Checkers

My life has fallen into Friday markers.

Three Fridays ago, I went in for a biopsy. Two Fridays ago, I was in Cambria where I received a breast cancer phone diagnosis. Last Friday was the full frontal assault at Moores with the surgical oncologist. As of Friday today, I have traveled a lifetime on the human informational absorption rate timeline.

Last Friday, I felt as if my life was now a scattered box of checkers all over the floor. I was suddenly left with no prediction, no control, no organization. All I could do was pick up the scattered checkers and throw them to a jumble in the box.

But somehow, to get through the week to today’s Friday, I had to do something with the checkers. To survive in chaos is not a choice for me, a Type A totally organized specimen. So, following Jody’s serendipitous intervention on Sunday, I picked up a checker. And I realized I had to start moving it forward.

A pre-op day of tests on Monday found me crying with nurses at Moores. But then I came home and started searching online for some early head coverings and I ordered four. I began reading a breast cancer book that my doctor recommended. I made my first checker diagonal push to a forward square.

On Tuesday I had lunch with my dear friend Amy whose husband has both Parkinson’s and cancer. She is one of the funniest and zaniest people I know. She had me laughing out loud over the advantages of having no hair. She was bored that I had ordered safe coverings, wanting instead to go outrageous hat shopping with me. She wants to knit me some yarn curls to hang from my coverings. Envisioning, I pushed my checker forward again, this time with a smile.

Following Amy, I went to what will be my last regular haircut appointment for a very long time with Heather. She talked to me about good and reasonable wig sources she knows and that she would cut and style anything for me. She volunteered to come to my home when the moment comes to be bald. We talked about hair changes in the future, and hair regrowth and re-losses down the road. Again, I landed on the next diagonal square.

Wednesday found me at another close friend’s home who is herself a breast cancer survivor. Jan chose to fight future fear with the choice of double mastectomies and subsequent reconstruction. Her path was a difficult one with setbacks, but she is happy now. She showed me her chest wall, a previous prosthesis and its accompanying bra. Thanks to Jan, my checker went forward to a square in case I learned on Thursday that I would need a mastectomy. I felt stronger still.

After Jan’s, I went to my weekly Pura Buena Onda (PBO) Spanish conversational class, always a fun highlight. During my previous week’s absence (I was still in Cambria), they had talked about me. They love my laugh and miss it when it’s not in class. There are six of us students and our epic teacher, Danny, who handed me a card. I couldn’t open it until I got home but I knew it was initiated by Carolina, the stellar brains behind PBO. The PBO staff and students are like extended family to me. There were lots of hugs and in the parking lot my classmates told me that if I couldn’t get to class, they would come to me. Push. I cried at home while reading the heartfelt PBO staff and classmate messages. Push again. My cousin Joyce had sent a thoughtful blanket for future warmth. Push again.

Thursday was the radiation oncologist consultation at Moores, and more tests, and the pieces are falling into place. I will be having a lumpectomy, followed by 4-6 months of chemo (determined post-surgery), followed by a month of daily radiation. I continue to hear the good news of how tiny my tumor is, and how there is no palpable detection yet of any lymph node involvement. I am still waiting for a surgery date.

Then more mammogram slides, more ultrasound images. The radiologist underscored the miniscule size and the undetected lymph evidence, but he indicated there are some calcifications near the tumor, which might be a problem. Once compared against previous years of scans from my prior facility, either all will be well or a larger lumpectomy will be done.

My checker is still sliding ahead.

What I have not yet mentioned is all the ongoing support that I receive daily from my family and friends, who reach out to touch a heart that is numb. The emails, the messages, the cards, the calls, and the texts are reminders that I am still a part of my life.

I am grateful for the courageous sharing of cancer journeys, since they shine with blazing hope for me. I know that the coming months will not be fun, but the knowledge that so many others have done it before lets me know that so will I.

