7:00 AM. Tuesday, February 1, 2022. Miah and I were both tired because we hadn't slept well the night before. "Call me if you hear anything about your results." He sternly told me.
"I know. And I'll also tell you if the vet calls about Magic's results," I said goodbye and wished him a nice day. He left to drive to his office. Unlike me, Miah was not approved to work from home.
I finished washing my hair, brushing my teeth and putting on my makeup. I still wear makeup and dress nicely every day, even though I'm working from home. It helps me feel productive and I work better when I feel pretty. I put on my royal purple Mod Cloth blouse that morning, one of my favorite tops.
7:50 AM. I entered the kitchen, filled my water bottle and unplugged my phone from the charger. I was about to head into my studio/office, when I saw I had a new email from the breast clinic.
Subject: New Test Results
My hands started to shake. I set down my water bottle, logged into the electronic health records app, and read the results. They were long and confusing but I recognized the word "carcinoma."
My brain did a bunch of weird things. I don't know how else to describe it. It felt like I had 4-5 different thoughts simultaneously while my heart also started beating very fast.
"I need to call Miah."
"What about my job?"
"Did I read that correctly?"
I went into my studio/office and opened my app to text Miah. He had already texted me. I skimmed through the texts, confused. They were all pictures of his car, our red Mazda CX-5. Why was he texting me photos of his car?
I wasn't able to text him because my hands were shaking too much, so I called him instead. I got his voicemail. I hung up and texted "call ASAP, IMPT!"
Less than a minute later, he was calling me. "I have breast cancer! It's positive! I can't believe this!" I half spoke, half yelled.
He sighed and then I heard him cover the phone with his hand and say to someone else, in a sort of whispered voice, "I have to go home, my wife has breast cancer."
He came back on the phone and said, "I'm coming home. I'll be right there."
We hung up. The next person I called was my supervisor at work, Mindfully-Imperfect-Supervisor C. She answered right away, "Hi Lorie, what's up?"
I haven't since asked her if she knew what I was going to say, but I bet if I asked her now, she would say she had a suspicion about what I was going to tell her. I almost never call her. Here I was calling, first thing in the morning, a few days after my breast biopsy, which she knew I had gotten the previous week.
"The biopsy was positive! I have breast cancer! I can't work today," I told Mindfully-Imperfect-Supervisor C. I also read her the test results.
She responded with, "Oh Lorie, I am so sorry." And then she told me about someone very close to her who had survived breast cancer, and from what she could recall, "I think that's the good kind to have." I knew what she meant. No cancer is good, but some types are less deadly than others and require less invasive treatment.
I asked her to let the rest of the team know I would be out the rest of the day and that I didn't know what the rest of my week was going to look like.
In that moment, I didn't know if I was going to lose my mind.
I didn't know how far I was going to fall from this diagnosis.
8:30 AM. Miah arrived home and met me in the hallway outside my studio/office. He hugged me and started crying. It was one of the saddest ten minutes of my whole life. I knew why he was crying. It was because of our conversation last year, when I said I wouldn't accept treatment if I ever got cancer. He bent over, his head by his knees, sobbing, "You won't treat it, I know it," He cried. I have never seen him this sad, this affected, by anything.
9:00 AM. We sat in the living room, in total silence. I couldn't stand to see him like this. "Fine, then I will treat it," I told him. I don't know if I whole-heartedly meant it or not. But I did know that I whole-heartedly could not stand to see my life partner, the man I loved and trusted most of all, this broken. And I had the power to help him. I had to use my power.
"It's ok, it's ok honey. I'm fine! Look at me, I'm fine!" I told him. He looked at me with his tear-streaked face, far from convinced.
I started calming down a little. I said, "Hey, let me go in the other room for a few minutes and update my work calendar to let people know I'm out today."
He replied, "Yeah, ok, and I should deal with this insurance stuff too while you are doing that."
I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Insurance stuff? As in, car insurance stuff? At the beginning of December, last month, he had gotten rear-ended. Over the holidays, we took his car into the auto-body shop to get fixed. He had been trying to get the other person's insurance to pay for his missed days of work in addition to the auto-body work, but they were giving him trouble. I thought we had decided to just let that go and stop pushing for additional compensation. Did something new come of that?
