds me in a different way, but the one thing that ties them together is creativity, which is a daily requirement in my life. My daily dose of vitamin C.

Time moves differently with cancer. The glaring fact that we are all time-limited is magnified. Mortality is real and sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to when you die and how you die. But the fact remains: we’re all going to die. So how do I want to spend my time? I want to be in a constant state of learning and sharing what I’ve learned. Leisure time really isn’t for me; it never has been. Most people’s bucket lists include traveling somewhere exotic and drinking expensive champagne. This week I want to master a hand-cut dovetail joint, learn Japanese scales, and make miso from scratch. This week. Next week, something new.

My morning epiphany wouldn’t have come on so strongly had it not been for cancer. Am I starting to appreciate the role cancer is playing in my life??? I’m not sure. But I do know that I’m listening more closely to everything now.

 

The is not the chemo diet

Chemo fries fast-growing cells all over your body: the lining of the mouth, gut and respiratory tract, bone marrow, hair, nails, and skin. All of these things take a serious hit – my bald head can tell you that. There are a lot of things that I’ve done to try to minimize chemo’s effects.

The one thing I don’t do is take any supplements or vitamins without checking with my doctors. You don’t take antioxidants that help repair cells when you’re trying to kill cells, you don’t take things that are processed by your liver when your liver is already taxed, and you don’t take things to try to boost your immune system when it could also boost cancer cell growth.

From day one I read everything I could get my hands on, scouring for information, for answers. Folic acid, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, milk thistle, green tea extract, mushrooms, antioxidants, garlic, alpha lipoic acid, marijuana. The first few weeks I’d go in with endless questions for my oncologist, “Have you heard about this? Does this help? Can I take this?” It was a resounding “NO” every time. I finally got it, stopped searching for the magic bullet, and let the chemo do its nasty work.

Chemo is quite a ride, and you can’t get off until it is over. You have to hunker down for 18 weeks (or more or less, depending on your regimen), endure it, learn from it, grow from it (not the cancer though – it can die) and begin rebuilding when it’s over. After chemo, that is the important time. That is when the real recovery begins.

Can I work while I’m getting chemo?

This week I decided that I needed to push myself a little after my chemotherapy treatment. I know, I know, what the hell was I thinking? But I wanted to get dressed, leave the house, and work, even if only for an hour or two a day. I assumed that because my doses were lowered by 20%, I’d feel 20% better. I was wrong. I still felt like crap, actually more nauseous than ever.

I’m realizing more and more that I am a closet optimist (don’t tell anyone), though it’s not that I necessarily come off as a pessimist to others. I feel like pessimism is based on the past – It will suck now because it sucked before – and I see optimism as blindly relying on the future: Gee, Wally, it’ll be great, won’t it? I consider myself more of a realist. I spend most of my time in the present. I like it here.

There is a mind-over-matter component in dealing with cancer that I didn’t expect to find. Chemo kicks my ass in, make no mistake: I am a bag of poisoned flesh. But I managed to get some serious physical work done this week at the new building simply by telling myself to do it: Eight hours of work the day after chemo, laying subfloor in the kitchen for tile (thanks, steroids), and two hours on each of the following three days putting up sheetrock, repairing plumbing, changing out a light fixture, installing an outdoor spigot, demolishing an old fence, and loading the truck for a dump run. The closet optimism paid off. This doesn’t mean I’ll be building a house (at least not this week), but I can work. I can feel like crap and get something done, just at a slower pace, and that’s ok. Movement is life.

 

 

 

Losing my sh*t in the grocery store

By Amelia

I feel like it’s my job to try to stay chipper and maintain a sense of normalcy in the shadow of Leah’s cancer. I can’t say I do a good job at either of those, but I am functional. That is, I am functional until I walk into a store.

I lose my sh*t every time I go shopping. Every. Single. Time. I’ve cried in the baking aisle at Wegmans, covered my face with my hands in the bulk section at the Green Star Coop, blubbered amidst the vegetables in the Trumansburg Shur Save, and wept openly by the shower curtains at Target.

