In 2013, my very first mammogram found DCIS in my right breast-- Ductal Carcinoma in Situ. Not even real cancer, DCIS is considered a vague precancerous condition, and often never turns into cancer at all. I'm the sort of person who labored in childbirth for 66 hours trying to have a vaginal birth after a previous C-section, so I was very resistant to the idea that I would cut off a perfectly good boob-- and, it must be said, a really beautiful boob-- to prevent something that might never happen at all. So I had one lumpectomy after another, each time failing the goal of "clear margins." Finally I capitulated, just as I had after the 66 hours, and had a mastectomy, with the most "natural" reconstruction process possible. They used some tissue from my abdomen to create a breast-like mound, but the graft didn't take, and I ended up with a bag of rocks where my lovely boob used to be.
In dissecting the breast tissue, the doctors found that a tiny portion of the DCIS had in fact turned to Stage 1 invasive cancer. So tiny, in fact, that once they tried to reexamine the cells, they disappeared. So tiny that according to the standards of measuring such things, it didn't have to be counted. My risk for recurrence was very low, and they offered me Tamoxifen, an estrogen-suppressing drug, to make it even lower.
Tamoxifen turned me into a Gorgon. Ask my kids; ask my husband; ask my friends. I hated my life and I hated most of the people in it. I told my doctor that I might not survive the ten-year recommended course, and she assured me that quality of life, not merely quantity, was important. Now, I would cut off all my limbs or tear out my eyes or peel off my skin to have ten years of any life. With my doctor's consent, I stopped taking it, and returned to my usual beatific, not-cynical-at-all state.
Maybe if I had stayed on Tamoxifen the all-but-non-existent cells would have been starved; maybe not; maybe they had already taken root in my spine. Who knows. All I can say is that the feeling that I could have stopped this is almost as bad as the knowledge that I won't be there for my kids as they grow up or my husband as he gets old.
I didn't believe for a minute that the cancer would come back, or that if it did, it would metastasize. It was such a small chance. I've never been afraid of things. Once I had my first child, any fear of death I’d ever felt disappeared like my Stage 1 cells; my body knew that it had done its job, and even now I’m not afraid of dying. I don't get embarrassed and I say what I mean and I don't worry. I'm not anxious. And very possibly I am unbelievably stupid, and will die for my stupidity.
I know you’ll want to write and say it isn’t so. I spend a lot of time on Stage IV chat boards reading about how this isn’t a punishment, that nothing we did or didn’t do brought this upon ourselves, that we don’t deserve it. But that’s not how it feels. It feels as though I danced out onto an ice-covered lake, and when the ice started to crack, I laughed out loud and danced further out. And now I’m drowning, which would be all right with me if I weren’t also grasping onto my family and pulling them under too.