Finally, this is the best Friday that I have had in what seems like forever. And, along the way, I have learned that it takes a village to push a checker forward.

Serendipity

It is 1985 and I have just transferred to Rohr Elementary, the second school of my career and where I will remain for 26 years before retiring. I have been assigned a 3rd/4th combo class in Room B-9. It is here where a perfect story of serendipity will be born, thirty-one years later.

Her name is Jody. She is eight. And she is one of my third graders. She is the same age as my son, Eli. And she is now my guardian angel.

Because I taught for so long at the same school site, it was easy for my students to stay in touch with me over the years. Jody was one of those. A wonderful student, she grew into a lovely young woman who even became a teacher at Rohr for a couple of years before she had to leave because of staffing cuts.

She taught in the room next to mine, but she could never bring herself to call me Terri. I was still Mrs. Hamlin from her third grader point of view.

Following her short stint in education, Jody pursued a different career. And then at 34, Jody was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 34, when I was Jody’s teacher.

Deeply concerned by Jody’s diagnosis, her bosses queried medical connections they had with Eli Lilly and Company to determine the finest breast cancer treatment center and doctors in San Diego. The singular response: Moores Cancer Center in La Jolla.

Jody had a lumpectomy, radiation, and aggressive chemotherapy because she was so young. She is a five-year cancer survivor today.

But because of her life-changing diagnosis, Jody decided to make a career change. She attended UCSD, did her internship at Moores Cancer Center, and she is now a radiation oncology therapist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

And here is the magic of serendipity. Because of a second Facebook account that I created in order to remain in contact with my former students, she learned of my cancer diagnosis and contacted me while I was in Cambria. And then on Sunday she read my first post that detailed my terror, and she knew she could help. She picked up her phone and texted me on Sunday: “Good morning, Mrs. Hamlin! Would you by chance have time to meet today? I also got treated at Moores. I also interned there so I wanted to give you info on the doctors, if you think that would help.”

I opened my front door and together we hugged and cried. I felt like a third grader in the presence of my teacher. We had come full circle, thirty-one years later, from B-9. The irony was, neither one of us was benign.

For the next several hours she calmly and lovingly helped Tom and me process our fears and our questions. Her doctors were the same. I felt the madness pause and I was able to breathe. The blizzard in my brain lightened. I allowed flashes of hope and peace.

I can do this, thanks to the heart of a third grader, who will be with me on this journey. We share an academic history, and now a story. It is a perfect story of serendipity.

Table For One

It is three in the morning and I am in my office downstairs, unable to sleep. Everything is spinning in my head since last week’s Friday’s diagnosis, since yesterday’s Friday’s meeting with the surgical oncologist. One week with an ocean gave me some peace to marinate initially in the news. Yesterday pushed my realities further.

A cancer diagnosis has necessarily brought me to a table for one.

It is a table where many before me have sat, including a lot of my friends. It is a place where numbingly scary words are heard, possibilities are discussed, and tears are shed. It is impossible to intelligently process the waves of information. I wish for the prescience to know what I should have asked, afterwards. It is hard to be brave.

During the technical meteor shower at Moores Cancer Center with Dr. Blair, I heard sparkles of good news: small (7 mm), Stage I, 90% cure rate. I heard shards of terror: triple-negative invasive ductal carcinoma, aggressive, recurring, probable chemotherapy, possible mastectomy because of complications from having autoimmune disease (rheumatoid arthritis). I only wanted to hear kittens and puppies.

The drip drip drip of waiting is going to continue. The surgeon will be gone next week. I have two medications that have to cease for two weeks before surgery can be done. The earliest likelihood will be in three weeks.

I will have molecular breast imaging just prior to the surgery during which a radioactive dye will be injected to better illuminate the tumor and start a lymph node sky show. Glowing nodes will be removed with the tumor.

I am awake because now I wish I had asked if having a mastectomy would make this all go away.

Whether I like it or not, I am at a table for one. I need to look ahead to Laughter After.