They Never Ask for the Backstory

When I met with the surgeon back in November, we talked in general terms about what I wanted to do about my cancer. My answer was that I wanted a double mastectomy. I didn’t want a breast cell left where breast cancer could come back and grow. She says that’s more than we need to do, and while she’s there, I can have a lift on the other side to make sure that I’m symmetrical. I’m a little confused. I have a tumor the size of a plum in my chest. I want it all gone. I’m okay with going a lot flatter. My breasts do not define who I am. They never have and they won’t start now. However, I have 5 months of chemo to do, so I have time to think about what she’s said.

The Backstory

I learned to ski when I was 4.

I learned to ride a bike at 5.

I learned to throw a ball when I was 8.

I got my own hockey stick for Christmas at 9.

That summer I learned I had no interest in golf.

A year later, at 11, my aunt gave me a tennis racket. I kept it well into my 30s.

Are you seeing a pattern?

I was an active kid with a great dad who didn’t care that he had daughters instead of sons. He taught me how to play pretty much every sport in the American arsenal of the 1970s. I never ever threw a ball like a girl.

I learned to ski at Welch Village in Welch, MN at age 4. I skied for a lot of years on skis with no edges. Frankly, I think it made me a better skier. I remember getting my first glove, bat and bike at the Holiday Station in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. Later, when we moved to Saint Paul’s West Side, my dad put up a basketball hoop on the side of the garage. He flooded the yard for hockey and figure skating in the winter. He taught me to throw and to hit a ball in that yard.

We moved to the ‘burbs when I was 12 and between 5th and 6th grade. We had a park across the street where there were tennis courts in the summer and an ice rink in the winter. We had a decent sized back and side yard. We played a lot of Frisbee and tossed a baseball around from the time we moved in through my junior year in high school when I quit the high school softball team. I got tired of girls who were still afraid of the ball when it got near them and who couldn’t throw, and I got really tired of coaches who continually looked the other way when the girls from the other junior high in our town would threaten to kick my ass for some social injustice or another. It just got old fast. I played intramurals instead. There was less pressure, they were co-ed and there wasn’t any of the relentless teasing of the school teams. In other words, intramurals were still fun.

Instead of after school sports, I’d lug my instrument and homework the mile back home and go get on my bike. I’d ride til dinner. Some nights I’d get back out and ride til dark. I was putting on about 100 miles a week. On weekends, I’d do upwards of 100 miles a day. I loved being out in the country on my bike. I rode past dairy farms, hobby farms with goats and sheep, lakes, ponds and rivers. I did hill training up and down the steep hills of our river valley town on the St. Croix River. Later, I rode my bike from downtown Minneapolis to the University of Minnesota’s West Bank for morning classes after working all night.

My exercise regimen slowed down after I got married at 22. Never a runner, I’d get in an occasional bike ride, but not much more than that. We didn’t have weights or anything at home. Gyms weren’t a thing until about 5 years later. When I joined the St. Paul Police Reserves in 1986, we had permission to use the Department gym. I’d go once in a while with a couple of friends. I’d “train” for the occasional job I’d applied for. It always came down to not being able to do enough sit-ups. I suppose I should have thought back to 3rd grade when I couldn’t do enough then, either. The gym got to be a habit after a while.

In 1991, after I got divorced, my bosses moved me to one of our field offices. A couple of months later, after a huge blizzard, they made me a meter reader. Our family had started skiing on New Year’s a few years before. I went out and we had a good time on the slopes. I went back out that Thursday night by myself. On my last run of the night, I ended up shredding two of the major ligaments in my knee and tearing a tendon. I had surgery. It was about a year before I was back to “normal” again. By this time, local gyms were more of a thing. I joined Bally’s. I ran a mile here and there. I spent time on Stairmasters. I went to aerobics classes and I was lifting weights again.

By the mid-90s, I was in the best shape of my life. I fit into a size 10 for probably the first time since high school, and I looked and felt great. Then I met a guy who lived in Texas. I moved 1,200 miles to be with him. While bending over backwards to make a relationship with his daughter work, he convinced me to stop going to the gym. After 7 years of complete whackiness, our relationship finally ended. I’d gained over 100 pounds in that time and was depressed as hell. It took a couple of months of literally laying on my couch with the blinds closed and a blanket over my head to come to my senses. I started walking to the mailbox. As the exercise started doing its magic to make me feel better, I started walking further. I started riding my bike and going to the gym again. I loved the elliptical machines. Then I saw one of my coworkers teaching Pilates classes. I got myself into her classes and saw and felt amazing results. About a year later, I’d lost over 70 pounds. I wasn’t where I wanted to be but was well on my way. The interesting thing, though, was not dropping cup size in my bra after losing all that weight.

