Cancer: A life interrupted…?
There are moments in a person’s life that are forever imprinted in memory. I have a vivid recollection of sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table doing homework after grade school with my same-age cousin Michael, munching on her homemade chocolate chip cookies between hurried scribbles on my papers because the faster we finished our homework, the faster we could get outside to play, of course-that was the rule! Taking gulps of sweetened iced tea, (the powder-and-water-kind, in our case, mostly powder, very little water) swinging my feet under the table, kicking Michael across from me until one of us would be put in time-out (this happened fairly regularly). Not monumental, but I’ll always remember it.
Or ripping off the cast I had on my arm for a broken thumb at age 5 because “I had an itch!”, and seeing the look of horror on my mother’s face as she scooped me up, put me in my car seat, and rushed me back to the hospital, where the doctor replaced my cast, and told me I needed to wear the cast an additional 3 weeks, and suggested my mother find me an “itching tool”. A sea of black robes and yellow tassels on my college graduation day and the electric buzzing of chatter as we all lined up in the basement of the Blue Cross Arena in preparation to walk the stage. Scurrying to the mailbox (or obsessively checking my email) every day for weeks in early spring until the large envelopes from the graduate schools I applied to arrived, the nauseating excitement in my stomach as I tore through the envelope and read through the first three lines: “Dear Amy, We are pleased to inform you of your acceptance to the Masters in Vocal Performance Program for the Fall semester of 2016. We are also pleased to inform you that based on your audition score, you have qualified for a scholarship…..” and the frantic jumping and screaming and hugging and crying that ensued between my mother and I after read the letter aloud. I will always remember this.
I will also always remember April 8th, 2016 as one of the most excruciating days of my life.
Prior to this date, I was, to my knowledge, an active 26 year old in overall good health (being diagnosed with cancer has given me the opportunity to assess how I’ve always personally defined health, however…). I had been applying to graduate schools for opera and classical voice performance in the fall of 2015, received invitations to live auditions after vigorous pre-screening recorded auditions, and began the live audition process in January of 2016.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the life of a classical musician, I will summarize it briefly: It is hard. It is stressful. It is competitive. As a Soprano, the most common voice type for a female, it is especially competitive. There are often hundreds of applicants for programs of 6 or less spots. Not only is there pressure to be at the top of your game vocally, but there is also substantial emphasis on physical appearance, unfortunately. Sadly, it is not all about the voice, as I do believe it should be. Yes, it is about the voice, but it’s about the voice in combination with other things like stage presence, personality, and physicality-whether someone looks the part, regardless of how well he or she may sing it. There is this strange misconception in our modern world that opera singers are often very overweight (i.e, the use of the phrase “when the fat lady sings” evokes an image of a rotund woman with blonde braids and a viking helmet dramatically warbling at the top of her lungs). Let me just clear this up right now. This is not the case. Here are a couple of examples of the modern opera singer (no viking ladies here, as you can see) from left to right: Anna Netrebko, Natalie Dessay, Pretty Yende, Denise Graves, Maria Calls, and Maria Callas again, because Callas is Callas (and just look at them brows, girrrrrl)
There are some opera singers who have a larger stature, and there are some physiological links between larger statures and larger voice types. Opera is an evolutionary art form, however. There are different styles and periods within opera. Generally speaking, those larger voice types (with sometimes larger built singers) are found in Wagnerian opera-Wagner composed for extremely large orchestras, and very dense harmonic sonorities, so it required a particular vocal richness, color, and power to be heard above all of the instrumental activity. (And to be clear: I’m not saying big ain’t beautiful-it is. So is small. So is asymmetrical. So is scarred. Our western world is a particularly troubling brand of ass backwards in terms of priorities and conceptions, and I frustrate the shit out of myself when I find that I’m buying into the very social constructs that I detest, for example, spending hours in front of the mirror painting my face attempting to cover up every scar, every blemish, in the hopes that I may prove my worth to the world… like what?… Why is there such a push to be validated by someone or something outside of ourselves? Again, another post for another time…) Ultimately, the point of my rant here is to highlight untruths about opera- I’m not sure why this “singing fat lady” image has come to define pop-culture’s conception of opera, but, I digress… In any case, there is a ton of pressure to look a certain way. And obviously, based on the images I provided, that certain way is “beautiful”. Young, ingenue, leading-lady opera roles are typically slender, very feminine, and classically attractive. So as you can imagine, the opera world is filled with tons of vanity, and ego (which I have learned to equate with fear… but that’s a post for another time). In other words: high stress. Especially to a highly sensitive empath like me.