The first time it happened was right after Leah’s diagnosis. Her 48th birthday was only a few days away, and I wanted to buy her some slippers. As I walked past the women’s clothing in Target, I saw some nice pajamas that buttoned up the front and I thought, Leah won’t able to pull a shirt over her head after her surgery. Oh my god – she has cancer. I struggled to hold back the tears. I then realized Leah would need a bathrobe since she might not be wearing street clothes for a while; my eyes started to well over as I chose a dark grey one. I pictured her in bed, weak and in pain, propped up by pillows, so I also grabbed one of those body support pillows (ironically called ‘husbands’) for her to lean back on, then stopped to wipe my eyes. As I piled each gift into my arms  – I hadn’t thought to take a shopping cart on the way in –  I realized that I wasn’t birthday shopping, I was Cancer Shopping. By the time I remembered the slippers I’d come in for, I was sobbing and dragging my Cancer Shopping purchases to the register like Steve Martin in The Jerk. (All I needs is this ashtray. And this paddleball game. And this lamp.  And this thermos. And this chair.)

Now it happens every time. Every shopping list is loaded: Zantac for Leah’s stomach, vegetables to sneak into her chicken broth, bottled water because they are working on our water main again. Paint from Lowes for the kitchen at the new building? I worry that we’ll never open the new restaurant. Batteries for the lights in the gingerbread house that I entered in a contest? Leah won’t be able to go to the reception if she has neutropenia. Warm hats? Cancer. Sorbet? Cancer. Christmas cards? Cancer.

Leah keeps asking me exactly why I fall apart in stores. It’s a hard question to answer. There is something about walking into a normal place filled with normal people doing normal stuff that shines a spotlight on the cancer and how fucked up this whole thing is. Sometimes they are talking and laughing like everything is fine. Sometimes they are yelling at their kids for something unimportant. Sometimes they are oblivious and they block the whole damn aisle while they stare at the peanut butter for way too long.

I don’t remember what normal feels like. I buy extra Kleenex, and raspberry juice for Leah because she says she can taste it even after chemo. I hope cancer never feels normal.

 

Change is good

Cancer is changing me. I tend to move through things quickly, but cancer is a different story. I can’t move through it, it has to move through me. At the same time, I never realized how adaptable I am.  I’ve already adjusted to being bald. It’s not so bad, and do I tend to change my hair style every year or so. So this year will be the No-Doo.

It’s the process of losing things that’s hard for me, not the aftermath. While I’m losing things, I feel the utter sense of having no control and that something is being taken from me. I accept it when it’s done, but I fall apart during the process.

I am more ok with the idea that everything has an apparent expiration date: my breast, my lymph nodes, my hair. They all bit the dust sooner than I would have liked, but I’m ok with it.

Cancer has forced me to re-evaluate so many things and every time I dig a little deeper I find something new. I’m becoming someone who lives for the moment, I just wish cancer wasn’t the reason. I would have rather chosen that that path on my own, but I am grateful for the opportunity to challenge myself.

Life is fragile

Life really is this fragile. I’ve said it, I’ve seen it, I’ve known it, but now I am experiencing it. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that one tiny cell is tearing me apart. Being vocal about it helps. Every emotion I have has a purpose in this, even the negative ones. Now is not the time for silence.

All of our lives intersect somehow, somewhere, all seven billion of us. Even if we don’t know each other, even if we’re on different continents. The same things happen to every single one of us: we’re born, we live, we die. Death truly is the great equalizer.

When Amelia first asked if having cancer made me think about my own mortality, I immediately said no without even thinking. It was a 100% scared and reactive response, a denial of the true worst case scenario. There are things you don’t want to speak out loud or hear, words like metastasis. And words like brain, bone, liver, and lungs: those are the words that make you think of your own mortality. Those are the words I don’t want to hear. Those are the common places HER2 positive breast cancer likes to spread to.

Amelia and I are opposites in many ways. She is incredibly comfortable with death. She’s worked with death on many levels from toddlers to the elderly. I often call her a Guide to Death, because that is exactly what she is. She is the person you want around in medical situations. I am not so comfortable with death, but I’m much more comfortable than I used to be because of Amelia’s incredible perspective.

I can admit now that cancer does make me think about death. I realize that nothing is mine. I possess nothing. Everything I think I own will sooner or later belong to someone else: my house, my clothes, my truck, my banjo, my furniture. Some of these things already belonged to other people who are long since dead. It really is a circle of life and death, and in between we’re just borrowing time. Does it sound like I’m at peace with it? I’m not.

 

Round two

If there is a war, my enemy is side effects. The cancer is here. Who knows what the future holds for it? It might be gone, it might not. It might end up killing me. There are no reassurances so I’d rather focus my energy on lessening the  side effects, taking care of my mind, and taking care of my body.

