What's It Really Like to Live Through Breast Cancer?
Over the first 12 weeks of treatment, the tumor shrank significantly. The chemo cost Valerie her hair, her fingernails—many of which cracked, flaked, and finally fell off—her appetite, her concentration, and her period. She had piercing, days-long headaches, and felt a dull, humming throb in every bone. Even her teeth hurt. Her mouth dried out, its delicate tissues erupting in sores. "I'd wake up feeling like I had a mouthful of ashes," she says.
Outgoing as ever, she made a friend in the chemo room—a fellow breast cancer patient named Sheila, who was athletic and dynamic and loaded with personality, and who happened to be reading the same mystery novel as Valerie. As the women chatted they realized they were about the same age, both from New York, each with a husband named Ken. They exchanged e-mails and looked forward to seeing each other every week. The Kens became friends, too.
Valerie conducted business meetings in the chemo room (which she reorganized, arranging its DVDs and bemoaning its window treatments to anyone who'd listen). She mustered the strength to keep traveling for work, speaking to conference attendees about furniture design. ("Fly business class and don't use public transportation," Oratz warned: Body aches and a chemo-compromised immune system demanded more legroom and fewer germs.)
As Valerie approached her final dose of chemo, she and Oratz shifted their focus to the surgical phase of her treatment. Aware of the increased likelihood that she would develop a new cancer in her healthy left breast, and determined to be rid of the remaining marble-sized mass in her right, Valerie opted for a double mastectomy. Oratz supported this decision. As she met with surgeons and braced for the loss of her breasts, Valerie remained stubbornly upbeat. Her family organized a massive conference call, and through the receiver she listened to a lively chorus of relatives pray and joke and tell stories to make her laugh. "Maybe staying positive doesn't help," she told a friend. "But even if it didn't, would you want to die miserable?"
And then, as she was preparing for the surgery, Valerie returned to the radiologist who, six months earlier, had told her he was certain she had cancer. She watched him puzzle over her X-rays, all squints and frowns. He stood, pacing the room before rechecking the scans. "I can't find it," he finally announced. Because it wasn't there to be found. In the weeks since her final dose of chemo, Valerie's once enormous, aggressive tumor—so grave that even a week's wait might have affected her chances of survival—had vanished.