When your workout partner has breast cancer, you literally walk with her through the decision process. She has the appointments, she accumulates the knowledge, she suffers the pain and fear of uncertainly, and she makes the decisions, but you walk and talk and become her sounding board to help her work through it. The weights we lift on any given day are light in comparison to this burden she has been shouldering.
Connie’s mammogram and its revelations happened Nov. 22, the very day I published “An argument for communication,” largely attributed to her. The post itself isn’t significant as much as it became my public disclosure of cussing. In that post, I admitted how I had uncharacteristically used the word “dammit” in communication with Connie, who inadvertently shared it with my byline with the very person I didn’t want to reach. I closed the post, lesson learned, with the determination “no more cussing or fake cussing for me.”
Except that when Connie sent me an email telling me that “Ugh! Mammogram results were not good!” I responded, “Dammit.” (She later told me that was what she said, too.)
By the time she sent that initial email, Connie had seen her regular doctor, made an appointment with a surgeon, and determined that she wanted a surgical biopsy rather than a needle biopsy.
At her first appointment, the surgeon suggested “stereotactic biopsy,” and Connie agreed, despite researching the procedure on websites and learning she’d have to be face down on an examination table with her breast “hanging freely through an opening in the table.” (This information was not correct, and Connie was thankful.)
She returned to the gym the following day, wound glued and breast bruised. Unable to work her arms due to her breast biopsy, Connie focused on her legs.
When she got the results of the biopsy a few days later, Connie sent a simple text, “invasive ductless carcinoma with lobular features.” The next morning, she shared the details. The cancer was likely stage 1 or 2, quite small, caught early — but she had to choose between:
- a lumpectomy followed by radiation (five days a week for seven weeks) and chemotherapy
- a unilateral mastectomy followed by chemotherapy
She struggled with the decision. Because she worked, radiation would be inconvenient and require a lot of time away from work. If she chose a unilateral mastectomy, she could save those hours — but then would have to decide if she wanted reconstruction or not and the hours and dollars those choices would cost.
“I’m trying to figure out how I would look with one just one boob,”Connie said one day in the locker room, pressing her hand over her breast, bruised blue and yellow by the biopsy.
On the treadmill another day, she discussed “knitted knockers,” soft, knit prosthetics for breast cancer survivors. Connie is a knitter, and a knitted prosthetic breast seemed a comfortable option, should she decide on the mastectomy. She was still wavering.
A few days later, when her oncologist suggested a new radiation treatment — SAVI, a five-day treatment that delivers radiation precisely and spares healthy organs — as an alternative if the breast cancer had not reached her lymph nodes, Connie was on board for a lumpectomy. She enthusiastically described the “squid-like” applicator that would be inserted into the tumor cavity. It would save her skin from potential injury from radiation and shave off 6 weeks or 30 days of radiation therapy.
The evening before her surgery, when Connie admitted some butterflies to her goddaughter, she received this delightful wish via email:
“So…here’s my hope for this surgery – that it be painless, that you recovery quickly and that any reconstructive stuff leaves you with a perky set that we are all envious of!”
On Thursday, Connie had her surgery, and everything went as planned. Her cancer had not reached her lymph nodes; the surgeon was able to do just a lumpectomy (no reconstruction or resulting perky set); SAVI would make radiation easier on her body and her schedule. Even better, because the cancer had shown no sign of spreading, chemotherapy was off the table.
All seems on track for Connie to beat breast cancer.
Now she is suffering two weeks of sponge baths, a drain in her breast and a maxi pad crinkling in her shirt as it catches the drainage. She will have the SAVI “squid” (as Connie describes it) inserted tomorrow and begin two-a-day radiation treatments Thursday. And she is smiling from ear to ear as she tries not to sweat during the early morning workout schedule she has resumed. (She has resumed the schedule, not the workouts, but we are happy to see her at the gym.)
She has offered to come count for our swim class on Wednesday, since we usually lose track when she isn’t there. She says she’ll sit by the pool and count.
“One,” she counted by way of demonstration as Kaylen and I lifted weights Monday. She paused as we did another repetition, then, “One.” Again. Another rep and Connie says, “One.”
Clearly, the surgeon did not remove her sense of humor. No “two” or “three” or subsequent numbers. (I’m thinking we might not appreciate her counting for us during swim class…)
Even more than her sense of humor, what I appreciated most about Connie throughout her battle with breast cancer was her transparency. Yes, she put on a brave smile and called her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment “a new adventure.” (I got stuck at “dammit.”) She marveled at the science and technology that would help her beat this. She applauded the doctors (she had carefully researched) and entrusted with her care. But she also admitted she “was more worried than she realized” when she awakened in the night, night after night, and couldn’t go back to sleep.
While she didn’t advertise her situation, she also didn’t hide it. In the locker room, if her breast was exposed — black and blue or otherwise — so be it. If someone overheard her conversing about her cancer or treatment options, it was fine.
“Don’t miss your mammogram!” she still urges, each time she shares her story.
“I’m going to get mine this week,” Dolores told Connie last week. “If it’s not OK, I’m going to come to you for advice.”
Because Connie has walked through breast cancer so openly, I look at the disease differently. She made it less frightening, yes, even more of an adventure and a chance to marvel at our bodies and the science and technology available to help. She demonstrated it as opportunity to trust — doctors and God — and to welcome the support of friends. She also demonstrated that it was normal to worry, better to express it and to welcome prayers, and to breathe a sigh of relief when those prayers were answered so mightily.
In hindsight, I think I actually like the way Connie counted on Monday, “one [pause], one [pause], one…”
One revealing mammogram. One biopsy. One surgery. One batch of radiation treatments. One battle with breast cancer.
One and done. And done well.
He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.
(2 Corinthians 1:4).
In the photo, Connie at the health club on Monday — pretending she was lifting weights, just pretending. “Ripped by Ricky,” the sadistic floor instructor who has put us through our paces (rapidly, intensely, for longer duration than we thought possible), was celebrating his last day, and Connie had to say goodbye and take a parting photo.