New Year, New Life: Just Not the One I Expected

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I woke up New Year's Day with my head whirling.

No, it wasn't the wine or that one extra Virtue Cider I had at the Downtown Ludington Ball Drop the night before. I was dizzied by possibilities for this next journey around the sun. I wouldn't just be entering my third year as a freelancer or my 50th year as a human; I also planned to enter a pinup contest—something I've never done or even dreamed of.

2019 promised to be filled with known comforts and unknown thrills.

A week later, I stepped out of the bathtub where I'd been soaking the winter chill away and noticed something not quite right about my right breast. I shrugged it off (a little), fully expecting it was, at worst, a clogged duct. The next day, I was at my doctor's office where they perform walk-in mammograms. But instead of getting a quick in-and-out visit, they sent me away once they heard I had noticed an abnormality.

The next day, I was at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion getting a 3D mammogram and ultrasound. Trust me: As great as this place is, no one wants to be at a facility with "cancer" in the name.

The next day, I was back there getting a biopsy. Monday, I received biopsy results—definitely cancer. Wednesday evening, I was having an MRI. Thursday was our first meeting with the Multispecialty Team who would be handling my care.

All of this, in just more than a week.

Those thoughts in my sleepy head on the first day of the year were replaced with uncertainty and worry.

The first doctor from our team hadn't seen my MRI results. When she came in to talk with us, she said the lobular tumor was small and slow-growing, and that would likely mean stage 1 or 2, a lumpectomy, and anti-hormone aftercare. Ben, my husband of 19 years, and I looked at each other and said aloud:

"That's not too bad."

About a half hour later, the surgeon came in. His communication style seemed odd to me, and I felt myself not liking him. His mannerisms were going to annoy me—this I knew—and I was stuck with this guy for the duration. It wasn't until after our meeting that I understood his behavior.

He was the one with the bad news.

What the MRI revealed was that the mass was larger than the other imaging showed. A mastectomy was the best option, followed very likely by radiation. My blood was cooling and a feeling of shock was settling in when the second jab came: There were a couple of small spots on my breastbone. If those represented metastasis, I would be stage 4; possibly treatable, but not curable.

The radiation oncologist came in next, followed by our nurse navigator. A nurse navigator! At least we had a guide to take us down this unbeaten path.

When the last team member left our room, Ben and I cried together. Hard. We cried on the drive home and as we held each other the rest of the afternoon and through the night. Every vision of my future seemed to be unattainable. It was possible I was going to die. Not in my 80s, holding the wrinkled, world-weary hand of the love of my life, as I always imagined.

As much as our minds roamed the dark territory of mortality, there were still more tests to be done before we could be certain of anything. But the results of the PET scan I had the following Monday revealed little. The surgeon, whom I'd now come to like a lot, told us that sometimes not having answers is better than having them. The spots were indeterminant for cancer and too small to biopsy. Though this felt like good news, it also left me feeling as if my whole body was a ticking doomsday clock.

Despite that lingering cloud, life returned to a semblance of normality in the two weeks before scheduled surgery. Except with a lot more leafy vegetables and red-purple fruits and green tea. Yes, I was going to lose a breast. Without reconstruction, as it would delay after-treatment. And those Valentine's Day lingerie ads and pinup models with their glorious cleavage that came through my feeds were a stinging reminder. Nonetheless, my pragmatic side (which is quite shy and rarely comes out) won the mental fight every time.

This was my only option. Life would be drastically different, but it would be life. And in this new normal, that would be worth a lot.

My walk with breast cancer began on January 8, 2019. In the coming months, I'll be sharing more about my experience. In the meantime, though there are many closing thoughts I'd like to leave you with, there's really only one that matters:

Get your mammograms—on schedule. Don't let them lapse, as I did, because life is too hectic. Perform self-exams. Know your body—what it looks like and feels like—and make sure your partner, if you have one, knows it, too. Early detection is the best way to cure—not just treat—breast cancer.

It's your weapon.

Use it.

Allison Kay Bannister, a West Michigan resident since 1987, professional writer since 2002 and GVSU alumna, recently launched her own freelance writing business. Allison enjoys travel, art, dance, food and exploring world cultures—and, of course, writing about all these and more.

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