So, it came as no surprise that during this audition process of arduous travel through the winter that I was feeling slightly under the weather. It also was not surprising to me that at this time, I had some swelling under my right armpit. This happened from time to time, with stress, with illness, with infection. And at that time, I could check off all of those things. Stress, check. Under the weather, check. I was on antibiotics for a stupid skin infection, so, check. To be safe, however, I went to Urgent Care in mid January to have it looked at (Yes, Urgent Care, and not my Primary Care Physician because at 26 I had just aged out of my pediatrician. Stop laughing at me). They told me that given my age, and the fact that I am not overweight, and that I do not have family history of breast cancer, this was most likely nothing to worry about. They sent me on my way, but told me to keep an eye on it, and if it didn’t go away in a few weeks, or if it got bigger, I should get some imaging done. So this lymph node swelling really did not concern me at first. I went about my business, continued to travel from city to city for auditions, and essentially forgot about it until March, after I had received acceptance letters to 3 out of the 5 graduate programs I applied to including Peabody Institute, part of Johns Hopkins University(WAHOO!). I realized one day that the lump in my lymph node was still there, and also noticed that my breast possibly felt a little harder than normal, but admittedly I wasn’t sure because 1) I am inclined to paranoia and, 2) I had not paid that much attention to my breasts because they were not that fascinating to me, and, 3) at 26, who is thinking about lumps and bumps being anything serious? I agonized over whether or not to make an appointment for weeks, and after persistent nagging from my mother, I ended up making an appointment with Rochester General Breast Center where I was certain I would receive a clean bill of health before starting my new life in Chicago at the Chicago College of Performing Arts through Roosevelt University.
I went to the appointment, not nervous at all. The doctor performed an exam, and as her cold hands were palpating my breasts, I asked her, sort of jokingly, “Do you think it’s cancer?” to which she replied, “No, I don’t. You’re at the right age for developing fibroadenomas, but the lymph node is a little suspicious, so I’m going to order an ultrasound. And if they offer to do a biopsy in that appointment, I suggest you have them do it”. Okay, fibro-ada-whaddas?? Well, not quite the answer I wanted to hear, but I still believed that my lymph node was just a result of stress and the under-the-weather-ness from all the travel for auditions. This was April 6th. My ultrasound was scheduled for April 8th, which was a Friday.
I was a little nervous, so I asked my mother to come with me. And thank God I did. Initially, I had my mom stay out in the waiting room. I got undressed and put my robe on backwards (rookie mistake, I’m a pro at that shit now). The tech came in and kindly asked me to turn it around with the opening in the front so that they could easily access my breasts and armpit, and now that I think about it, I’m sure she probably said that in the beginning, based on the fact that every appointment since the diagnosis, they still tell me how to adorn the beautiful pale blue spotted gown, but I think I was probably just in a hurry to get on with my day, and it most likely took a fast trip between my ears…
The tech, a young girl who looked to be about my age, was very sweet. She told me to just try to relax, and breathe through the moment. I believed her sweetness to be sincere, but as she began the ultrasound, her eyes seemed to get bigger, and it almost registered to me as either surprise, or fear, neither of which seemed good in my present situation. I scanned the faces of the doctors (both male, go figure), but I couldn’t read their expressions at all. Which also concerned me. They were speaking in hushed tones about the features of my ultrasound, which frankly pissed me off. And furthermore, no one was answering my “Do you think it’s cancer” question in a way that was satisfactory to me. “We are not able to say anything at this point, but we are recommending that you get a biopsy. We should probably biopsy the breast first, and then the lymph node. We just have some paperwork for you to fill out giving your consent to perform the biopsies today. We will be back in a few minutes”. The tech came back in the room with the paperwork, and asked me if I needed some water. At this point, she was no longer sweet, and I was calling her a tight lipped rotten bitch in my head, because I was convinced that she knew EVERYTHING and just wasn’t telling me. Needless to say, I was reeling. Thank God I had my phone in my hand. I texted my mom:
ME:Mom somethings wrong I can tell, they’re making me f******* scared, they want to do a biopsy I think something’s wrong can you come back here?
