Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Holiday Wrap-Up: Christmas, Cancer, and a Brand New Year

Yes, folks, you read that pithy (yet dramatic) title correctly. There was Christmas. There was New Years. And, unfortunately, sandwiched right in there was a diagnosis of cancer.

That diagnosis would be mine. I have breast cancer.

There, I did it. I've outed myself in the blogosphere which is something I wasn't sure I was going to do. At first, writing about my diagnosis wasn't even on my radar. Then, people who know my blog started asking me, "Are you going to blog about this?" and I'd just answer "I don't know..." because I didn't know.  I felt conflicted. I didn't want to put it out there for the sake of "attention" or dramatics. Plus, at the time, just getting through the holidays and the multitude of appointments and tests was keeping me busy enough! But, as I sat down to blog I realized that I couldn't write about my life without sharing this vital piece of information. To write about twinkling lights and snow, Pink's honor roll and CB's smiles without sharing something that will be so significant for me over the next few months just seemed disingenuous. Being fake isn't why I started this blog. It was about being real, and this is about as real as it gets right now.

So, what does a diagnosis of breast cancer looks like over Christmas you may ask? Well, it looks a little like this...

It looks like full hearts and twinkling lights. It sounds like the chatters of wishes cast into the air and the silence of waiting to see if even one will come true. It smells like confectionaries and peppermint and of me burning dinner. It's full of expectancy and of wide-eyed wonder.

It feels like mayhem. It feels like peace. It feels like family. It feels like home.

I was diagnosed on the twelfth of December. It was about 2 weeks before Christmas, one month after my 46th birthday, 11 months after my first mammogram, and one year after I wrote a breast cancer survivor story where I interviewed almost a dozen breast cancer survivors for a local publication. That very story prompted me to start doing self-exams and get my first mammo. That's how I found my lump. 

Everyone who laid a hand on me and read my mammogram thought it was fibroids, a benign growth that is relatively common. I had them biopsied just to solidify that diagnosis, but never suspected to get the call I got. I answered that call on a Friday right before 5:00 pm, so my hands were tied to do anything but sit and wait for Monday to come when I'd make my phone calls and appointments and wait to hear more. All the doctor could say at that point was that my biopsy indicated that I had a type of breast cancer called 'Invasive Ductal Carcinoma,' the tumor was very small, and it was nearly 100% treatable and curable. These were positive things, nothing to freak out about. Overall, I knew I was going to be FINE. But, it was very little info to go on and lots of questions to still be answered. For the next 10 days I sat in limbo until meeting with the Breast Surgeon. 

If you can imagine, the waiting... the UNKNOWN... is the hardest part. So, what do you do while you wait? You just keep going. You could say this type of news was bad timing so close to the holidays. I would say it was perfect timing. What better time to hear sobering news than at your favorite time of year?  The news didn't bring my holiday or my happiness down. Rather, my holiday lifted that news (and my spirits) up.  

The weekend prior to Christmas we go to two huge annual family parties with cousins, aunts and uncles from all over. Saturday is my side of the family (hosted by my 92 year old grandmother in a special room at her nursing home). Sunday is Dr. Fabulous's side of the family. It is basically "Our Big Fat Italian Christmas" where nearly 100 of our relatives eat, drink, talk, be merry and get a visit from the real deal Mr. Claus!!

Rella asked politely for her "giant bunny" with an uncharacteristic shyness.

Tink asked for her "Target Gift Card" 'coz baby girl loves to shop!

And Pink, on the cusp of losing the childhood magic as she hears her peers denounce Santa and all his reindeer as child's play, was going to ask for "World Peace and an iPhone." But when I informed her that neither was in the realm of possibility, she respectfully requested some tennis stuff and art supplies. 

Santa doesn't just sit there while a thousand kids plop on his lap for an hour. Oh, no. He stops and does silly things along the way and selects a few people in the crowd to embarrass. Santa has a good sense of humor, you know. At some point mid-way through the gift giving and lap-sitting, Santa made eye contact with me and motioned for me to come on up to the front. There was some big story about reindeers and I knew he was up to something when he started standing behind me...

... then Santa popped a big red nose on me as I became the honorary Rudolf.

Sure, I felt like a giant goof ball (which is pretty much the story of my life), but it made my kids laugh (and my husband laugh AT me while snapping 100 photos). But, the real compliment was this. Santa (knowing nothing of my personal life that involved a week's worth of stomach flu for everyone including me and CB, my recent cancer diagnosis, or that I was emotionally spiraling downward at this party because of CB's difficult behavior) told me why he selected me for this little "show."

