Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mama Said There'll Be Days Like This

Mama said there'll be days like this.

I remember during my treatment that my mother told me that one in eight women would face breast cancer in her lifetime. She said, "Look at all your incredible and beautiful girlfriends and start counting off to eight. You will become the rock for your friends. This is your calling."

At the time, this notion seemed as though it was so very far off. I was reminded of those words this past week. This time of year is always unsettling since four years ago I received my diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer January 19, 2008. My life was forever changed.

I was spending Martin Luther King, Jr. day home from work and tending to Matt due to a recent cold that I very kindly shared with him. The phone rang. The words were quiet and jumbled on the other end. I was able to make out two words "Ridgetop" (a location) and "cancer." My entire body tingled and I lunged off the couch. I threw my hair in a ponytail, grabbed a hoodie and put on my boots. I turned to Matt, "Jenn called and needs me. I don't know what's happening, but I'm going. Watch Jasper. I love you."

My heart was racing and I felt the heat surging through my body ... I was sweating even though the air was painfully cold against my skin. I drove as fast as I possibly could through Loudoun to Ridgetop Circle. Luckily, I knew the location well since this was the building complex my company used to be in. I found Washington Radiology by looking at the listings of the companies in each building on my iPhone. I ran from my car into the waiting room.

Receptionist: "Can I help you?"
me: "I'm looking for Jennifer Campbell. I believe she is here."
Receptionist: "What is your relation?"
me. "I'm her friend. She called me."
Receptionist: "We don't let just anyone back there."
me: "Good thing I'm not just anyone. FIND HER."

It got ugly, but I didn't really care. This receptionist knew I was not messing around. I needed to get to Jenn ... and fast. An older woman with gray hair and glasses came out to meet me. She reminded me of the fairy godmother from Cinderella. She took me back to a small waiting room. My breath escaped me when I turned the corner and saw Jenn. She was sitting in a chair wearing a sterile white robe shaking while a young technician was casually walking her through the risks of am emergency biopsy.

"Considering the location of the tumor against the chest wall, we risk possibly puncturing the lung ..." blah blah blah

I looked at Jenn's face. Her eyes were red, swollen and glazed over. She was void of emotion -- she just continued nodding. Her body had gone into survival mode. She was reacting to the trauma of the news by retreating subconsciously. She blacked out. Instead of reacting by having a panic attack, which is my standard M.O., I went into what I refer to as "mom mode." I paid attention to everything the nurse said and Jenn's doctor -- I took notes and asked a million questions knowing that this was not something Jenn could do right now.

I sat in the room with Jenn while her doctor took four biopsies of tissue from the tumor and extracted fluid from her lymph node. She laid on the table motionless. I told her when to take a deep breathe and when to look away -- rubbing her arm and reassuring her that she was doing a good job. I know the procedure was painful, but she was not present. Thank God for that. My scar across my chest started aching during the exam. STOP IT, JENNIFER. I knew my mind was playing tricks. My whole body hurt for her. I could do nothing but be there for her and make sure I asked all the questions I wish someone would have asked when I was diagnosed four years ago. Feels like it was a lifetime ago.

Jenn: "What are the chances this is just a bad infection?"
Dr. Floerke: "The chances this is just an infection are very very slim. I am very concerned. I'm pretty sure this is cancer considering how hard the lump is, the lymph nodes being irregular and the positioning."

Before leaving I sat in a room with the older woman with gray hair and glasses while Jenn called and made a breast MRI appointment. I watched as tears ran down the woman's cheeks -- I realized that she probably experiences this every day. Before I walked Jenn out into the lobby I hugged the fairy godmother and thanked her for taking such good care of one of my bestfriends. She said, "She's just so young. Breaks my heart. Please take care of her."

We walked into the lobby and stopped. I enveloped Jenn in my arms while she kept repeating, "Please don't let me die." I took her face in my hands and said, "You are not going to die. Do you hear me in there? I won't let you. You are going to beat this and I will be by your side every step of the way. I promise you that. We can do this together."

I got in my car and sobbed the entire ride home.

Her pathology report came back three days later (on the four year anniversary of my diagnosis) confirming our worst fears ... this was breast cancer. It was in the milk duct, lymph nodes and tissue and the 5cm tumor is sitting against the chest wall. It is aggressive and she will need to start chemotherapy immediately to stop the cancer from spreading, especially into the lung.

Jenn became a survivor the moment she was diagnosed. And my mom was right, I have been called.

You can follow Jenn's journey by reading her blog, Not Jenn's Cup of Tea.