I went into my studio/office and opened Microsoft Outlook. I left my door open, so I couldn't help but overhear Miah on the phone, half crying, half speaking, to someone, "I'm just calling to report this, because I know that's what I need to do, but I'm having a really difficult time right now because we just got some really bad news about my wife. Can you just get this started and we deal with it later in the week?"
Who the heck was he talking to?
Satisfied that I had been able to wear my "Emotional Sobriety Hat" for a solid 15 minutes while I did a quick email check and marked my calendar Out of Office for the day, I returned to the living room and to Miah.
"Who were you talking to?" I asked him.
"Didn't you see my texts? Babe, I got into a car accident on the way to work this morning!" was his reply.
I burst out laughing.
What kind of higher power was looking out for us? Were they on lunch break or something? Seriously?! We had experienced 2 car accidents, 2 sick dogs, and now, a breast cancer diagnosis, all within less than two months. It wasn't just our dog Magic who we were recently worried about. Our older, even more senior dog, Sparkle, who would be turning 11 on February 15th, had injured her right ankle the day after Christmas. She was seriously limping, and we'd had her examined at the beginning of January. She had just finished her pain medication and we were still restricting her activity.
Going back to the car accident details, Miah explained that he was on his way to work, almost to his office, stopped at a traffic light in the left-most lane. A woman turning left from the opposite lane side-swiped him, wrecking his driver's side from the front bumper all the way to the rear bumper of THE SAME CAR WE JUST GOT FIXED A MONTH AGO. He wasn't hurt in any way, but holy heck was he angry. He said he got out of his car and said to the other driver, "Lady, you messed with the wrong guy today!"
Police were called to the scene. The officer asked the woman if she saw my husband's car, and her response was, "No, I didn't see him. I was looking at my phone."
Do I need to say more? How dumb can you be?
Miah said the officer glanced at him and shook his head, surprised at this woman's response. She was issued a ticket.
So that's what the photographs of his car were this morning - images showing me the damage to the vehicle. It all made sense now.
9:30 AM. I called my Primary Care Provider's clinic to ask if I could take more clonazepam to help with my anxiety. "It wasn't prescribed for general anxiety," I explained to the receptionist taking notes, "It was prescribed to take for a breast biopsy procedure. But I just found out I have cancer, and I am really not liking how fast my heart is beating and how anxious I feel, so I want to know if I can take it again to help with this."
She told me I was being very responsible and that she'd have someone get back to me right away. I also vaguely remember this nice receptionist sharing with me that either she herself, or someone close to her had also recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, or some other kind of cancer, and she was sympathetic to my situation.
I didn't know it yet, because it was so early in my journey, but this woman's sharing was the start of what would soon become a common cascade of miracles sent from the Universe - a sort of safety net of sharing - new and old friends who came out of nowhere to say the right thing at the right time.
10:05 AM. I called the breast clinic and asked if they prioritize patient test result call-backs when the results are positive for cancer, because I had just gotten a positive result on my electronic health record and I needed more information and fast. This also very nice staff member told me that yes, they do prioritize those call-backs. She checked the nurses' schedule and sent a message back to Nurse L. "Oh Nurse L, you again, my favorite! But now you will learn you have to quit your job for me," I thought. Nurse L chatted back to the kind staff member's message while I waited on the phone. Nurse L was just finishing up with another patient and would call me back before noon.
11:00 AM. My phone rang. It was the nurse at my Primary Care Provider's clinic. "Yes, it's ok for you to take clonazepam for your anxiety," she told me. "But make sure you don't take it within 5-6 hours of taking your tramadol."
I am well aware of the risks of mixing benzodiazepines and opiates. I assured her I understand how to appropriately time the doses. I had to wait an hour yet, because I had taken my tramadol at 6:00 AM that morning.
11:20 AM. My phone rang again. It was Nurse L. I put my phone on speaker and told Nurse L that she was on speaker and Miah was there with me. "Oh good, I'm so glad you aren't alone today," she said, and I could hear sympathy in her voice.
I decided not to remind her that she promised to quit her job if my test result came back positive. I wasn't in the joking mood. Last week she had shared with me that her young daughter has epilepsy. I wanted Nurse L to keep her well-paying job, so she could provide for her daughter whom I could tell she loved so dearly. Plus, I wanted Nurse L to be there for the next woman needing help getting through her breast biopsy and cancer diagnosis reveal.
