The summer before I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, we were driving home from the beach. A wasp flew in through the passenger window, straight to my left breast, and unleashed a thousand agonizing stings. It was relentless. I remember the heat, the sting, the burn. Was it a warning? Was it even a wasp? I’d like to think otherwise. I prefer bees.
The story leading up to my diagnosis is necessary to tell. But to move forward in this moment, there are things I need to leave behind. As I share my journey with the Beast of Cancer I also share my journey with the Beast of Fear, and the ongoing dance of finding a more tolerable relationship to it.
We all know it well; the chill running through the body, heart pounding ferociously, and the heat and sweat that follow. At least this is what Fear is for me. Anxiety, something I only became acquainted with when I was diagnosed, lives in my chest, tiny tremors pulsing, pressing, unyielding, rooted in the uncertainty of what’s to come, and whether I can handle it. A body under threat is an existence threatened too. The Fear and Anxiety that accompanies can eat away, paralyze, and destroy us. But we can also learn from them. Take hold of them. Some things are still too big. But when our existence is threatened, our mind can shield and arm us. And this protection can be one of the greatest gifts we offer ourselves and the world around us.
As I reflect, the tremors emerge but fighting only gives them power. When I was in the thick of battle I remember needing to hear from someone who had walked this path. And I did. And it gave me hope that things may turn out well so I could pass this hope on to someone else.
It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The time is now. So I lean in, and begin to write.
August 24th, 2018. Four days earlier
, I’d been diagnosed with Breast Cancer; ductal in carcinoma, pre-cancer, contained, ‘in situ’. The first surgeon I saw was concerned about its size and form; speckled and spread over 4-5 inches, 9cm. Surgery was scheduled for next month and an appointment with a reconstructive surgeon scheduled for this week.
Now, as my husband Jack and I wait to meet him, I think about my father and wonder how I am going to tell him and the rest of my family. And my boy. My beautiful little boy. I haven’t slept since I was told but I feel optimistic about the surgery. The cancer is contained and I can be rebuilt. The surgeon walks in and examines me. He’s concerned about my lymph nodes. They are swollen. He is sending me for more tests to see if the cancer has spread.
Tests. Needles. Scans. Wait. These weeks reveal the extent to which Fear will go to interrupt peace, sleep, and sanity.
Results: Blood, bones, organs are clear. Breathe. Release.
Final Test: Lymph Nodes. Results: Positive.
I am going to need treatment. I don’t know what this means.
An appointment is arranged with the oncologist. They tell me to bring someone. I still haven’t slept and know that until I can rule out Chemotherapy, sleep won’t come. I can handle anything else but not that. I try to accept what is happening without knowing what is happening. My mind won’t let me rest. They give me pills but every night I fall asleep and gasp myself awake. Shivering, meditating, mind racing; exhausted by sunrise.
The day arrives. We walk into that place; Jack, my father, me. They take me right away. Shoes off. Step on scale. Vitals. Temperature. Wait. The oncologist, direct but compassionate, begins her speech:
“I’m going to be straightforward. You have Locally Advanced Breast Cancer. Her 2 Positive. We are concerned about the size of it. The disease has spread to at least one of your lymph nodes. Probably more. Stage 3. Before we can do surgery, we need to shrink it. You are young, strong, with a small child; we want to be aggressive. You are going to need Systemic Chemotherapy to kill your fast-growing cells; 8 rounds of treatment, 1 every 3 weeks. About 6 months. Then surgery on the diseased breast and lymph nodes removal followed by an optional reconstructive surgery, 5 weeks of radiation, 14 targeted chemotherapy treatments, and a final reconstruction. We want you to begin treatment right away. You will lose your hair. The Chemo Teach will explain the side effects and how to manage them. You will be immuno-suppressed so we’ll test your blood each cycle to ensure you can continue with treatment. The effects are cumulative, you will get weaker with each one. Your body is going to war now. Fighting this is a full-time job. It’s a lot to take in. This is a number to call, you’ll have questions. Here is a prescription for a wig. I’m sorry”.
For the first time in my life, I hear the sound of my husband’s silence, my father’s gasp, and my own whimper.
I absorb the workshop day with dread: the list of side effects is endless. I am not to touch anyone for 48 hours after treatment, it could be harmful to them. Infection could delay treatments or kill me in a day. I wrestle with the idea of not wanting to delay torture.