In 2005, I rode my first MS-150 from Houston to Austin. For those not familiar, it’s 180 miles over 2 days. At the finish in Austin, you have to ride up and down some pretty steep hills. They reminded me of my days back home in Stillwater. I trained to ride it again the next year. I got 50 miles in and was sidelined with a pain in my left calf that wouldn’t go away. It took the better part of 2 years to figure out that my hip flexors were too tight. I still thank the physical therapist who knew what it was and how to treat it.

In September of 2009, I left Texas and moved to Washington State. There were no Bally’s in Eastern Washington. At the time, there really wasn’t much of anything. A year later, they built a new Gold’s Gym in Kennewick, and I signed a contract. I was able to work with a trainer for a while to try some new machines and new things. I dusted off my trusty bike again and started riding through the farmlands and along the banks of the Columbia River. I was in decent shape again. Still not where I wanted to be but I was working at it. I was also working on why I kept attracting guys that weren’t good for me.

I wasn’t looking for a relationship, but one found me anyway. When my new squeeze got transferred back to Redmond, we’d alternate weekends for visits. When I was in Seattle, I’d hit the Gold’s in Kirkland while he was at work and then we’d find somewhere to hike over the weekend. My weight was holding steady. I’d wanted to lose a few more inches and was working at it as I went.  When I moved to Redmond 2 years later, I kept up my Gold’s membership and signed up with new trainers. They were kicking my ass. I loved and hated it at the same time. My knees weren’t happy, and that made exercising difficult. I did it anyway, but it sucked.

After that relationship ended, I was determined not to be sucked into another, and not trusting myself to hold a firm boundary with anyone who tried, I made the conscious decision to stop exercising and let myself gain weight again. I knew from previous experience that no one would ask me out when I was fat. Yes, I know this is nuts, but it worked. After a couple of years, I was back over 60 pounds heavier than before. Not quite back to my 2003 weight but not far from it, either. I went back to work on my inner life and why I keep attracting guys I shouldn’t be dating.

Fast forward 5 years. I’m finally feeling better about who I am. I’m traveling. I’m getting in a swim in a hotel pool when I can. I am getting in long walks through airports. I’m not losing weight, but I’m not gaining any, either. For now, this is okay. I’m not ready to start dating again yet. it’s fall and I’m starting to think about which gym to join that will give me access to clubs nationwide, though. My lead and I are also thinking what my commitment is to the project where I’m currently assigned. Will I be rolling off at the end of the calendar year, or will I stick it out into the spring to round out some go live commitments? What will I be doing next? Well, fate, karma or whatever you want to call it stepped in.

Cancer. Cancer’s what I’d be doing next. It didn’t wait til the end of the calendar year. It didn’t care that I hadn’t joined a gym yet. It made sure that I was too tired to do anything on those weekends that I was home between trips. In fact, cancer prefers me to be overweight and tired.

Back to the Present

I started feeling the tumor shrinking in February. The chemo was working. More likely, the Perjeta and Herceptin were working. When I got to the middle of April, I thought it had shrunk down to the size of a raspberry. The scans showed it to be more like a walnut. I met with the surgeon and one of her residents again at the end of April. I want her to take the plum plus some out of my right breast to ensure that there would be no more cancer cells left. I am emphatic with them that I want to wake up with a much smaller cup size than I currently have. Instead of a “D,” I want to wake up a “B.” I re-emphasize this the morning of the surgery.

When I wake up from surgery for real about 8 hours later, I’m visited by nurses and residents who need to check my incisions and make sure that my swelling and pain are under control. My breasts certainly look different from when I saw them at 8:30 that morning. The surgeon tells my sister over the phone that she thinks I’ll like them. When she comes in at 6:30 the next morning, I tell her they look good. I am being honest. They look good for what they’ve been through. I can’t tell what size they are. They are swollen from the surgery. I am pretty sure, though, that they are bigger than I’d hoped.

I know my surgeon had some limitations in what she could do. She’s an onco-plastic surgeon. Her job is to remove the tumor and make me look like a “normal” woman again. I know when the swelling goes down they’ll be smaller. I don’t think they’re going to make it down to the size I want to be, and that makes me wish she’d have told me that she couldn’t go that far, or what would happen if she went that far, or that she would have to refer me to a colleague to get what I wanted. Don’t get me wrong. I love my surgeon. She’s really good at what she does. I just really wish she’d have dug deeper and asked me for the backstory that says I’m not her typical patient. Because I’m not.

About Pink Ribbon Road

This blog is about receiving and living with a breast cancer diagnosis.
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