The New Normal

By Melissa Foss Zdyb
The New Normal

There is no word in the English language that has near the shocking impact as the word CANCER when it being said in the same sentence as your name. At first it seems impossible that this could be happening to you – that your body is attacking you from the inside. It is the world’s worst betrayal.

I crossed over into the cancer club at a mammogram I was sent to when I was 39 by my wonderful OB-GYN Dr. Albert Sassoon. He said I had been through lots of rounds of IVF (15! Ridiculous!) and even though there is no proof that IVF causes breast cancer (although ovarian cancer is linked), he thought that I should be checked out.

I hadn’t had a mammogram before, and had my best friend Jenny hanging out in the waiting room to go to lunch afterward. A fun day! Oh how things can turn on a dime.

I had no idea how long it was supposed to take, or what the protocol was. So the fact that the nurse kept getting sent back in to take more films of my left breast didn’t register as an “Oh my god”…I was thinking about deadlines, travel plans, what I would have for lunch…the usual.

Next, I was taken into an adjoining room for an ultrasound. This didn’t thrill me, mostly because I hated to ask Jenny to wait, but since I NEVER in a million years thought it would happen to ME, I wasn’t scared. But as half an hour turned into an hour and the doctor himself poked his head in to explain they “were just being thorough”, I started to get uncomfortable.

When they asked me to move to the next room for a needle biopsy, terror set in. Still, I really doubted that I had it…the “c” word. The needle biopsy alone was terrifying and so painful. They did it right then and there (bless them – no waiting), and were able to give me the results right away. When they came back they had Jenny with them. She looked pale and sick, and immediately grabbed my hand.

“I am so sorry to tell you this, Melissa, but you have breast cancer,” said the doctor. Jenny called my husband, who was at his first day of work at a new job, to come right away, and I turned over onto my stomach, hid my face, and wailed.

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When I had cancer I made the worst mistake you can make: I walled myself off. I had done so many rounds of IVF in the past, had been in so many hospital gowns to face nothing but failure, and just assumed that I would meet the same fate – not beating it – in this case as well. I assumed that “cancer” meant “death”. My cancer turned out to be Stage 1. I don’t have the BRCA Gene, and no one in my family has ever had breast cancer.

To me, it seems like doctors and people in the medical community jump the gun and hand out worse case scenarios right and left. For example, I was given many names of places to buy wigs after chemo hair loss set in before my treatment plan was set. Someone also gave me a podcast on end-of-life care to listen to. In this case it was spiritual advice about how to embrace MY end-of-life. Clearly the person who sent me the link to the podcast meant well but hadn’t listened to it, and that oversight caused me a few nights of utter despair the likes of which I will never have to go through again because I’ve already thought through what kind of funeral I want. Hey, at least THAT’s out of the way.

I went through two lumpectomies. The first one was successful but my wonderful Dr. Swistel called me himself to say that he was worried that the margins weren’t big enough and that he would feel better going back in. At that point I didn’t even care about surgery. I was, however, obsessed with being able to safely skip chemo. Going through chemo seemed and still does seem like the thing that could break a person, no matter how strong they are. My pure admiration goes out to every person who has done it, is currently undergoing it, or will ever have to (possibly including me).

It was close, but my oncotype score let me off the hook, just by a hair. So after I healed from my second lumpectomy I started 6 weeks of radiation. I’ll never forget the first day I went in to be “measured” for my treatment and was told I was going to have to have 3 (tiny) tattoos so that they could aim the laser at the exact same points every session, and if I needed to come back in the future they would know exactly which areas had been previously radiated. Tattoos? I was crushed and so angry! “If I made it through the ’90’s without an ode to Depeche Mode on my lower back, I’m damn sure not going to get all tatted up NOW, when I’m almost 40!,” I thought to myself, enraged but also a little amused.

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I’ve always been someone who is rather ashamed to be sick. I like to think of myself as the healthy, young (ish), can-do, mind-over-matter type. So cancer just did not fit into my vision of myself. My solution? To hide. I went to radiation alone every day. This is something I wish I could do over. The only people who I called were my father and my best friend from college, who both came immediately to New York City from Texas (where I grew up). Other than that, I told very few people. Interestingly, one of my closest friends completely ditched me after I told her. I was, and still am, crushed by this, but have heard that it is rather common. Come on, cancer isn’t contagious!

I wish I would have trusted my other friends more, and also joined a support group. At the time I thought of myself as someone who didn’t want to run around town “whining” about being sick. But instead I sat at home alone obsessing about it. I now see how talking to women in your situation would be incredibly helpful and would help take some of the burden off. People who don’t have cancer just don’t “get it”– and thank goodness! Of course you don’t want them to, but you are now part of a club. The only people who can empathize, offer useful suggestions, or get your jokes are fellow club members. This is something I plan to remember going forward.

I became a mom about two years after my diagnosis, on April 30, 2012. My husband and I have twins, Colton and Cordelia. We found a wonderful surrogate to carry them, and they are the loves of my life. I’ve never felt more a part of the world than I do now. They depend on my completely! There is no walling myself off or opting out- I am their lifeline. And it turns out, they are mine. I tried so hard to bring them here and, of course, I didn’t know what to expect when they arrived. And I still don’t! Every day is different. There is endless crying, spitting up, sleeplessness…and it’s heaven. The only gift beating cancer gave me is becoming okay with not knowing what to expect. Letting go of control in the face of this disease prepared me for motherhood in a very specific way. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but I have become a different, much stronger person who can handle anything life (or twin toddlers or teenagers!) throw my way. It will be really hard to beat me down now.

I am officially in remission, “cancer free,” says my oncologist. Before we set the surrogate plan in motion I had a private talk with him about the reality I was facing. Was it fair to bring a child (or two) into this world after having had cancer at such a young age? Fair to them, to my husband Kris? Isn’t it just a matter of time before it comes back to get me? Dr. Kruger looked at me and smiled. He said, “Melissa, you can’t think that way.”

“Easy for you to say,” I thought.

“The truth is that your husband could get hit by a bus tomorrow and you would be raising them alone.”

That struck me as true. One thing I have learned is that no matter how careful you are (I have been a serious exercise fanatic and vegetarian, as well as non-smoker for over a decade), you can’t predict the future. You can’t NOT embark on a new adventure just because it might not turn out the way you want it to. As we get older and more and more of our plans don’t turn out the way we assume they will, this becomes easier to accept. But to have to accept it at 39, or any age, all at once, is really too much to ask of anyone. But I surprise myself by sitting here and writing this: I can go a whole day without really thinking about having had cancer, and I don’t obsess about it coming back. I think about the things I used to think about, plus all sorts of new baby joys and worries. Every once in a while when I stop to complain about having to do the dishes or wish I had a new pair of shoes I remind myself what a luxury these types of thoughts are. I see my scars in the shower and now they are just a part of me. I have changed in many ways, but in terms of having had cancer, it is a part of me. It doesn’t own me, I own it, no one else does. I am the only one who went through it, the only one who has the specific memories and learnings of my experience. Once again: I am sure it will make me a better mother.

Nothing will ever really be the same again. But now I know that’s what life is: Embracing change and facing what may be scary fates. No one escapes the terrifying stuff. Sometimes things turn out okay and other times they don’t. You can’t predict the future. Now I look at things through a different prism. I’m not back to normal, but instead am living with a new kind of normal. And it’s a real pleasure.