First off, let me state for the record that I didn’t make any resolutions when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I got over making New Year’s resolutions years ago, once I finally figured out I was paving a pretty sizable road with them. It’s the one time of year we’re all like little kids, convincing ourselves that what we feel at this golden inspired moment will last forever and ever.
So what does cancer have to do with New Year’s? Plenty, as it turns out. Both of them remind you of your mortality and the passage of time. Both offer opportunities for fresh starts. But because cancer has a way of putting you on notice, it’s much better at effecting results. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been changed by her experience in some way. That doesn’t mean any of us have vowed to hit the gym six days a week or swear off French fries because of our cancer adventure. Cancer isn’t any more magical in that regard than New Year’s Eve.
But I know from my own experience that you let go of something. My friend and hairdresser told me last fall that I’ve changed; she could see it in my face. And I know what she meant. I remember feeling inexplicably happy while I was driving to work one day in the middle of my cancer adventure, and I couldn’t come up with a reason—except maybe that it was good to be alive and driving to work. The birds were chirping and the sun was shining and I suddenly felt like a character in a Disney movie. I realized it doesn’t take more than that for life to be good. I talked to a friend who noticed something similar in a breast cancer survivor she worked with. Things that used to get her bent out of shape had lost their power over her.
I’ve read that one of the keys to keeping your New Year’s resolutions is to make your goals realistic. Maybe that’s why cancer is so good at helping you let go of life’s little annoyances while appreciating its pleasures. It’s the biggest reality check I know.
The first anniversary of my second-stage reconstruction and augmentation was December 1st. Because I’m taking part in a 10-year study for silicone implants, I had a required follow-up visit with my plastic surgeon on Friday. The conversation was one you can never imagine having until you’ve been there–in addition to an overall progress report, we ended up chatting about how the girls line up (pretty darn well). I had to rate my overall satisfaction with the results and was able to truthfully say I am “definitely” pleased on the “definitely” to “not at all” scale of the form he had to fill out. I could tell he was pleased too, and he’s a perfectionist (a great quality for a plastic surgeon to have). He said my overall results were excellent.
As part of the study, I have to fill out a questionnaire for each breast. And I get paid for it–$20 for the augmented one, and $100 for the follow-up visit and longer questionnaire for the mastectomy one.
I’m not sure how helpful my answers will be. Both questionnaires use a “Disagree strongly” to “Agree strongly” or 1 to 4 scale, and I always wish they were essay questions. It’s really hard to assign a numerical value to something like how attractive you feel. Does 3 mean I think I hold my own with the over-50 crowd but I’m no Michelle Pfeiffer? Does 2 mean I lack self-esteem?
Some of the questions/statements (“I feel worthless”) are clearly gauging mental health. Others border on trippy. I did the short questionnaire over the phone and may have tested the interviewer’s patience. At one point, she said,“Thinking about your breasts, how confident are you in social situations?” I replied, “I usually don’t think about my breasts in social situations.” I think I finally landed on 3 to mean “I’m not sure my breasts affect my confidence.” It reminded me of an old Saturday Night Live sketch. Gilda Radner was Annette Funicello in one of those 1960s beach movies, and introduced herself by saying,”Hi, I’m Annette and these are my breasts.”
I’m sure whoever designed the study knew what they were doing. But I still wish they were essay questions.
When you’re diagnosed with cancer, certain things have become accepted practice. One is that you take someone to appointments with you because you’ll be too jacked up to process what the doctor says. Another is that you get a second opinion.
While I can vouch for both, I want to focus on the second opinion. I won’t go into all the reasons why it’s a good idea; you can find those through any number of resources. I want to explain why it made sense for me.
I assumed I’d get a second opinion when it was time to talk to an oncologist about treatment. But once I did, getting a second opinion felt urgent, because I didn’t like the recommendation or the way it was delivered.
I should back up the truck and explain that I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, a very early stage cancer that is not invasive, although it can become invasive if not treated. It’s often successfully treated with a combination of breast-conserving surgery and radiation. I assumed I would be on this path until two surgeries didn’t get the desired results. Oncologist No. 1, after taking a family history, said, “I know you don’t want to hear this but I think you need a mastectomy.” I’ll spare you the details but the conversation went downhill from there. I felt like I had been sucker-punched.
On to the second opinion, who became my oncologist. The difference was night and day. The first doctor spent 20 minutes and was direct to the point of being blunt. The second one spent an hour and 20 minutes and said I had options, which was exactly what I needed to hear. He ended up making the same recommendation as the first doctor, but told me he would support me if I opted for radiation and surveillance. I chose the mastectomy and have no regrets.
An important thing to remember about second opinions is that even though their recommendations may be the same, you may find one doctor’s style suits you much better than another’s. You will spend a lot of time with him or her and you need to be comfortable. So get that second opinion and don’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. It’s your body, your life, and your choice.