“The Uses Of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver,
“Good afternoon. How has your summer been?” The surgeon strolled into his office, clutching a folder with my lab results. He was wearing a lab coat, collared shirt and dress pants. But his hair was still a mess. Strangely, I took comfort in that.
As he glanced through the file, his face dropped. And then he threw the file down on his desk with such force I jumped at bit.
My brain froze, as a single thought popped up: TNBC. My stomach chirped out an “I told you so.”
“It’s triple negative.” The words hung in the air between us. He reviewed the stats with us. Small tumour size? Good. Grade? Bad. Third grade, which meant it was the most aggressive type – it would grow fast, and would require aggressive treatment. Stage? Early. Thankfully, only 3 lymph nodes were removed, and only one showed microscopic traces of cancer cells.
The verdict was, on the surface, excellent: stage 1A. It was like being a little bit pregnant, my brain whispered. Pregnant, yes, but only a very tiny bit so. (Funny what the mind does under stress.) My gut shrieked “TRIPLE NEGATIVE!” in response.
The surgeon’s kind eyes looked a bit sad, now, as we said our goodbyes.
And then the treatment train pulled up and life was upended entirely. I met with my chemotherapy oncologist, a beautiful and intelligent woman who spoke calmly and directly to my husband and I about the proposed treatment plan. Eight doses of chemotherapy, followed by radiation treatment. In the worst 3 hours of my life, she reviewed the potential side effects of treatment and the 3 types of chemotherapy I would need. I was familiar with a few – total hair loss. Nausea and vomiting. Weight loss. But there were others new to me – blisters in the mouth. Fever spikes that would land one in the hospital ER. My favourite was when she calmly stated that the third type of chemo cocktail would have to be administered much more slowly than the first two. Doctors had learned that a slow drip prevented the onset of psychosis. My gut curled up in protest at the news that this particular chemotherapy would be administered for the first time on Hallowe’en. My brain hissed that I needed to stop being melodramatic and pay attention. The treatment plan was aggressive -once every two weeks (dose dense chemo) vs. the typical 3 week period.
It was my first introduction to the impact of chemotherapy upon the nervous system. I was to learn a great deal more about this in the years down the road.
But for the moment, I believed her when the doc leaned over, squeezed my knee, and said “You’re young. Your body can take this.”
In time, she would be proven wrong. But we did not know this yet. My husband and I left her office after signing on the dotted line, agreeing to the horrors of treatment. It would turn out to be a deal with the devil, as they say.
Our return home was met with a gift: a visit from a relatively new neighbour. She was a breast cancer survivor, 5 years out of treatment and considered safely cured. Having heard about my diagnosis via the neighbourhood gossip mill, she arrived to offer reassurances. Her own diagnosis? Triple negative breast cancer. As she spoke, I took in her healthy body, bright smile, and silky hair. She offered a few words of wise advice: drink a lot of water the day before treatment. Be choosy about your sources of information. And whatever you do, stay off the internet breast cancer patient forums if you wanted to sleep well.
This particular day – encapsulating the very worst alongside the unexpected blessings – would become a familiar pattern in my life as treatment unfolded. Just when I would think things could not get worse, someone would appear offering gifts I desperately needed to get me through the day.