I’m not religious, but I start praying. To the Universe, to Mother Nature, to myself, to God. I see a healer. I try everything to prepare, but I am losing myself. I don’t want to lose it all. Or face it all…18 months of… How did I get here?
Treatment One: 46 days no sleep. Terror. What if I can’t handle the poison? I go outside, put my hand on a tree and beg, “let me be safe”. This becomes my ritual. I enter that room. Everyone is hooked up to machines like lab rats. I don’t want to look like them. My face hardens. I focus in. No eye contact. Machine. They ask me to rate my anxiety on a scale of 1-10. “10”, I reply. They ask about pain, nausea, vomiting, weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath, fever, falling, emergency visits, infections, nails, rashes, fatigue, loss of appetite; they tell me they will check this every time.
Temperature. Vitals. Anti-nausea pills. Warm-up veins. Search for vein. Poke the vein. Blow the vein. Search for new vein. Find a vein. Poke the vein. Breathe…and they’re in. Flush the vein. Poison arrives. “Name? Birthdate?” Buttons. Beeps. Begin. I watch the poison drip into me. How much time has passed? 2 minutes. Distract. Drip. Beep. An hour. I feel funny. Still hours to go. Help…I panic. I am going to pull this thing out of my… Beep. Beep. Beep. It’s over. I did it. Day 1. I can do this.
Three days of pills follow. Adrenaline. I’m doing it. I am woozy but I haven’t thrown up. Day 4, pills stop. I crash. I don’t know it at the time but these are steroids. When they stop them each cycle, I come down hard. My white blood cells are dying. I can feel it happening. Am I dying too? I sit in the sun and fall asleep in the glorious heat. I jolt awake. Nauseous, I go inside. Hot. I go to the mirror. My face is scorched. It’s only been a few minutes, how…ah yes, the workshop. I forgot to put on sunscreen; the poison works quickly, bye bye sun. Day 7: Weak. Day 16: Foggy, but more energy. Day 20: Blood Test Number Two: Already? Poke. I wait. Breathe. I’m clear.
Day 21: Treatment Number Two. 65 days with no sleep. Losing the ability to function. Afraid of everything but mostly of myself. Something has to change. The psychiatrist tells me my mind is too strong to be tricked by sleeping pills, that intelligence comes at a price. I laugh. He prescribes me an alternative. I take it; desperate. And I sleep. I fucking sleep. My mind is back. I feel hope for the first time. But the pills have put me in a groggy haze. The poison kicks in harder too. I lose feeling in my fingertips and feet. Trying to feel grounded without them. The steroids are playing tricks on me, they’re getting harder to battle. A hair on my shirt. I scream! My hair is falling out! Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just one hair. The next day a few more. I am leaving a trail wherever I go. The floor is covered. It’s October and my hair is falling with the Fall. We shave it, I cry. My beautiful mane is gone. I stare at myself. My eyes look so big, my head looks so small. My face looks…nice. And I hate it. I don’t want everyone knowing I am sick. So I put on the wig; my disguise, my armour, my shame.
Fall turns to winter. I feel weak, less anchored, less safe, afraid, desperate for it to end, it seems like it never will. I have such support around me, but no one can save me. I know I have to save myself. But the force of it overwhelms me. I am drowning. Into myself.
And so I read. I walk. I walk the months away, Mother Nature carrying me in her arms. I find comfort in the parts of my body that work. And I realize, if I can find in my body, I can find it for my mind. One moment. I start with one. My son’s laugh or Jack’s smile. A walk in the snow with family, a visit with a friend. Small moments. And something shifts. I let it grow. This is the part I can control; how I react, how I perceive, how I live. How I live. I fall into moments of panic or anguish but try my best to manifest the best possible outcome. Just for that moment. As the moments expand, fear and despair lessen. I cherish the love I have in my life. Laughter and beauty return.
But those days when I’m coming off the steroids…my mind can’t fight them. Too many layers; poison, pills, fatigue, nausea, steroids, I’m being buried in a tomb, fighting to get out, losing my stamina, losing my will. Tired of the prison, the cold, the fear. Tired of. Tired from. The blisters. Burning the inside of my chest, if I gargle anymore with salt I will drown myself. Where am I? In the middle of this salty sea. The fog, please let it lift. I go outside into the crisp winter air, rub snow all over my face to break through a layer of misery. I need to feel alive. If I feel anymore dead, I may as well be. I am not just fighting to stay alive, I am fighting to feel alive. Surrender. I cannot fight and surrender at the same time. I am under attack, whichever way I turn. I can’t make it go away, no matter what I want or try. I cry again for someone to save me. But no one can.