Yesterday I had a pretty intense reaction to Taxotere during the chemo infusion. Amelia wrote about it right after it happened. At first I thought I was having a back spasm, but then I realized I was having a reaction to the chemo drugs. It felt like the bottom six inches of my spine were under immense pressure and it was going to explode – like that scene in Alien when the alien bursts out of the guy’s stomach.

I’m not so good at showing pain. I sit with it and don’t react too much vocally. Once again, it’s a time when something is really, really wrong and I get very still and silent (unlike when I accidentally hammer my finger and there’s a lot of yelling, pacing and swearing). You would not know anything was seriously wrong. In fact, Amelia didn’t even grasp the gravity of what was happening. So now I get to add another drug to my cocktail: hydrocortisone. Fortunately, the nurses took immediate action and within five minutes I was back into my Benadryl stupor. But goddamn that was some serious pain.

Clearly I can’t assume anything. What happened last round doesn’t equal what will happen this round or the next four rounds so I will hold my breath the next few days and hope for the best. It’s all I can do.

I can now see my mind and body’s reactions to what is happening throughout this process. From You have cancer to You will need a mastectomy to It’s in your lymph nodes to Chemo is not optional to Your hair will fall out to Hello, side effects, my body wants to squat on the floor with my head in my hands and take the duck and cover position in the corner. My mind wants to destroy everything in the room and throw things out the window. It’s 100% pure instinctual reaction. I know that I can’t get on either one of those trains. I need to see them, acknowledge them, and then watch them go by.

Chemo reaction

by Amelia

Leah reacted to the Taxotere today. If there’s one thing we’ve learned so far about chemo, it’s that you can’t get through it without side effects. It is hopeless to hope to avoid them all, so brace yourself for the ride.

Leah was zoned out in a Benadryl fog in her chemo chair (think vinyl nursing home recliner) when the back pain hit. In Leah’s words, it felt like her lower spine was about to explode. A flurry of nurses surrounded her immediately. One took her blood pressure, another yanked the curtains shut, someone temporarily stopped the chemo and increased her fluids, and somebody hooked her up to oxygen. The nurse practitioner was in the room in under two minutes. Two minutes after that Leah got a shot of hydrocortisone, and in two more minutes the pain was almost completely gone. The nurses kept an eye on Leah for a while to make sure she was okay before the offending chemo was started again.

Normally this place is weirdly quiet, the silence only interrupted by an occasional nurse shouting to an elderly hard-of-hearing patient “What are you doing for Thanksgiving this year!” Leah’s reaction is definitely the most interesting thing to happen on the chemo unit so far. No one wants to have a chemo emergency, but if it happens, you want a speedy and excited crowd of medical staff in your cubicle with you tending to your needs. Thanks for the excitement, Leah.

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Hair today…

Only one week of a mohawk, darn it! Last night I had to shave the rest of my head. Too much hair was shedding and I don’t want to leave a DNA trail everywhere I go. When you go from a mohawk to a stubbly head it’s not nearly as fun. It was good to shave it in stages though; it gave me a chance to grieve. I was not a griever or a crier before cancer because I was always looking at the future and thinking about what’s going to happen next. Everyday my hair fell out was like seeing the future, and my future self is hairless.

I don’t just lose the hair on my head, I lose ALL of my hair. Important places that we take for granted like nose hair, ear hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. Nose hairs are filters for dirt, viruses, and bacterias. Ear hairs help you hear. Eyebrows move moisture away from your eyes and eyelashes are a protective barrier for your eyes. I’m going to lose it all, including the unmentionable pubes. Ha! I just mentioned them.

Hair falling out isn’t a gentle process. I thought it would just fall out without me noticing too much, but my scalp feels like a pony tail tied too tightly with a scalp sunburn. My hair follicles are inflamed as are the rest of my innards from the chemo.

A few weeks ago we were having lunch with Amelia’s parents and her Mom asked if I’d wear a scarf or a wig. “No way,” I said. “Hats only.” Then Amelia dropped the wig bomb on me. She said, “Why don’t you get a pompadour wig, you know, like an Elvis wig? Your insurance might cover a good one. You’d rock the balls outta that.”

WHAAAAT?! I never thought of that! Wait a second, I might get a wig because it could be FUN?! There was a lot of giggling. “A pompadour,” I said quietly, “a pompadour.”

We shall see….

