What's It Really Like to Live Through Breast Cancer?
As a doctor, I'd seen women who died either of the cancer or the treatment. I knew what could happen. So I told Dr. Oratz, "I want the most aggressive treatment possible." I suggested we use a chemo drug less likely to cause hair loss—I remember being so upset that I would lose my hair, that I was going to be a new bride with no hair. I told her, "I've made up my mind. I want this medication." Well. She told me in no uncertain terms that she was in charge, not me.
After I called my parents, they were on a plane from Oklahoma City within 24 hours. Earl arrived from Virginia that night. I don't know what he told his bosses. I just know he was there. When my parents showed up, he made it clear that while I was their daughter, I was his wife, and he wasn't going to pull back and let them handle my care. For him to step in like that—it was like, I'm here, I can handle this. He was masterful at making sure I didn't have to worry about him.
I was supposed to have a lumpectomy, chemo, and radiation. But after my lumpectomy, the margins weren't clear—there were cancer cells in the surrounding tissues. Dr. Oratz recommended a mastectomy, and I was devastated, but I agreed to go forward. On the day of the operation, I was at NYU's hospital, and I remember thinking, I'm a new bride, losing my breasts. It was a moment of terror, and I worked myself into a panic. I called Dr. Oratz and said, "I can't do this." She came immediately to the hospital. And in the same way that she had told me no to that chemo drug, she told me no to this. She was kind and professional, but clear. She told me the best option, and the only option, was a mastectomy.
My parents stayed to see me through the surgery, and Earl stayed through treatment. My husband showed me his unconditional love. Few people see what their spouse is made of up front, but I saw my husband's strength right away. We learned that it might not be possible for me to conceive a child; even if I could, at that time doctors thought it might cause a recurrence. It was a decision we would have wanted to make on our own, obviously, but Earl took it in stride. He told me, "I just want to do whatever it takes to get you back." As unpleasant things happened to my body—I lost my eyelashes, I was nauseous—he never seemed fazed.
I spent entire days just lying in bed, crying. My aunt would come and cook dinner for everyone while they were staying at my place, and I was too withdrawn and sad to participate. I'd been feeling like everything in my life was going so well. I was happy at my job, I had a wonderful new husband, I was finally making a dime. And then suddenly I was writing my wedding thank-you notes as my hair fell out. But Earl showed me that he took his vow seriously—for better or worse—and that made me realize there was someone who needed me. That's what got me through.