My name is Rebecca Lippiatt and I was 47 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. With no family history of cancer, the diagnosis was out of the blue. The only symptom was a slight dent I noticed in my breast which was only visible when I washed my feet. I was in denial throughout the mammogram (it's just a shadow), the ultrasound (it's just a fat lump) and the biopsy (the doctor was so nice and kept calling the tumours “this little guy”). I named the tumours Bertie, Baber and Bathsheba. Bathsheba was in fact a fat lump. Bertie and Baber were like the bad children you have no choice but to love. They have passed on now. I live in Edmonton, Alberta with my husband, my two boys and one of my girls (who all have much nicer names than the tumours).
Me: “I need to talk to you, but I think you should sit down.”
My boys: “Is Dad dead?”
Me: “God no! Do you think I would have left you in school all day if Dad was dead? I have breast cancer.”
My boys: “Oh, OK. That’s fine then.”
Cancer does not terrify them. Their stepmother had cancer before she was their stepmother. She just has to go to the doctor a little more than is usual, but she’s fine, in their eyes. Cancer is survivable.
Beatable. A pain in the ass, but not a wasting-away death sentence.
The days the follow my diagnosis are a whirlwind of what-ifs, floating in the air, tangling in my hair (Will I still have hair?), punching me in the chest – I clutch at my heart, my breasts – will I still have breasts?
I call my best friend. “Can I bury my breast next to your uterus?” Her uterus, so lush with life that her body could not contain it, is buried on the riverbank, an offering to the earth. I suspect her Cree ancestors would take my breast as an oblation in exchange for living on this land.
I text my best friend’s husband with my biopsy results. He says I really need to work on my sexting. (I also send multiple pictures of the aftermath as well as offering them up to my single girlfriends who get breast-selfie requests on dating sites.)
My GP tells me I may need a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, a double mastectomy. She’s not sure. I swear at her. She says she prefers I swear at her than the surgeon. I promise not to swear at the surgeon. (Turns out, it’s a lumpectomy. But two lumps, so "significant disfigurement" might be likely. Lying on the operating table, I tell my surgeon “make it look like a shark bite. I want a cool story to tell.”)
I had a plan for the zombie apocalypse. Not even joking. Canadian Tire. Food. Supplies. Pawn shop for anything we can’t get at Canadian Tire. Three options for getting out of Dodge, depending how bad it is.
But no plan for cancer. No one in my family has had cancer since 1977, and even then, it was Great Uncle Frank, who smoked.
My husband tries to reassure me. “It will all be fine. Everything will turn out. You’ll see.” I scream at him not to placate me. “You don’t know it will all be fine I could DIE! I could leave all of you. You don’t know.” (Just to be clear, I had stage 1 breast cancer, with no lymph node involvement. My chances of surviving are 99.5 percent. But that 0.5 percent scares the crap out of me). We slowly learn together that I do much better with words of realism than with hope. Lying on the hospital bed after surgery, tears leaking from the corners of my eyes, he tells me to “walk it off." I laugh hysterically, and the pain diminishes.
That backfires on him when I get a seroma. It feels like a baseball shoved into my armpit. He asks if I know how big a baseball is. I scream at him again. He apologises when they pull 60cc of fluid out of my armpit for the second time.
The wound across my heart gets infected. Returning to the hospital for debridement (debridement sounds like some kind of instant divorce), the residents and the med students ask me why I am there -- why I think I have an infection. They waver between not quite believing me and shyly asking if they can see the gaping wound on my breast. I comply, because if I were them, I would think it was the coolest thing too. I get my nurse to help me take a selfie. I can’t look at it now, but I will want to later.
Out of surgery for the second time, my husband again tells me to walk it off. It’s funny if I am high on drugs or not. (He says I should probably stop telling people I am high. But I am so high, I don’t care.)
The surgery on top of the surgery causes so much pain. I get two needles in my stomach, two pain pills and anesthesia. By the time I am stable and ready to go home, I am flying. Its lucky we don’t have a convertible, because I would have my hands in the air like Thelma waving at the truckers. As we cross the bridge, I have a moment of pure clarity and joy and I declare, “I love the river so much.". While I am stating that I love the river, what I am really saying is I love life.
I have not reached the place where I can wrap up this story into a neat package. I still have more treatment. More pain. But I will face it wearing a t-shirt I made: Free Radicals: Unite!