Friday, August 31, 2012

Gut Check

I make my life decisions based almost entirely on my instincts (although until I sat down to write this, I don’t think I ever realized that, which makes sense, I guess).  I don’t do a lot of research, ask a lot of questions, or thoughtfully eliminate all of my other options.  I just go with my gut.  (Brian's the opposite, so before you think I'm reckless, know that I at least had the smarts (and instinct) to marry a man who got estimates from eight different paving companies before he chose the one to pave our drive way.)

So far my instincts haven't lead me astray.  For instance, when Brianne moved from Hyde Park to Canton our freshman year of high school, I immediately declared her my new friend (my new best friend in my own mind), even though she was a better basketball player than I was (and I hated that).  When I stepped foot on the Bowdoin campus, I knew it was my first choice (thank goodness they let me in off that wait list!).  When Brian and I first walked into our house in Canton, I was ready to sign papers.  And I remember years before that, trying to give a toast about Brian at our rehearsal dinner – I couldn’t find the words, because I just knew that we were supposed to be together.

I have to admit that I’ve struggled with this entry.  While Annabel napped today and Teddy attended “sports camp” with two of Brian’s hockey players in our back yard, I tried to write about something fresh, and one day, I’ll probably come back to that draft.  But it wasn’t clicking for me, because my mind was stuck on something stale.  As I always do when I get stuck writing (although before now, it’s always been at work), I go back to basics, which for me has become that quote from Mark’s “Good Words,” you know, “…write to express…”  So at the risk of becoming repetitive, I return to a previously-discussed topic -- breast reconstruction -- since it's the one on which my mind still dwells.

The moment I knew I had breast cancer, I wanted both of my breasts removed.  Immediately.  My gut all but screamed it to me – Cut those suckers loose!  I know that I will never look back on that decision, partly because I feel that it will help save my life.

But for some reason, when it came to reconstruction, my gut was empty.  That emptiness left me in an unfamiliar place.  How do people make big decisions when their instincts aren’t telling them what to do one way or another?  My mind had many thoughts -- What if the plastic surgery somehow made my fight against the cancer more difficult?  Would I be risking my life for some stupid boobs?  Then again, if I didn't do it, would I feel like a hollowed out woman every time I looked in the mirror?  Would I cry at the sight of a dissected new me?  So I just waited, hoping I would find some clarity.  Gradually, I did.  Here and there I picked up enough information that reconstruction wasn’t all that painful and that it wouldn’t interfere with my cancer treatment (except that if I do end up needing radiation, that radiation could distort the implants and additional surgery would be necessary).  Most of all, I became convinced that once I am cancer-free, I would be happy that I did it, and that if I didn't do it now, I would dread going back in for it later.

Teddy gave me another perspective too.  When we were at the supermarket a few nights ago, we walked down the shampoo aisle and I started joking with him that I’m sick of buying shampoo and having hair.  I told him I was thinking of shaving my head and being a carefree bald lady.  I made some silly girly motion of flicking my hair back over my shoulder, even though it's already far too short for that.  He chuckled, cautiously, and asked, “But if you have no hair, how will people know you’re a girl?”  Awesome question, my little lad, ’cause I was stumped. Thank goodness for my lawyer training; I turned the question back on him.  “Great point, buddy, how do you think people would still know I’m a girl?”  No pause from him – “Because you wear dresses.”  “Exactly!” I replied, looking down at my mesh Nike shorts, sports bra, and tattered t-shirt.   I better get myself some more dresses, I told myself, and we turned down the aisle to grab some yogurt.  But Teddy had me thinking – maybe I really did want to keep, or rather, replace, this part of my femininity even though it doesn't define me or my gender.  The next day, Rebecca gave me the gift of a positive perspective – reconstruction could be something I look forward to and feel good about, a badge of honor for which I am proud.  My mind was made up, and totally at peace.  But still, my gut felt empty.  Until yesterday afternoon.

