Rebel! And Research.

As the shock of my diagnosis wore off, fears and doubts began to surface, along with a million questions. Did I really have to get a double mastectomy? Did I have to do anything at all? If I did get the surgery, how would I cover my bills? And could my rock band still play a show on Halloween?

Also, why did I get cancer at thirty-three? It didn’t make sense. I was always very solicitous about my health—I ran, swam, got regular acupuncture, had been nearly vegan for two decades. Yes, I worked in smoky bars, but only ten to fifteen hours a week. I never smoked. I drank, but rarely to excess. The culprit had to be stress. Or …

Friends chimed in with all sorts of unhelpful statistics. For instance, women who work nights evidently are more likely to develop breast cancer than women who work days. Another stat you won’t see widely advertised: women living in the Pacific Northwest have some of the highest breast cancer rates in the nation, which some experts attribute to lack of sunlight. One friend blamed my cancer on the terrible sunburn I’d suffered after my one ill-advised tanning-bed experience. Another friend blamed my ex: “The cancer is right over your heart. Your poor heart’s been through hell the last few years. That has to have something to do with it.”

My next move was to rebel. Who were these doctors, and why were they plotting against me? My cancer was Stage Zero . Zero in my book meant “nothing.” What if I did nothing? The more I thought about it, the more I fell in love with that option. I could keep my breasts, keep a close eye on the rogue cells within them, and start meditating regularly. Some people call this “denial”; I, however, just decided I needed a second opinion.

Soon I had an extensive list of naturopaths, acupuncturists, and breast cancer “survivors” to consult. I spent hours online, gathering information. I maxed out the minutes on my phone plan. I read all the breast cancer bibles, drank tumor-fighting potions (baking soda and maple syrup, anyone?), researched juicers (to get started on the recommended raw food diet), and signed up for breast cancer yoga, acupuncture, and even a cancer writing group. I talked to every breast cancer survivor I could, met them for drinks, and groped their reconstructed boobies in the dark bathrooms of hipster bars. I faxed my pathology report to doctor friends around the country. Without exception, every healer—whether hippie, holistic, occult, or orthodox—insisted I get the cancerous tissue surgically removed. Immediately.

Yet as the surgery date loomed, I panicked. I canceled my surgery and instead scheduled another consultation with Dr. Johnson.

For emotional support, I dragged my brother along. We found Dr. Johnson in surgical scrubs, presumably ready for a day of removing breasts, two of which should have been mine. She calmly addressed every doubt, fear, and question I had, including my fantasy of doing nothing. But she was much more stern with me than she’d been at our first meeting. We reviewed my mammogram. The first time I saw it, the white dots had looked so harmless; now, having spent two weeks in cancer boot camp, they looked much more sinister, and more numerous than I remembered. According to Dr. Johnson, I needed them out of there, ASAP. I blinked back tears, knowing deep down that she was right.

Later that day, I e-mailed my father. It killed me to write it—the news would break my dad’s heart. I felt like a complete and total failure. We were a family of health nuts and athletes. No one had cancer. No one except me.

Thankfully, I had a shift at Mary’s that afternoon. Of all the people I knew, I most wanted to be with my dancer family. They were generous and empathetic. They knew what it meant to rely on your body to make a living, and also the implicit terror in having that body fail you.

The annual Komen Portland Race for the Cure was coming up. The huge sign-up sheet that had appeared in the Mary’s Club dressing room was covered with names—girls who would walk, along with the names of all the people they’d lost to breast cancer.

On the morning of the race, a group of us gathered outside Mary’s. Eight in the morning is very early for strippers. But there we were, bundled against the chilly fall rain. We ambled down to the waterfront as a group. Forty thousand people were expected to attend, and as I waded through the crush of balloons, hats, head scarves, and wigs, I quickly became overwhelmed.

I spotted three cowboys in Carhartt work jackets and boots—tall, strong, handsome men, bent with grief. They carried a small sign with a name and photo on it—the older gent’s wife and the younger ones’ mother, I imagined. I choked up at the sight of them.

In five days, I was losing my breast. The Race for the Cure was the last place I wanted to be.

