My best friend is having surgery on Tuesday to remove both her breasts. This is her response to a small node of cancer in her right breast from which unfurled the discovery of a dramatic family history of breast cancer. Rather than face later invasive lobular or ductile cancer, surgery, chemo and radiation, she opted to stop it now, by removing the offending breasts. She seems remarkably calm about it, as much as can be determined via a long distance call. She lives half way around the world from me, and never have I felt farther away or less useful.
It is natural to think “How would I deal with something like that? Would I have the courage to lop off my breasts to avoid possible future ailments?”
But I did make a similar decision when I had a total hysterectomy at 35. Or rather, it was made for me when greedy tendrils of endometrium choked both my ureters, until I became literally toxic.
In retrospect, my life had turned itself upside down over a period of about six months. I had felt restless, no doubt due to the renal poisoning going on inside me. I declared to my husband and son that I wanted us to move to San Francisco, so that I could take a job at ACT as an Assistant Stage Manager, hired locally, no less, which engendered housing costs far beyond the modest salary I was promised. Jimmie and I flew up to SF, leaving Chris with friends while I interviewed at ACT with the Artistic Director. She assured us that I could work at ACT and there might be work there for Jimmie as well.
I ignored the signs that this was a bad move for us. My husband was working in Los Angeles, doing occasional TV guest roles, and acting on the stage with his theatre company. Our son was growing up – age 6 then, and attending a school where he was happy.
The half-baked plan was for me to move up to SF, live in corporate housing near the theatre for the month or so of rehearsals, and while rehearsing 48-50 hours a week, find housing for us and a school for Chris. The housing I found was sterile, but close to the theatre. What I hadn’t counted on was the implosion of my body during rehearsals.
The rehearsals were great – the cast, extremely talented. The play, Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” weaves back and forth through the time and space continuum in an elegant puzzle which is challenging and gratifying to solve in production. The director, Carey Perloff, had impressive energy of intellect and rigor. The PSM, Kimberly Webb, was skilled and inclusive, embracing me as a new colleague. He trained me how to do ACT production notes, which were publishable -so detailed, coming in Issues and Volumes. I spent a lot of time out of the rehearsal room typing up these production notes, which was a good thing, because I was running to the bathroom to vomit at alarmingly frequent and shortening intervals.
Finally, about five weeks into my stay in SF, I told Kimberly that I needed to see a doctor. They called Dr. Martin Terplan, a physician whose office was up the hill from Union Square and to whom I trudged that afternoon. Dr. Terplan’s office was, for lack of a better term, antique. The dark mahogany panelling in the waiting area glowed through the frosted ripple glass of the entry door. The brown leather benches I waited on were echoed in the exam room. His elderly and kind receptionist, got me in to see him quickly. Dr. T. was rather antique himself, probably in his late 60s or early 70s. I was skeptical but desperately nauseous.
He instructed me to provide a urine sample which he spun in a centrifuge, then examined on a glass slide in a microscope. Right there, about three feet from where I lay on the wax paper on the table. Now I was really skeptical.
“You are very ill. Your kidneys are not functioning. Take a cab to the hospital and see Dr. Spaulding, who will be waiting for you.” And so, he saved my life.
I did take a cab, not even having time to call my husband in Los Angeles to tell him what was happening There were no cell phones at the time, so I had to wait until I had already had a procedure at the hospital to call him with the news.
The rest, the subsequent return to Los Angeles, surgery to remove my uterus and reattach my ureters, did not happen for some time due to my advanced anemia. The decision to remove my uterus was not automatic, but I had become so enraged at my body by then that I spent little time making the decision. The options, discussed with my gynecologist were only cursorily considered by me. I had come close to death and I was not going to let it happen again.
So I know a bit how my dear friend feels – the betrayal of your body, your history (my grandmother and aunt both had hysterectomies at 35, a fact no one had bothered to tell me until after this episode), and how it feels to come to grips with the decision to avoid medical catastrophe.
But she is braver than I because she has no overt symptoms – beyond a small pea-sized potential cancerous lump. She has gone to the experts, researched her genetic predisposition to cancer and made the decision to live a future clear of breast cancer. So much more intentional and courageous than my own journey was. She makes me so proud.