Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

Two months ago, I went in for a routine mammogram.

Six weeks ago, I learned that I needed a follow-up mammogram because of suspicious “microcalcifications.”

A month ago, I learned that I needed a “stereotactic core biopsy.”

Nine days ago, I had the biopsy. Before the “procedure,” I asked to see the films. The “suspicious” tiny bits of calcium looked like a few grains of salt sprinkled on my breast tissue. They took four samples out of my left breast.

Six days ago, I learned I had breast cancer. Apparently, two of the biopsy samples showed “ductal carcinoma in situ.” Translation: cancer in the milk ducts that has not gone anywhere else. Docs assure me that this is the easiest cancer to treat. They call it “Stage O.” Sounds very aeronautic to me.

Two samples showed “invasive ductal carcinoma.” Translation: cancer that’s starting to have legs and go places. Apparently, 80 percent of women who get breast cancer, get invasive ductal carcinoma. Docs tell me that my cancer doesn’t see to be very well-traveled yet. I hope they’re correct.

I’m not going to use this blog to chronicle all the things that you would expect. Yes, my friends, family and clergy came out of the woodwork, offering ears, future casseroles and babysitting, shoulders to cry on. Yes, you are inducted instantly into a sisterhood of breast cancer survivors who are amazingly generous with time and information. All these people humble me, and I thank God for them. Yes, it’s both comforting and exhausting that so many people seem to care. Yes, hearing that you have cancer is terrifying. Yes, explaining you have cancer to your 9-year-old daughter is heart-wrenching. Yes, a cancer diagnosis turns on a fire hose of information, much of it conflicting, that you have to calm down enough to process. Yes, having cancer is damned inconvenient. We’re moving to California in a month! But you would know all that without reading this blog.

Here are a few things that I want to say that you may not have heard about cancer:

1) Cancer makes you learn to love the military industrial complex. I am certain that the technology used to take those grains of calcium out of my left breast is based on the same technology that we’re using to bomb insurgents in Afghanistan. Imagine a few grains of salt represented in two dimensions. Then imagine a technologist and a radiologist finding those grains of salt inside a three-dimensional 36B breast. In that context, my breast is as big as all of Helmand province! And they hit those grains of salt, and they sucked them out. My pathology report resulted from this adventure. Think of lying on a plastic table and suspending your breast into a plastic “target zone.” Now, that’s a Glamour “don’t.” Lie there ninety minutes while they compress your breast and shoot needles into it. Thank God for opiate anesthetics. So after all this, the report comes. I can’t imagine that military reports read very differently. Just one line will give you some idea: “A scout film and subsequent pre-fire stereotactic films show the target within the operating window.” I never, EVER, thought I would say this, but thank you Dick Cheney.

2) When you’re public about your breast cancer diagnosis, you attract a bit of the nutball fringe. I’ve had several people try to friend me on Facebook just because they’ve heard of my “health status.” I have no idea who these people are. I am sure they are well-meaning, but don’t they have better things to do that keyword search Facebook for “breast cancer”? Also, can people really believe that just not eating protein will cure cancer? Or that “positive thinking” will wish your cancer away?

3) It is possible to be TOO public about your breast cancer diagnosis. We’ve been very open with my daughter, Erin. As I was waiting to put her on a plane to Nantucket yesterday, we started chatting with a nice Mom from Connecticut and her kids. My daughter blurted out: “My Mom has breast cancer!” I thought the Connecticut Mom’s eyeballs were going to pop out of her head. So sorry, Connecticut Mom. I’ve spoken to my daughter about not telling every NYC bus driver about my diagnosis.

We go to NYU to meet with a surgeon this afternoon. I am so happy at the prospect of DOING something.


About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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6 Responses to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

  1. Lili Millar says:


    You brought tears to my eyes when reading about Erin. She is a courageous little girl as are you had Pete. Have you talk to Jean about it? I hope and pray all goes well. I don’t want to bombard you with telephone calls. I want to pick up the phone every day and call to see how you are doing. I got a nice note from Pete. Please just know that you are in our thoughts. If there is anything we can do let us know. We got a call from Rachel and she was very upset because I had not thought of calling her before she went on facebook.

    Hal, Lili, and Rachel

  2. Janet Galea says:

    Please delete my previous post. I’ve been told when you google my name the first line of what I wrote to you….”I am a five year breast cancer survivor”… is the first thing that comes up. I didn’t realize my writing to you would be so public. Not happy about it. Thank you!

    • leftbreast says:

      So sad about that! But will do. Thanks for your good words.

      • Janet Galea says:

        No worries, Heather about my post.

        I read that you got more scary news yesterday but try to hold onto the nurse telling you it was a “good lump”…not sure what that means but it sounds like you are getting the very best care.

        I live in Marin, right near San Francisco, so when you come to town if want someone who has gone through it all, please let me know.

        My breast cancer was very early stage 1 – in situ that had just broken through…it was scary but on the scale of 1-10 – not so much…maybe a 2…and I am prone to over reaction. ..big time.
        I know how horrible it is to hear “you” and “cancer” in the same sentence, but hang in my surgeon said to me when he first looked at my mammo – “this is manageable”.

        Yours will be, too…deep breaths, Heather.

        Deep breaths….

      • leftbreast says:

        Thanks Janet –
        It is weird to her the name “cancer” with your own name. Sometimes this whole thing seems like a dream, a very bad dream.
        I would definitely like to get in touch when I get to SF.

  3. Observed your webblog via msn the other day and absolutely enjoy it. Carry on this fantastic work.

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