MOM: I will be right there.
That text exchange basically encapsulates the relationship I have with my mother. Yes, there’s some codependence, yes there’s some conflict, yes we bicker like an old couple. But the bottom line is that she is absolutely hands down the most loyal person in my whole world. From the time I was small, she always said “I’d fight wild tigers for you”. And I believe it. (My mother’s a wimp. She doesn’t do blood or guts, or scary movies, or violent tv shows. So for her to say that she would go face to face with a wild carnivorous beast and for me to actually believe it is saying something).
In about 18 seconds, my mom was in the room with me, holding my hand, telling me to breathe, to think of Riley, my 3 year old black lab-daughter. The doctors came back in, and spoke briefly to my mother about the biopsy procedure, while my head was conjuring up a decent sized cyclone of worst-case-scenario-panic. They numbed my breast, stabbed me, and placed a surgical clip inside the lump in my breast because “either way, it will need to come out”. I will never forget the way this resident doctor struggled to insert the clip, I could literally see the beads of sweat rolling down his forehead as he raised his free arm to wipe his brow before catching the droplets in his eye (yes, please do, Dr. McSweaty. I would like you to be able to see what you’re doing while you’re inserting titanium and needles into my body). After that was all over, they decided given my emotional state to leave the lymph node for another time. They bandaged me up, disappeared momentarily, and then came back in to summarize.
“So, we are concerned. You have about a 1.6 cm lump in your breast and your lymph node is enlarged. You’ve felt it, we’ve felt it. At this point, we do not know if it’s cancer. The lab will run tests and we will hopefully have a definitive answer for you by Tuesday at the earliest, Wednesday at the latest. But even if it’s not cancer, the road won’t end here for you. You will likely need this removed”
Well aren’t you just the beacon of light and hope and good tidings Dr. So and So. This guy was really on my shitlist. I wanted to kick him in the groin with one of my thinnest stilettos. And after that, kick Dr. McSweaty for dripping his rookie doctor anxiety all over me (Who am I kidding, I hate stilettos, I’m a wedge girl..). Over the last 2 months, I’ve definitely lowered my expectations for the medical field in terms of warmth and bedside manner. But at the time, I was not yet desensitized, and had the hopes that every doctor I interacted with would treat me like a daughter… not necessarily their daughter, but someone’s daughter… a person with a life, a story, a dream…. I’ve had to let that go. Harsh lesson to learn, but I learned it relatively quickly.
Oh. To add to the fun, this all took place on a Friday. So I had the weekend until potentially WEDNESDAY to sit with the anxiety and sheer terror over what was to come. Its as if part of me knew it was cancer. I was devastated, but also, surprisingly proactive given my state of desperation. I researched food and nutrition for cancer to learn how to best support my immune system, in the event of the worst case scenario. I began juicing vegetables and small amounts of fruit, cut out all animal products (which I wasn’t really eating much of anyway), cut out all grain (aside from quinoa!), and researched supplements. I also did a lot of anxious google searching of symptoms and treatment for cancer, which just made me more anxious… so anxious that my mom had to take my phone away. Dr. Google is a horrible horrible rude jerkface asshole. I learned this lesson pretty quickly, though I am still tempted to consult with him from time to time…
On Monday, to my surprise, I got the phonecall. As you can guess, my worst case scenario suddenly became my reality.
“Hi, Amy. The lab results came back. I’m so sorry to tell you this, but it’s cancer…”
If I was not already sitting down, I’m certain my knees would have given out. I began to cry the ugliest loudest cry of my whole life (I’m talking shrieking, snotting, boogering, mascara errrywhere-ing), and I immediately handed the phone off to my mother and darted to bathroom where I dry heaved (empty stomach) until I felt numb.