We talked to her for over 45 minutes. Nurse L explained that I was diagnosed with the most common, most treatable type of breast cancer, and the mass was most likely tiny, like the size of a bean. Even though the results said it was 2 mm, that was not yet confirmed. They had made an estimation. She said that I would have a bunch of appointments in the next couple months, but that hopefully by the end of summer, this would all just be a little blip in my health history, and everything would be back to normal for me. I started to feel a little better. Not once did she use scary words like "chemotherapy" or "radiation." Instead, she spoke of things like "lumpectomy" and "hormone inhibitors" because my cancer was found to have the following characteristics:
- Estrogen Receptor (ER) Status: Positive, 91-100%
- Progesterone Receptor (PgR) Status: Positive, 71-80%
- HER2 Status: Negative
- Ki-67 Status: 5%
I'm not going to spend a bunch of time defining what each of those scores mean. Nurse L did that for us. Miah said it best when he repeated back to her what he heard her say. Miah's understanding of each of the above characteristics is perfect.
- The cancer eats hormones, that's how it grows. If you take away the hormones, it won't have any food and won't be able to grow.
- Same explanation as #1.
- One of the genes known for making breast cancer grow faster, spread, and recur, was negative for me.
- The cancer is lazy and slow growing.
Nurse L checked the calendar and scheduled me for a few weeks out with a breast cancer surgical oncologist. Weeks? That felt weird to get diagnosed with cancer and then have to wait weeks for next steps.
"Don't worry, this date will most likely change. I will follow-up with a call to them and get you in sooner, but we just have to get something down to start," is how she phrased it. And she was correct. Later in the week, she called me back. I was now scheduled for the following Tuesday on February 8th.
3:00 PM. I was surprised that I hadn't fallen to pieces. I had taken my clonazepam and calmed my pounding heart. For the last roughly 3 hours or so, Miah and I had sat on the couch and played the "what if" game. "What if... this happens." "What if... that happens." And so on. Finally, we agreed, we would try very hard never to play "what if" ever again.
It was a strange afternoon. We didn't turn on the TV. We always have the TV on because we like the background noise. It is comforting to us. Today, nothing was comforting; we just wanted to be next to each other.
I said to him, "I don't want this to wreck my life. I have come so far and done so well with my job, with my music project, with you, with our dogs, with everything!"
I don't remember his specific response, but I do remember, right then and there, we both decided to take immediate action to protect our mental health. On the day of my diagnosis, he booked an appointment with his former mental health therapist (whom he hadn't seen in 7 or 8 years), and I called my company's Employee Assistance Program to get setup with my own new therapist. We now had 3 appointments set for the following week: each with our respective mental health therapists, and mine with the surgical oncologist. I felt protected and in control.
We decided we were going to manage our negative intrusive thoughts, understand our feelings, and control our behaviors in a healthy way.
Cancer was messing with the wrong couple, and it wasn't going to wreck our lives.
Over the next 24 hours, I tried to process what was happening to me. After Miah, my biggest concern was my music, and what I was going to do with The Music Tarot and my release approach. I wanted to release my 78 songs in 7 volumes, or albums, over the next 5-7 years (though my producer Brian had told me he thinks this is more like a 10-year project). I was just diagnosed with a potentially deadly disease. So now what? These were the thoughts going through my mind:
- What if I can't finish the collection? Then the volumes will be incomplete.
- If I release the songs in volumes, I'm going to have to wait 9-12 months or longer for each release. I can't wait that long in-between releases. I need to be putting out material more quickly than that in case I get too sick from the cancer or the treatment.
- I need to make the most of my time, while I am healthy, and get the songs out now.
- How can I make the releases appear finished, so that at any point along the way, if I kick the bucket or stop being able to make the rest of the songs, my collection will still look complete?
Wednesday, February 2, 2022. I went for my after-dinner walk with the dogs. Suddenly, the answer popped into my head, and I knew exactly what to do.
I had to scrap the idea of releasing the songs as albums and put them out as singles instead.
A collection of 78 singles looks a lot more visually like a collection of 78 tarot cards.
This was Brian's original idea in the first place! He just never loved the idea of putting out entire albums. With the new streaming world of music distribution, albums don't make sense for unknown, independent artists. The only way our music is going to get heard and find our fans, is by putting out the music as soon as it's finished, giving it the most time and opportunity to be heard. Waiting 12 months to release an entire album to a small group of 30 or so fans isn't the same as releasing a new single every month for 12 months and gaining 10 new listeners each month. By the time 12 months are up, you've had an opportunity to gain 120 fans (if you assume attracting 10 new listeners a month), which is 4 times more fans than might be attracted to that one album. I kind of view it like compound interest in the financial investment world.