A conversation with Leah about hair

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It’s 8:20pm on Wednesday night. Leah’s hair started to fall out this morning. Our friend Rachel is on her way over to shave Leah’s hair into a mohawk, a last hurrah. 

Amelia: What do you feel like your hair says about you?

Leah: I like my hair. I liked both my breasts, too. I don’t consider myself that vain, but what little vanity I have left is going to fall off of my head.

Amelia: What do you feel like you are losing?

Leah:  My identity. I’m becoming amorphous. I’m a blob. That is what it feels like. I’m half of a person without my boob, without my hair. You’d think it would be freeing to shave your head, right? But it’s not a choice. Some chemical is forming me into something I don’t want to be, a toxic wasteland. I feel victimized.

Amelia: Why a mohawk?

Leah: Because it makes a statement:  I don’t give a fuck about what people think a woman should look like. It’s giving the finger to the system that says women are supposed to walk around in skirts, in high heels, in makeup, and have perky tits.

Amelia: What makes you hesitate to get the mohawk tonight?

Leah: Because it’s real. I’m losing my hair.The minute I look like cancer, I am cancer. I’m a billboard. I can’t avoid this. I can’t speed away in my car, or slam a door, or walk away.

Amelia: Do you remember what I told you in the hospital when you went in for your mastectomy, that I was fighting the urge to scoop you up and whisk you out of there? My desire to protect you was that strong and I wanted to get you out of there so badly.

Leah: Yes. I remember.

Amelia: I want to protect you from this, too. I feel the same way about your hair.

Leah: I know. I know. So do I. But there’s nothing we can do. This is happening.

Mohawk

The Community and the Sisterhood

I don’t really like crowds, cliques, groups, or labels. I’ve never been interested in being cool, hanging out with the ‘right’ people, acting a certain way, or following what everyone else does. Image and status have never impressed me. I’ve usually avoided labeling myself because I’ve thought that the minute I put a label on myself as anything other than ‘person’ I’m alienating myself from so many other people. It sounds simple, but it’s hard to pull off. I don’t mean this in a pretentious, I’m-an-individual-and-I’m-so-unique-and-special kind of way, because you know what? We’re all goddamn unique and special, every single one of us.

I’m no more special now that I have cancer, but now I’m standing in a different place. Now I’m standing with the Community of Cancer, and the Sisterhood of Breast Cancer. We’re all here, spread out over the entire world. We’re all on our own paths of angst, confusion, anger, sadness, grief, and terror, but we’re not alone; all of our paths merge. I read other people’s stories and I feel the cancer connection that we share. It’s a pretty intense feeling. I will embrace this label because my life is now forever changed. We all hope that our cancer is temporary, but the changes in our lives are forever. We will never be the same, and that’s ok. As my surgeon put it so well, “When this is over, you won’t be the same Leah, but you won’t be Cancer Leah.”

I want to make sense out of it, to try to figure it out, but there’s nothing to figure out and I have to learn to give in to this tumble. Cancer levels the playing field for all of us. It takes away any sense of control we thought we had. Cancer demolishes walls and strips away the things that keep people separated whether it’s gender, money, age, religion, sexuality, or race. Here we all are, naked in a room together. With cancer. We are now equals. There is strength in numbers, even if we are unwell. Is this what it takes for us to feel connected?

Hi, I have cancer

September 3, 2015

“You have really complicated breasts”.

This is nothing I didn’t already know. They’re extremely dense and usually have a lot of fluid-filled cysts. Most of these cysts I don’t even feel.

The technology at the Elizabeth Wende Breast Clinic in Rochester, New York is fantastic. There are now mammograms that are specific for women with dense breasts.  Normal mammograms are easier to read; they’re clear. My mammograms are like a cloudy night sky. Technicians have described the films as “having a lot of noise”.

I always have a diagnostic appointment the same day of my mammograms to get a few cysts aspirated via ultrasound and needle aspiration. Today, the Doctor zoomed right by my cysts and went to my lymph nodes. This was not good.

He settled in on the left one and said, “Your lymph nodes look good, but what I really want to get a look at is this”. He moved over a long band that looked like a nebula with tiny, bright stars clustered together and scattered throughout it.

“These are calcifications. We usually don’t worry too about these when they are singular and symmetrical. But, when they are clumped together we get suspicious. We’re going to need to do a core biopsy.” The abnormal section he showed me was large, really large. It looked like 4-5 inches around the outside of the breast.

A feeling that I’ve never had before creeped in, and I knew I was going to lose my breast.