"Every time I looked over at you, you were smiling," he said. "There are so many people who don't look like they'd embrace the fun of it, but I could tell you would. I could tell you were having fun."

After the freakin' week I had, it was such a good feeling to know that even to a perfect stranger who knew nothing about me, I seemed like a happy person. Because, despite the little moments here and there, I think I am. I'm glad it shows.

So, we marched on through the pre-holiday craziness with all the parties and last minute shopping and decorating and baking and planning and coordinating. The day before Christmas Eve I finally met with my breast surgeon who went over my pathology report, gave me a run down on my type of cancer and got a game plan together. My tumor is so "well behaved" and I caught it so early, that I am a very vanilla case. (Of course. I'm so dull even my cancer is boring and mannerly!) They believe I'll do really well with a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy followed by 6 weeks of daily radiation and five years of drug treatment (likely Tomoxifen). Of all the stuff one can go through with breast cancer, I got off super, duper easy. I am brimming with gratitude. I am a fortunate one, for sure, and I will never ever forget that. Ever.

The peace of mind of just KNOWING all the info allowed me to go into Christmas with a lighter heart. Christmas Eve we travelled north to celebrate with family.

A blurry photo, yet the only one of the two of us from the entire holiday! Shameful!

Then we drove home and hung our stockings by the chimney with care...

...and wished that CB too could be there.  This year was her year to spend Christmas with her Dad in Maryland.  The years when she is gone for Christmas, I miss her. This year I missed her even more - like a physical pain. I wanted so much to have all my girls near me for this Christmas. No, I NEEDED to have all my girls near me. But, as life goes, you can't always get everything to go exactly the way you want. I learned that nearly 20 years ago. You just gotta roll with it.

Christmas morning was as magical as ever. If only I could bottle up Christmas morning because these moments are dwindling and a small part of me will miss them so much.

I'll skip ahead just for a moment and say that shortly AFTER Christmas (on the Epiphany, no less), Pink had her own epiphany and we had the "come clean about Santa" conversation. She initiated a heart-to-heart and in that bitter sweet moment, we both welled up with tears and hugged for a full minute in silence. She wanted to keep believing. I knew she did. "I want to be positive, Mom," she said after telling me what some kid Billy said about Santa and the Easter Bunny all being fake on the bus. "I choose to be positive, not negative. I want to believe!" she said with a broken-hearted smile.

I wanted her to as well. I probably could have let her. She trusts me. But, I knew it was time. I knew in my vulnerability I might have let her keep going, but she knew and she knew I knew she knew... it was just the right moment. It ripped my heart out but it's part of growing up. Time marches on. I am grateful we had one last Christmas with the magic in full bloom.  I knew it was probably the last, so I tucked it into my heart for keeps.

Later Christmas Day, some of my family came over along with some of Dr. Fabulous's local family and we had a simple dinner and a few more gifts. Everyone brought something and I did very little cooking. Or cleaning. Or hostessing. In fact, what the hell DID I do that night?!?!  I don't know. Counted my blessings and loved my family without worrying about whether someone was judging how I folded the napkins on the table (or that I forgot the napkins completely), or that Tink was still in her bathrobe at 5:00, or that my family room was a mess of gifts and wrapping carnage.

The week of Christmas break was filled literally almost every day with doctor appointments, ultrasounds, mammograms with IV contrast dyes, a second breast biopsy on a second area, MRI with IV contrast dye, and meetings with specialists. I now have met with my entire cancer team (oh yes, I now have a posse!!) which includes the breast surgeon, the general oncologist, the radiation oncologist, and the genetic counselor. I need to have a THIRD needle breast biopsy to check out some other stupid little area in my OTHER boob. Sheesh. We're all sure it's nothing, but everything needs to be checked. Then, I'm done with all these annoying shenanigans and off to surgery on Jan 23rd! I never thought I'd say I couldn't wait to have surgery... but it marks the closing of a few weeks of chaos and I'm eager to put it all behind me and move on to my normally scheduled programming.

Like, enjoying the moments when CB comes home from a week away in Maryland.  The girls helped her open her Christmas gifts that were remaining under the tree.

There is nothing that warms my soul more than watching CB's sisters being so good to her. It makes me so proud of not only the girls they are, but the women they will soon become. CB teaches them compassion, patience and empathy.