I emailed Brian, and also my graphic designer Hilary, as soon as I got home from my walk to let them know that I'd had a strange last few days, and that for personal reasons, I needed to change the release approach for The Music Tarot songs. I told them I would call to explain the personal reasons and what was going on.
As the remainder of my post-diagnosis workweek sifted by, I only missed that one day of work, the day of diagnosis. Later in the week, I reached out to my employer's Human Resources Department and requested FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) paperwork so I could have complete flexibility to take as much time off work as I needed. I don't want to put a lot of energy into explaining the FMLA process as part of this blog, but let me tell you, that process in and of itself ended up requiring a pretty decent chunk of energy and patience over the next month. I had to reach out to my health care providers and re-submit paperwork 4 separate times to get it approved correctly.
The following Saturday, my friend, Thin-Gorgeous-Extremely-Successful S, came over to visit. She and I had been cubical buddies at work, sitting across from each other for all of 2018 and most of 2019. Thin-Gorgeous-Extremely-Successful S was in my circle of friends when I let music back into my life, and she was there to hear the very first song demos when I started writing again. After we got split apart at the office, we remained friends. She was devastated to hear about my diagnosis, but she wasn't a stranger to cancer, and knew of several other cancer survivors. She ordered me a book that had helped her in the past, Cancer What You Need to Know: Overcome the 10 Common Mistakes Patients Make, which was delivered to my house the next day. I read it in less than 3 hours. It appeared I was already on the right path and not even close to making any of the common mistakes.
Miah and I talked a lot that first week, every night. I started warming up to doing what I needed to. It felt like maybe I just needed to take it one step at a time. I didn't even know the official size of the tumor yet. I didn't even know very much at all.
I called Hilary and let her in on the scoop. She was very surprised to hear of this news, but I think she was more surprised to hear that I wanted to tackle things by picking up speed on The Music Tarot and start getting the finished songs released as quickly as possible. I told her I would be setting up a new Song Release Schedule, with goal due dates for each song's artwork and production completion. By the way, I ended up finishing that schedule and getting it out to Hilary and Brian just 2 days later!
2:00 PM. Tuesday, February 8, 2022. Miah and I arrived at the breast clinic for my surgical oncology office visit and entered a packed waiting room. It was mid-afternoon and the doctor was running late. A nurse called us back and we were taken to a standard exam room. It looked the same as any other exam room, but this was the room where the cancer patients go. We both felt yucky.
For some reason, I put a lot of weight on this appointment. I was counting on this doctor to sympathize with me, to reassure me, to take time to explain everything to me. When I think back and remember this appointment - I do not remember it going well. Maybe it was the chip on my shoulder from all my past medical trauma. Maybe it was because they were short staffed and overwhelmed because more and more women are getting diagnosed with breast cancer this year because they too skipped their mammograms due to the pandemic.
The resident came in first; a young male doctor, doing his surgical residency. He showed us pictures of the calcifications and explained that the size of the tumor was not yet known; I needed a breast MRI to get a better image. He then started talking about treatment options.
"What if I don't do any treatment?" I asked him.
He looked confused. Next to me, Miah sighed and shook his head.
I went on to explain that I have an extensive history of chronic pain, going back to nearly half of my childhood and all my adult life. I told him that I needed to understand exactly what kind of pain, discomfort, and side effects my diagnosis and treatment would cause. He didn't offer much help here. He mostly focused on what he knew - explaining the surgery options. After a bit, he finished his attempts at knowledge sharing and left the room, telling us the other doctor would be in soon.
An hour later the attending surgeon entered the room. Surgical-Oncologist-Doctor L sat down and whipped out a piece a paper. She wrote down three things, scary things:
- Medical Oncologist / Chemotherapy
Surgical-Oncologist-Doctor L explained that my treatment would be managed by a team, consisting of these three areas. She then explained what the resident had previously told me: I needed a breast MRI first and foremost, "So we know what we're dealing with here. We want to make sure the biopsy wasn't just the tip of the iceberg, and we don't have something much larger going on," she explained.
Miah perked up, "So, what are the odds, Doctor, that it's much bigger than 2 mm? Is that likely?"