I lie down in the bath, water surrounds me. Soft. Warm. Let go.
I sink lower. So beautiful. The lower I sink, the more Freedom I feel.
I am under. I hear nothing. I am a dolphin. On my mama’s back.
Mama. Mama. I miss you my mama.
Surrender. This isn’t what they meant.
I think of my little boy. Come back.
I drag myself out of the bath. To the mirror. I see my eyes and they see me. The person I always was. But I have to take this pain. There is no way around it. Come back to the moment. Make the decision. Come back. So much work but the work helps me focus. The focus helps me breathe. The breath keeps me from looking into the uncertainty of what remains of this war. I see the gifts around me. I soften and slowly, slowly, surrender comes. Each tiny dose helping me through another day. To bear the unbearable; we all face this as humans. When I can’t do it for myself, I do it for the people around me. And then, almost six months since that first drip of poison, 192 days since I was diagnosed: Final Treatment. The poison burned me to the ground. But I did the time. And survived.
We move across the country, home. Three surgeries. Five weeks radiating. Thirteen more infusions. Hospitals. Infections. Struggles. Relentless. 474 days.
My hair fell with the autumn leaves and sprouted in the spring. Imprisoned by poison in the cold of winter, and scorched in summer’s sting.
In the thick of radiation, I recall the burn of the wasp on the outside of my skin nearly two years before. Now I am burning from the inside out. But the Radiation itself? We’ve got it down to a dance:
1-2-3-4. Arms in straps. 5-6-7-8. Gantry up. Coverage and clearance look great 2-3-4. Noseplug on. 5-6-7-8. Snorkel in mouth. 1-2-3-4. Don’t panic, I’m safe. 5-6-7-8. Deep breath in. 1-2-3-4. Air cuts out. 5-6-7-8. Hold. 2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-13-14-15, hurry 16-17-18-19-20. Count slower next round to speed up the time. 1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10. Air comes back. 1-2-3-4. Deep breath in and hold. Over and over. They radiate and I disappear. I lay there and think about how far I’ve come. For the first time, I feel proud. And I weigh this journey against what others have been tasked with and realize how lucky I am.
Today, just over 2 years since it all began, I fall backwards with every new obstacle. But I come back because I’ve been given a chance. I don’t know why but I’ve been given that chance. A chance. It’s all chance in the end, anyway. It can change at any time. But so can we. And for today, while chance is on my side, I soak it in.
Water rolls over my skin. Surrounds me. Gently. Warmly.
I am floating
In the middle of this salty sea,
The sun makes glimmers around me.
I close my eyes. Let my body go. Ahh…
I sink down, down, down, exhale the water out of me.
The farther I sink, the more freedom I feel.
I don’t hear anything anymore. The water turns cold. I kick, flutter.
I’m not afraid. Of myself. Or my soul.
I am a dolphin. On my mama’s back.
A bright light surrounds me, inside me, above me.
Is that you?
I kick towards it, rise up out of the water and breathe.
I swim toward the shore, surrender to the sand,
I am full, I am alive.
I close my eyes. And let go.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*This article is comprised of my reflections, excerpts of my new play ‘Her Room’, and my ongoing discoveries.
Thank You: Jack & Ethan: My Beloved Reasons | My Family: My Shelter | The Ones Who Knew: My Uplifts | Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, Toronto General, UHN, Toronto Rehab, BCCancer, The Actor’s Fund of Canada: My Army | Our Art: My Balm | Marnie, Carla, Niki, Jan, Lauren VB and Brendee: for my crown.
Photo and Graphics by BrendeeGreenPhotography.
Lauren Brotman is an award-winning actor, creator and artist educator. Her company, Bound to Create (B2C), founded by Lauren and her husband Jack in 2004, is keenly interested in the beauty, boldness, and truth born from confronting the challenges that face the human spirit telling stories for the stage, recently expanding productions to film and television as well. Lauren is a mother, wife and recent Breast Cancer Survivor. For more about Lauren’s work, please visit www.boundtocreate.com. You can find her on IG @laurenrachelbrotman, you can find her company on Twitter and IG @boundtocreate and you can follow her upcoming film project on IG @ellesvalleyfilm.
(Photo credit: LV Imagery)