CB has also taught me a great many things. Mostly, she taught me to be strong. She made me a tough Mama right out of the gate.  I was green in my unexpected motherhood, and CB challenged me to be strong at a time where I considered myself incapable, nervous, fragile and meek. When her seizures started at 16 weeks of age and the dominos began to fall, I couldn't rely on this old version of myself. I couldn't crack, I couldn't whine, I couldn't cave.  I remember one time when she had to be whisked down the halls and put on a chest tube for a collapsed lung secondary to a prolonged seizure. She was not even 18 months old. I sat in the hallway and felt myself start to unravel. Then and there I made a decision. I refused to let myself come unglued. I mean, I still cry. I still talk to people and lean on them for support. I still allow myself to feel. I'm not saying I turned into an emotionless robot.  I just decided that in the face of real, big girl challenges I had two choices -- crumble or be strong. I chose strong for CB.

I choose strong every day. I choose strong now.  I choose strong because after becoming a mother I realized that if I go down, this whole ship is going down. A mother is the anchor of a family and hellz if I'm gonna let this ship drift aimlessly in the sea.  Because, I GOT this - For them. For me. For us.

We spent New Years Eve celebrating with a bunch of really fun friends with an early party for the whole family followed by a First Night event in their cute town and then fireworks at 9:00 pm.

We were home before 11:00 pm and we all snuggled up on the couch together under blankets and stuffed animals and pillows to watch the ball drop.

I closed 2014 with a full life, a full heart, a wonderful family, the love of my life by my side, the promise of amazing opportunities on the horizon, and a diagnosis of breast cancer.

I go into 2015 with all the same. But, at the end of the year I will add one more thing - SURVIVOR.


Julie said...

Beautiful, as always, Alicia. Love you!

Alison said...

I've been a faithful follower of your blog (and world's worst comment-leaver, ha!) since I began my blog about my self-contained special ed. classroom a few years ago. Fast forward to a move out of state this summer and subsequent leap into SAHM-hood, and I continue to follow your adventures on your blog. You have a fantastic voice, and I love all of your CB stories :)

You write with such honesty and humor, and it is so appreciated. Best wishes to you and your family through the upcoming months.


kario said...

You do pack it in, don't you? ;-).

Thank you for the lovely photos of your celebrations. I'm so glad your break was full of family and magic and I love the story about Santa choosing you because of your smile. I'll be sending you all love and light as you traverse your way through the medical stuff. Good thing you have so many years of advocating for CB - you'll make a terrific patient and advocate for yourself.

Lots of love!

Christine Pitman said...

Your one of the most amazing women I have ever meet!!! You are such a beautiful person inside and out and so strong that I am always by the things you do!! I agree with Santa you are always smiling!! Beautiful!!

Kim said...

Thank you for your honesty and for sharing this part of your life. A big Hell Yes to the last sentence of your post!

Anonymous said...

You are an amazing woman, I've told you this before and I'll tell you this again. You will fight this and will win. I just know it. Pictures of the girls are beautiful especially the ones of CB and her sisters. Absolutely beautiful. God bless. You blogging about your diagnosis and treatment will help others too. Believe me. Just reading about your life with CB and your daughters helps parents like me who are just beginning the journey with autism and parenthood. I only wish you the best in 2015. Look forward to reading more of your heartfelt journey with disabilities, everyday life and now unfortunely cancer.

Elizabeth said...

I've come back to this post many times today and wondered what to say, how to comment, how to best convey my deep feelings of gratitude for you, for your grace and your honesty and your humor. I'm sending all the love I can your way with, I'm certain, many, many other people's, and may that love help to sustain you over the coming months.

shazia minai said...

I felt something was not ok when you did not post a new blog post for almost a month ( I love your writing and kept checking)
wonderful holiday pics,all of you look so happy and full of joy, Rella is growing up to be a seriously gorgeous little lady.
Very sorry to hear about your breast cancer, but happy that its 100% curable, lots of love and prayer for you and your family.
Take very good care of yourself.
Yours sincerely Shazia Minai.

just me said...

Be strong!! But remember that sometimes it's okay to be not quite so strong and to let others be strong for you. Love and Hugs.

shazia minai said...

......and yes, you do come across as a really happy, hearty lady with a huge heart, and thats what makes you so so lovable!

Heather said...

I've been lurking in your blog for a while and have loved reading about you and your family but I've never commented before. First, I'm sorry about your diagnosis. It sucks and there is no two ways about that. I'm so glad you were able to soak up every minute of joy during the holidays.

My Mom was diagnosed with the same type of cancer (Stage 1) last June. She under went the same treatment protocol you listed and she's *fine.* Healthy, happy and looking forward to what the new year brings. It was a scary few months, but she came out of it like a champ and I have no doubt that you will too.

Best of luck!

Alicia D said...

Just wanted to say thank you to everyone who left such sweet, supportive comments!! I really appreciate it :) I am very, very touched by everyone's kindness. LOVE YOU GUYS!!!

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