"Probably not," she responded. "But that's why we need to start with the MRI. We also recommend genetic testing. In women younger than age 45, we like to test for inherited gene mutations."
The genetic testing would be another important factor for deciding the best treatment path. For example, if I have an inherited gene mutation, then I would have greater risk of recurrence and would qualify for bilateral mastectomy.
Lastly, Surgical-Oncologist-Doctor L talked about a specific drug, called tamoxifen, that would likely be the post-surgical treatment given to me, to prevent recurrence. She explained that the tamoxifen may or may not actually have a beneficial, rather than detrimental effect on my migraines, because they are hormonal in nature. While making this point, Doctor L noted that my cancer and my migraines may all be related in some way, as the result of my body's deep hatred for hormones.
I was slowly dipping my foot into understanding the waters of treatment, but just barely up to my ankle. I agreed to schedule and carry forward with the additional diagnostics - with the MRI and genetic testing. Two more diagnostic tests, I thought, sure I could do that.
But things aren't always what they seem.
7:30 PM. I went to the recording studio to meet with Brian and tell him about my diagnosis in person. Brian's reaction was like Hilary's. He was sad and surprised, but he stayed in the present with me, totally understanding that I needed to stay focused and grounded, and The Music Tarot was my lifeline to do just that. He told me that he would stick with me and continue plugging away at the songs and do everything he could to help stay on track with my release schedule. He also told me I needed to create a marketing plan. "It doesn't even have to be a good one," he said, "And then you need to follow it, consistently."
We also talked about whether I should share my diagnosis and experience with my fans. "Maybe it would be a good thing to share and be vulnerable?" I questioned aloud.
Brian wasn't sure either. This was new territory I had never pictured needing to consider as part of my artistic presence. It did seem to fit with the whole idea of The Music Tarot, sort of. Tarot cards are all about the journey of life - the expected and unexpected. They help provide meaning, guidance, and direction when things are uncertain or unclear. I was now entering the most uncertain and unclear part of my life's journey thus far.
"Hmmm," I thought, "I need more time to think about this. In the meantime, let's get going on getting the songs out. First single will release on March 4th and we'll stick with every other Friday thereafter, because I like Fridays."
After that, I put the decision of incorporating my story into The Music Tarot on hold. I wanted to see how I felt as things progressed. I was being extra cautious because I had done a lot of work from 2014-2021 to rid myself of co-dependent behaviors, which included how I presented my social media / internet persona. Previously, I was a pretty "showy & sparkly" person who would fluff up my posts to make my life seem better than it really was. I told myself I was doing that because it was needed to market my music. But eventually, I learned that all I was doing was letting other people's opinions of me dictate how I felt about myself. Once I made that connection, I worked hard to change that thinking and behavior. One of my ways of changing was just to stop posting for the most part. Slowly, I started sharing again, especially when I decided to release The Music Tarot. Now when I post, it isn't flashy or overly excited sounding. It's real and honest. Period. Not Exclamation Point. So, if I did share about my cancer, it had to come out in a way that wasn't attention seeking. I needed more time to figure out that approach and if it was something I wanted to do.
I went home and put together the song release order and thought about the marketing plan. I continued thinking about the marketing plan until the thoughts didn't come to me anymore. And then I waited and waited. Eventually my higher power gave me the answers I needed. By the following weekend, February 13th, the marketing plan was finished and ready to begin execution. Artists probably don't share their marketing plans publicly, but mine was quite an accomplishment for me, because less than 2 weeks earlier, I had just been diagnosed with cancer. So I'm posting an image of mine below to show you what I created. Not only does it contain some decent planning, but I think I made it look pretty too! I always like to bring a little beauty to everything I create.
So I had finished the marketing plan and made some headway. Things were changing and I was still in control, right? Brian later told me the marketing plan was outstanding, and way exceeded his expectations. I told him, "See?! You DID team up with the right artist to get your producing work heard by the masses someday. I just have to rid my body of this unwanted pest first."
And then I thought, "Or did I have to wait? Maybe I could keep on creating and never have to stop or slow down, maybe I could learn to live and flourish anyway, while also having and treating cancer?" An attitude shift was brewing, just below conscious thought.
Lastly, a pupdate. In the craziness of the week, we finally heard back from Magic's vet. His second set of test results were normal. Thankfully, we could set that concern aside. Our 9-year old, little boy border collie was fine.
End of 5 – Diagnosis & Surgical Oncology Office Visit