“I have a grand idea,” I whispered to my two best pals. “Let’s drink for the cure instead.”

We marched with the throng down SW Broadway, past Mary’s Club, then veered right into the front door of Embers. A fabulous bartender welcomed us warmly, poured us strong Irish coffees, and offered biting fashion critiques as the parade of pink surged solemnly by. Halfway into my whiskey coffee, I felt significantly better. We agreed to make Drink for the Cure an annual tradition.

The next four days were a blur. I met with my publisher regarding my book, due out in August. My band, Coco Cobra and the Killers, practiced one more time, in the hopes that I’d be back for our Halloween show at East End. I sat for a photo shoot, and, with my beloved writing group, planted hundreds of spring bulbs in my front yard. Clearly, life would go on after surgery. I just wasn’t quite sure what it was going to look like.

During this time, my plastic surgeon, Bruce Webber, and I discussed what many people had recommended all along: take only the cancerous breast and leave the other one alone.

In retrospect, it’s strange that I hadn’t considered this option more seriously. I’d been so buried in information, processing the opinions of a dozen different doctors, that I saw my choices as all (double mastectomy) or nothing. Thank God for Dr. Webber. I loved the way he talked to me: no-nonsense and not patronizing in the least. I trusted him. And with his advice and approval, I arrived at my decision. The relief that accompanied it was intoxicating. I could finally let go of all the chaos, grief, and fear. I would lose a breast, but I would keep my sanity.

 

breast-cut-lines

Dr. Webber’s cut lines: He’s quite the artist.

Party of the Century

And so, on September 26, I underwent a unilateral mastectomy. Dr. Johnson removed my left breast along with several lymph nodes for biopsy; Dr. Webber put in a tissue expander to start the reconstruction process, pumped it up with saline, and stitched me back together.

Because of the extent of the calcifications in my left breast, there was some worry that my cancer might have been invasive. After surgery, when I briefly came to, the first words I heard were that my lymph nodes were clean. The doctors also told me that my nipple had been salvaged, which I had no idea was even possible. I fell back asleep, hugely relieved. The next time I woke, I was in the midst of a party.

My mom had flown in, as had my buddy from New York. The Schoolteacher took the day off, and my brother stood by to do my bidding and send text updates to anyone who cared.

A lot of people cared. They gathered around me in my hospital room, drinking wine and watching the presidential debates, keeping me company as I came out of the anesthesia. By the next afternoon, the party had outgrown my hospital room and I was more than ready for a change of scenery. As soon as the nurse unhooked my IV, I was out the door. The Schoolteacher picked me up in her ’61 baby-blue Porsche and we rode to my house in style.

Someone had thoroughly scoured the place during my brief furlough; there were flowers everywhere, and my dog had been farmed out (I was on strict orders not to walk—even around the block—for two weeks). Guests started arriving almost immediately, loaded with more flowers, groceries, books, and DVDs. My mom started an enormous pot of chicken soup while my ersatz mom, Vicki Keller, the owner of Mary’s Club, critiqued the recipe. Bottle after bottle of wine was opened and consumed (not by me) while I lounged on the daybed like Cleopatra, basking in all the love and attention.

The party held steady for two weeks. People I didn’t even know showed up with casseroles and stews, while long-lost acquaintances resurfaced with stories and babies to brighten my convalescence. I’d never recommend cancer to anyone, but I have to say that the weeks following my surgery are among the most treasured in my life.

Every day held little triumphs. Although most of the post-mastectomy tales I’d heard saw the patient laid up for a week, unable to so much as wrangle pajama pants, I insisted on avoiding loungewear. I was overjoyed when I found a dress I could slip over my extensive bandages (one gal pal said I looked like I’d been dressed by Azzedine Alaïa), and ecstatic when I discovered I could cautiously pull on a pair of jeans with one arm, and button the fly. Having my hair washed felt like a huge achievement, as did taking my first shower. Trina came over to help me with the latter, and together we unwrapped my new body part.

I couldn’t look. But when Trina gasped and said it looked great, I peeked. There indeed was a breast. A black-and-blue and scabbed and swollen breast, but a breast all the same.