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Episode 2: That Time I Was Diagnosed With Cancer Right After My 33rd Birthday

It was a time alright.

Lindsay Jean Thomson

Image: Kitron Neuschatz

This is the second entry in a multi-part series. Read the first entry here.

I don't know what to say either. I thought I was healthy, too. No, it doesn't run in my family. Yeah, it's shocking. It's okay to cry. Don't worry about saying the right thing.

As I break the news, I notice myself saying something like "the biopsies confirmed cancerous cells" rather than "I have breast cancer." As if it's something totally separate from me. Just some test results.

The ground beneath me feels shaky.

I post publicly about my diagnosis and am overwhelmed with so many messages of love and support. People offer to take me to appointments, to feed me, to care for me. So much love. A lot of them tell me about their friends and family who've had cancer. I'm sure she'd be happy to talk with you.

I wonder how these people, the survivors, feel about it. I wonder if helping strangers creates meaning out of something otherwise impossible to understand, or if it's just another reminder of something they'd rather forget. I selfishly wonder if I will always be associated with this in other people's minds.

I didn't sign up for this. No one does, I know. But this is not my story. And yet it is. And here I am: processing out loud, publicly, in real time. 

The night of my diagnosis, exactly two weeks after my 33rd birthday, I'm surrounded by girlfriends as Hillary Clinton takes the stage to accept Democratic party's nomination. It's a big moment for all of us—to see not just a woman, but this woman—as the potential President of the United States. We cry happy tears.

The author on her 33rd birthday, two weeks before getting diagnosed. / Lindsay Jean Thomson

I'm already deeply invested in this election, but my diagnosis gives it new weight.
The personal is political. Will I still have health insurance if His Orangeness the Bankrupt Billionaire gets elected? Probably not.

The next morning, my breast care coordinator calls and lets me know they can fit me in at clinic on Tuesday. This is where all of the specialists—a breast surgeon, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and plastic surgeon—will meet and review my case together and then I'll see each of them individually.

"Can I still go to a bachelorette party this weekend?" I ask my coordinator. Priorities. "Yeah, but don't drink too much."

I go and I have fun and sometimes I almost even forget. But my shadow is always there, lurking, a black hole to accompany my exploding star.

At some point I'm positive I feel a tremor beneath our feet. "Was that an earthquake?" I ask.
No…are you okay?

But I feel it. I know I do.

I wear a low-cut dress to dinner. My friend warns me I'm about to lose a boob.

Tell me about it!

I thought it was funny.

Back at home, I'm walking out my front door when I slip in a pool of water on the top step. My legs fly up into the air like some cartoon character and I land on my tailbone several steps down.

I knew it was moving.

The next day, Paula and Kim come with me to my appointment. First we meet with the medical oncologist. She has an update on my diagnosis: Grade 3, Stage 2b. Possibly Stage 3. I have a large tumor that was 4.2 centimeters — it's gotten bigger since my biopsy last week, though that's probably due to bruising — as well as several smaller tumors. The tumors are all estrogen receptor negative and HER2 positive.

Then she runs us through a couple of different treatment plans, but I have a hard time telling the difference between them. The treatment team thinks it will be best for me to do chemo first, then surgery, then radiation, then reconstructive surgery.

Here's what my timeline looks like:

Chemo: 4–5 months
Surgery: 1 month recovery
Radiation: 5–6 weeks
Recovery: 6–12 months
Reconstructive surgery and more recovery.

That's a lot of months.

She asks if I want to have kids.

Yes. Maybe. I don't know.

There's a chance that chemo will put me into menopause. I might come out of it, I might not. She can't guarantee anything. Do I want to retrieve any of my eggs before we start? It will take a few weeks and my insurance probably won't cover it.

Nah, I'm good.

What are the side effects of chemo? It's a long list. Nausea. Vomiting. Sores. Numbness. Body aches. Fluid retention. Risk of infection. Hair loss. Guess I'll wait on that haircut.

We meet with the surgeon and she says: "It's a bad breast. It's gotta go." Haha. I think we're going to a get a lot of good quotes from this one, folks. Whether or not I lose both depends on what the genetics counselor finds. We start talking about what reconstruction will look like. I know I'll care eventually, but right now it feels like the least important thing.

It's a long day. It's a lot of information. We decide to wait on talking with the radiologist and the plastic surgeon.

Back at my house, Kim and Paula set up a fundraising page for me. Shameless, I know. I will also happily accept good juju, book recommendations, and hugs.

Next up: chemo class, bone scan, CT scan, heart test, and possibly an MRI. And chemo.

Lindsay Jean Thomson

Read This Next: I'm a Ticking Time Bomb

This story originally appeared on Medium. Stay tuned for updates from Lindsay Jean Thomson on Tonic.