I’m far past worrying that you think I’m nuts (if you did, I’d just agree with you, plus, my worry cells are saturated), and I’m never too proud to share with you the honest truth, so here goes.   Yesterday, I saw a fake boob on a real woman.  No, I didn't replay the 2004 Superbowl halftime show.  Instead, I had a moment with a kind, spirited, honest woman named Amy, and that moment that changed my life.  Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer over 20 years ago, when she was exactly my age, with two young girls.  She has been so good to me, so honest with me, ever since she heard my news.  She immediately reached out and told me, There is so much life after breast cancer.  At the time, I basically had myself dead and buried, and she joined the team of angels who picked me up out of my grave and made me believe that this would not be my end.

Yesterday, Amy and her daughter, Lauren (via speaker phone), sat down with Brian and me in Amy's beautiful sunny living room.  We talked about all sorts of things, many that made us laugh and some that made me cry.  At age 25, Lauren learned that she carried the BRCA2 gene.  She immediately opted for a prophylactic double mastectomy with reconstruction.  I found such comfort in talking to women that were so honest and so open about their experiences, and I hope I have the strength to provide that comfort for someone else one day.  

When we hung up with Lauren, Amy asked me if I wanted to see her implant.  (Brian immediately “had a phone call to make” and we all laughed.  Oh the torment this blog will cause my poor husband one day when he doesn’t have the my-wife-has-cancer-shield to protect him.)  But of course I wanted to see her implant!  In the last few early mornings, when my mind runs its most crazy course of the day, I have lied awake wondering what I will look like a few weeks from now.  Somehow I always end up at a vision of my chest looking like the end of a “pin the boob on the sick lady” game played by a group of drunken bachelors (not that I've ever seen such a game, thank goodness) and I was expecting to see something of the sort as Amy casually unbuttoned her work blouse.  She was so confident, so calm, so caring, and I pretended not to be nervous.  But before I even had to tell myself to take a deep breath, there it was, just a regular, in fact, far-better-than-regular breast.  (Don’t worry, Amy and Lauren agreed to my sharing this experience with you.)  Sure there was a faint horizontal scar across the middle of it (and I vaguely remember Dr. Chun explaining that I will have the same type of scar across mine) but otherwise it was nothing but a regular, nice-looking breast.  Of course, I started to cry.  Poor Amy must have thought, Holy shit, what have I done?  But every time I glanced at it, I cried more.

Finally, I collected myself enough to reassure her that I was crying out of appreciation and sheer relief.  Relief that I wouldn’t look like Teddy’s Mrs. Potato Head when he sticks the eyes into the nose hole.  Relief that there would be life after breast cancer.  Relief that in a few months from now (except for my bald head), I’ll just look like me (or maybe even a better version of me!?!).  But most of all, I cried because that emptiness I had in my gut since this decision was placed in my lap was gone.  Reconstruction is the right decision for me and while my mind was there a few days ago, it took a brave woman to drop her blouse on a Wednesday afternoon for my gut instinct to take its stand.  So bring on the boobs, Doc.  Small perky ones, please.


  1. Tara,
    You are amazing...what a truly beautiful piece. I'm so happy for you that you are at peace with your decision. And might I add write down Teddy and Annabelle's words to you so that you can look back many years from now and laugh at the things said. A wise old friend told me to do that years ago and that journal is one of my most prized possessions. Richie and I read it often and laugh until we cry. xoxo

  2. I'm so touched,, too, will be offering reassurance to newly diagnosed women - you'll see! We are all sista's in this! Lauren and I are humbled that we were able to help you see things in a positive way...we are always in your corner - always here for you! Dr. Chun is an artist! Can't wait for our next 'show and tell'!!

  3. Tara, I am so happy that you had this personal experience with Amy and Lauren, and that reaffirmed your decision to go ahead with the reconstruction which is such a positive
    way to move forward and take control. When you look at your new perky breasts you will be smiling for sure!! Good for you! I loved it when you said that there is life after breast cancer, because you will see the world in a different but wonderfully appreciative way. You write so beautifully, and I am very touched by your warmth and sincere expressions. Your music assignment was just wonderful, and right on! Hope the books give you even added strength...

  4. Tara, I want you to know how much your sharing your journey is doing for those of us who work in healthcare. We often know so little of a patient's background and personal story... I can't thank you enough! And yes, Dr Chun does amazing work!