Written by
Janet McLain
December 8, 2020 3:58 PM

Establishing Base Camp: The Diagnosis

The biggest frustrations I witness in the newly diagnosed cancer patient come from the excruciating wait, the petrifying fear, and the uncertain path that has newly consumed their existence. In the beginning, the diagnosis is never clear. The road is not straight. The curves come out of nowhere. I often use the analogy that we are racing down the highway of life at 100 miles per hour and we encounter the mother of all speed bumps, the diagnosis. We fly fifty feet into the air, our car hurls to the ground and crashes on the other side of this speed bump with wheels busting, bumpers flying into the air and twisted metal scraping the concrete in a deafening roar. Then, silence.. There are pieces everywhere. As you sit on the ground observing the carnage, your emotions are scattered. Every crash is different. Some are fender benders...some have total loss. Either way, the situation is real...frightening...unknown…surreal. 

For those of you just joining my blog, I was a 41 year old with two boys aged 5 and 11 and a darling husband when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Shock had set in and I was not sure which end was up. Sobbing the entire drive home from the Women’s Health Center, I wondered how to tell my family and loved ones about my crash as I had so little information. All I knew was that my car seemed totalled. I did not know what it was going to take to rebuild. As I left the radiologist office, I did not realize that the next few weeks were going to be the most daunting weeks of the journey. I don’t know about you, but I am great with black and white situations. You tell me to turn left, I will turn left. Tell me to turn right, I will turn right. Tell me the path is unknown...well…to tell you the truth, I am dangerously ill-equipped to handle an unknown situation calmly...especially when it comes to my life. I soon found out that the beginning of your diagnosis is definitely not going to be black and white. You wait from one appointment to the next to define what is to be your journey.

What no one tells you is that the information you gain from the initial diagnosis of cancer will most likely change at some point. Sometimes dramatically...sometimes inconsequentially. The initial pathology from the invader in my right breast came back so incredibly promising. It looked to be fairly small, it looked to be estrogen positive with an underexpressed, or negative, Her-2-Nu. My favorite (only) brother is a radiologist. He was thrilled with the results. “Janet, if you could pick from the cancer tree, this would be the one. Garden variety. This is great news!” For the first time in days, I felt free. I could do this. Garden variety...if I were to pick from the cancer tree, this was the one! Yay me! Boy, this may be as simple as a lumpectomy. Maybe I won’t have chemotherapy, maybe I won’t lose my hair, maybe only radiation. The story I would tell my children and family was not too bad, right?! The joy of this moment lasted about a week. That was until I went to see my oncologist.

The first time I walked into my oncologist’s office I was petrified. I had yet to find the black and white of the situation, I was stuck in a quagmire of gray. As my husband and I got off the elevator, I was shaking. I opened the door of the office and thought I must have it wrong...was this the geriatric floor? No one in this room was under the age of 70. I mean NO ONE! In times of trouble, I’m that girl that gets the church giggles. The harder I try to be serious, the sillier I get and it normally happens in the most inappropriate places. Wedding, funerals, oncologist’s offices. There on the front row sat the happiest albeit funniest looking woman I had seen in a long time. Her entire being was vibrant, but especially the bright orange beanie she wore in place of her hair. This was not any ordinary beanie. This beanie was spectacular with the long pieces of yarn that had been cut to splay over the top of her head. Hairlike! To literally top if off, she was wearing it slightly off center. She had lost her eyebrows and her eyelashes, but had colorfully and artfully drawn everything back on with a burst of color. Wow, you can imagine how the giggles emerged. Tears streaming down my face with shoulders shaking, I checked in with the receptionist. She was looking at me like I was as crazy as a loon. In hindsight, it was just the release I needed albeit not appropriate! Laughter is and always will be the best medicine.

Dr. Tough-But-Wonderful (her name has been changed to protect her identity) happens to be one of my favorite humans in the whole world. She is one of the most intelligent, passionate and loyal women in the world. Her delivery of a message, on the other hand, is blunt. I was called back to the examining room to meet with her. She launched straight into the diagnosis with confidence and began laying out the treatment options. The only problem was that the diagnosis was not what I was expecting. Remember, I had the garden variety “you are not going to lose your hair” kind of cancer. Cue the music from the JAWS soundtrack...duunnn dunnn... duuuunnnn duun... duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn dunnnn...she was saying words like triple negative, aggressive, bilateral mastectomies, chemotherapy, radiation. For those of you who have not studied breast cancer-ology, this is not exactly the diagnosis you want to hear. This was not from the pretty garden...it was from the weed patch! A big fat hairy dandelion. I had just wrapped my brain around the original pretty flower variety and I am faced with this ugly looking weed diagnosis. Dr. T-B-W asked specifically, “What are your expectations?” Expectations? Like… “How long do you want to live?” Are you f***ing kidding me. Survival kicks in. “Well, my expectation is to live until the age of 96; so, you better get busy sister!” She calmly replies that if I expect to live until 96; then, I need to do everything she asks of me. Touché. 

This substation was about diagnosis. I just received mine, but it changed dramatically from the first news. It took a long time coming, but the walkway of gray was now defined. Now, I needed to acclimate. Remember...we can only deal with the substation that we are in. Once you receive the final diagnosis, it is easier to identify what you are to plan for next. It can take some time to accept what is before you. Be kind to yourself, but don’t get stuck. You can do this! The thought of chemotherapy and surgery scares all of us. For most, the next substation will be defining and adjusting to treatment. I look forward to teaching you about the different treatments and ways to naturally eliminate side effects, but for now take care of yourself!

On a sidebar, I happened to run into my favorite clown-like creature a few times at the chemo lounge. She not only had an orange beanie - she had them in white, black, yellow, and red, BUT orange was her favorite. Her lipstick changed as frequently as her “hair” color. Her spirit was always delightfully positive. She exuded happiness in the gloomiest of all places! No surprise that her name was Gloria. One day, she told me she remembered the first time she saw me. She marveled at the girl that was too young to be there and at how much I could laugh in a situation as dire. Of course, I embarrassingly belly laughed, snorted, and told her how beautiful her colored hats were. “They are not hats, dear! This is my happy hair and I would love to make you one. What is your favorite color?” Thank you glorious Gloria and the locks of many colors for teaching me that laughter and positivity really do change the world. I still remember MY purple beanie with the wild strands of “hair” and smile. 

Because I have been there,

Janet McLain