So, I have stage II grade 2/3 Breast Cancer. Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Basically, this means that it began in the milk duct of the breast. It is ER/PR+, HER2-. This means my cancer is hormone responsive(estrogen and progesterone are necessary in order for it to live), and does not have receptors for the Human Epidermal Growth Factor. Invasive Ductal Carcinoma is the most common type of breast cancer-80% of all breast cancers are this type. Because of this fact, the medical field has more of an understanding of it than some less common breast cancers. I never thought I’d be thankful that my cancer was widely understood…. mostly because I never thought I’d have cancer. And not in actual registered committed thought like, “I will never have cancer”… it just never occupied any space in my mind. Until now…
One of the biggest things I’m beginning to take away from all of this is that in any situation, there is room for gratitude. Prior to my diagnosis, gratitude was something I struggled with. I have always been a bit of an Eeyore type, prone to melancholy (and tantrums. So like, Eeyore mixed with Angelica from the Rugrats). Now, gratitude is the very thing that keeps me going. Gratitude for the incredible people I’m meeting along this nightmarish journey. Gratitude for phone calls from my doctor telling me my bone-scans and CT scans are clean, that my genetic testing came back unanimously negative, so I don’t need to worry about removing my ovaries or getting a hysterectomy as a preventative measure. Gratitude for the way a cancer diagnosis is able to illuminate the truth around relationships-you learn who is able to show up and be with you in your darkest hour, and who never was able to truly be present. And if there’s one thing I need right now, it’s true, wholehearted, sincere presence. I am thankful for the people in my world who have truly stepped up to the plate to support me emotionally (and eventually, physically, after surgery next week). And I am also thankful to those who are unable to support me at this time, because they have helped me to do something I’ve struggled with for a long time: Ask for what I need, and if I cannot get what I need from them, find it elsewhere (as opposed to trying to shut off that need… newsflash, that doesn’t work).
Since the diagnosis, a lot has changed in my world. Actually, practically everything. For one, my diet. I am no longer concerned with calories for the vain purpose of shedding pounds. Everything I put into my body has a nutritional value and purpose. My future plans have also changed. I am not able to begin school in August as I was supposed to, but fortunately, Roosevelt is allowing me to defer my enrollment and keeping all of my scholarships. I am beyond thankful for this. When I applied for a decision extension to the 3 schools after my grandmother had passed, and before I knew it was cancer, some of the programs were not as compassionate, to say the least (I will not name names). Roosevelt made the decision extremely easy for me. They treated my situation like there was a person attached, not like a routine business transaction (ahem…). So this next year will be completely different from the way I had envisioned it. For one, I won’t be in Chicago learning more about what I love. I will be at home in Rochester, New York, going through surgery and recovery from this rat-bastard-asshole disease. But, in a funny way, there is a part of me that seems to be emerging calmly from all of this. If you ask my friends or my mother, there is no calmness in sight…. But I do feel an internal shift occurring very steadily. It’s like a bubbling in the pit of my stomach… an excitement founded in truth… you know how truth has a way of sort of settling into your body, landing in your bones… that kind of visceral stirring (No, not gas). Its as if there is a part of me (a wiser, more grounded, less anxious part) that knows that this is all a part of my journey. I know somehow that I will emerge from this experience with twice the strength I have now, with an ability to trust in my intuition like never before. I believe this detour will force me to assess what’s truly important to me (in fact, it already has), and enable me to create the world I’ve desired for myself for so long that has always felt somewhat out of reach for one reason or another.. But that’s another post for another time…
This piece a recording I made for the pre-screening rounds of grad school auditions. Its called Fleurs, from Fiançailles Pour Rire, poetry by Louise Vilmorin, music by Francis Poulenc. Just a brief clip of me singing one of my favorite pieces to conclude my first post..
EFF YOU, CANCER.
But thank you for the opportunity to learn how to love and care for myself.
Namaste. (This is foreshadowing future posts about the transformational power of yoga).