I Took My Dog for a Walk and Came Home with Breast Cancer
“If you asked me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you: I CAME TO LIVE OUT LOUD.”
– Emile Zola
Shortly after my cancer diagnosis, I began to receive good-hearted advice from my family and friends. They all wanted me to go to a support group, to reach out to people who were going through the same plight. Why? Because my circle could not relate to me, they did not think they could comfort me or support me like those with cancer could. After all, how many 32 year-olds do you know with Stage III breast cancer? I was the only one that I, myself, knew and I wanted to keep it that way.
For me, I knew that it was critical to keep going at the same pace. My strength came from the living, so at each chemotherapy session, I would sit with friends who all took time from their busy schedules to join me for a round of infusion, cupcakes, funny stories, and lots of laughs. We would laugh so hard and so loud that I remember saying one time, “Guys, we have to be a little quieter, there are sick people here.” Honestly, it was only when they stopped laughing and looked at me that I realized I was one of those sick people.
It was time to reach out for help when I knew that a double radical mastectomy was the next course on the menu to health. I became desperate to speak to someone who could help me accept the surgery as treatment and understand what life would be like afterwards. It was then that I reached out to Sharsheret and spoke to a clear-minded, sympathetic, and strong-willed Clinical Supervisor, Shera Dubitsky. In one swift month leading up to my surgery, I was able to grasp the concept of my illness and finally understand that I was, in fact, sick and needed this surgery and subsequent treatment to survive. With Shera, I was able to speak about G-d, not speak about G-d, to cry, to laugh, to grieve, to accept, to move on, to learn to be happy with my “new normal” self. Reaching out to Sharsheret was one of the most rewarding experiences I had, and I cherish the generosity and kindness that I received. It was the only organization I contacted, and for me, luckily and gratefully, it was the right one.
The avocado-sized mass that my dog pulled out of my armpit was a lymph node that was already engorged with cancer. And so I was thrust into chemotherapy a few days after diagnosis. There was no time to wait, no day to waste before beginning treatment. I was told that chemo might kill my chances of ever having children, but I needed it to live today. I was told that it might cause other cancers later in my life, but I needed it to live today. I was told that it might give me heart failure in the future, but I needed it to live today. There was NO OTHER CHOICE for me. Before each treatment, I asked if they were sure that I had cancer. I sounded like a fool, but I just wanted to make sure they weren’t pumping me with poison for nothing! That makes me a chemo veteran, and for those of you who are in my good company, you know that it is a war. And so I had to quit my newly-scored, travel-intensive job with a top advertising agency and assume my new role as the CEO of my cancer treatment.
I am convinced that the ONLY reason I survived this ordeal thus far, and mostly intact, is because my family and friends willed me through it. Every chemo session was a little party. Every other week as I sat in the NYU Cancer Institute, I was surrounded by my family and friends. My husband, Danny, became my rock. My parents put their lives on hold and would drive up from Virginia; my pals would drive up from surrounding states. My friends would show up and surprise me with food, with gifts, with manicures, with all sorts of tokens. We joked, we laughed, we looked at old pictures and silly magazines, we were just us, in every sense, and at no time did anyone show me pity. Their presence alone was the only inspiration that I needed to keep moving forward. Somehow everyone knew just what to do, just what to say and what NOT to say. People were flying in from as far as California and Amsterdam to sit with me through chemotherapy, to cheer me on. How could I ask for more? I would sit there with the drugs flowing into my arm and just marvel at how all of my worlds were colliding. My friends from all of my former lives were becoming friends with one another. It was a gift to me; it was the ultimate happiness and peace. In those moments I felt so loved, so lucky.
Even though I am an Ashkenazi Jew, my oncologist was almost certain that this was not a genetic cancer and recommended a lumpectomy. “Okay, I can handle that,” I thought. The only thing we were waiting for were the results of genetic testing, which was done while I was undergoing chemotherapy. I tested positive for BRCA 1 which meant that the cancer was, in fact, genetic and would return with great certainty in my lifetime. My medical team quickly recalculated all the odds and strongly recommended a double radical mastectomy. I was in my early thirties and they wanted to give me every chance possible to beat this particular cancer.
And so, that is what I did, with great difficulty. Difficult, not because of vanity, but because it was yet another hurdle to overcome and because I was afraid of losing a piece of myself, both literally and metaphorically. I could not wrap my head around it no matter what I did, not that I had much time. I finished chemotherapy on December 9, 2005 and on January 11, 2006 I had the surgery. Both breasts were removed as well as 14 lymph nodes from my left armpit.
All of the treatment, physical therapy, and surgeries took nearly two years. I was in full-blown menopause experiencing hot flashes, irritability, mood swings. My oncologist, knowing how much we wanted a child, said that he would sign all of the adoption papers we needed. Another oncologist of mine actually offered to be a surrogate for us. Friends stepped up to be egg donors. It was overwhelming and we were moved. The research for adoption options lead to dead ends from a financial perspective and also because the adoption agencies usually require that the cancer patient is in remission for at least 5 years before being approved. We looked into many options, and decided that we would become parents regardless of how it came to us. Then we dropped the issue.
In January of 2008, Danny and I returned to Israel to visit his family. We had not been there in three years because of the cancer treatment and the surgeries that followed. Although I did not grow up religious, I did want to go to the Holy Land and give thanks for surviving my cancer. That was my heartfelt wish, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I had a 2-part mission – I wanted to go to the mikvah and spiritually cleanse myself from the disease, and I wanted to go to the Kotel and give thanks to G-d for having survived the disease. And I did just that.
I went to the mikvah on January 16, and we went to the Kotel on January 17, 2008. Sometime between the mikvah and the Kotel, I became pregnant. My oncologist, upon hearing the news, told us that I was not far enough away from the cancer, that I needed to wait at least three years (it had only been two) before even thinking about trying. He told us that if we wanted to do the right thing for my health, then we would terminate the pregnancy. It was a very sad conversation for him and for us. Very quickly, I decided that I would not strip myself of this unbelievable gift and that we would deal with whatever came our way when and if it did.
We did not know what to expect from the initial baby ultrasound. Would we hear something, would we see something? Were we really pregnant, or would the ultrasound show us that this was just a dream? The technician looked at her screen and we looked at the monitor hanging from the ceiling. She was talking nonchalantly but we hung on to her every word. When she found the heartbeat she said, “There’s one, and there’s the other one. You have two babies!” WHAT!?! That’s when time stopped and the room started to spin. It was the most defining moment of my life. Twins, it was unbelievable. My dear oncologist, who I adore, jumped on the baby train as soon as he heard that it was twins. My oncologist told me that I was his first patient to conceive post-treatment. The nursing staff told us that the entire cancer institute erupted in happiness when they heard about my pregnancy. We were so happy to share this pregnancy with everyone, to finally share and enjoy good news for once!
My oncologist and his nurse came to visit us and meet the babies in the hospital. To see my doctor hold my daughters was the full-circle moment that I hoped for but never imagined. It was magical for all of us.
And so, I write my story here to say that there IS hope. There IS life after cancer. I am beyond fortunate, and I realize that every breath is a gift. I am in love with my life. And every time I walk in my neighborhood and pass the intersection where my dog pulled my arm that day, I look up into the sky and I say sometimes to myself, sometimes aloud, “THANK YOU G-D! Thank you Bella!”