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Colleen's Story

02 February, 2021

“Did you have a good practice”, I said to my son as he opened the door of our Big, (lots of kids equals gargantuan car) Yukon to get in.  I placed my hands on the steering wheel and started to put it into reverse from a parking spot at Callahan Music.

“Yeah”, my 15 year old said enthusiastically,  “this was really a good one (music practice). I learned a lot”. 

“Shoot!” I cringed as I remembered it is the first of the month, “Did he say anything about needing payment for this month’s lessons?”

Jake gave his typical-teenager shrug and said “No”.

And you forgot to ask your instructor like I told you, I thought. But decided not to go there with him right now. Too many other fish to fry at the moment and I had to get to work soon as I glanced at the clock on the dashboard. I still had to get home, put on some scrubs and I my needed shower would have to wait, it was getting too close to leave by 6:30 and I still had to get across town…sooo yes, the shower would have to wait. My thoughts raced as I checked off my list for the day and then I paused. No calls from Dr. yet on results from the ‘snippet’ they grabbed from my left breast the other day. Please just call so one less thing takes up space in my brain, I thought. The tech did say that it looked pretty fluid-like ‘characteristics like a cyst’, she had said, and not to worry too much. Just then the car’s middle seat vibrated causing me to glance from the red stop light in front of us and down at my phone. My eyes widened. The dr.’s cell number illuminated the screen. The number she had given the other day at my biopsy appointment. “Here” she had said, “I am going to give you my contact…. Call me with any questions or concerns…I will call you with results as soon as they come in…It will most likely be a couple of days”.

As quickly as you can turn a gargantuan car, I swiftly drove into an empty parking lot, which caused my son to hold on tight to his sheet music and backpack.

He looked at me saying, “Geez, Mom”. 

I slammed the car into park and just before I could tap my phone to answer, my son and I locked eyes. “It’s the doctor”, I said.

He did not have to ask which Dr. or whom I meant. He knew by looking at me, it was the ONE, the dr. whose name had been mentioned frequently the past few days amidst all the anxious discussions at the dinner table.

Jake couldn’t hold my stare and broke away, turning his head to face the windshield, yet forced to listen to what was next.  No emotions were showing on his handsome facial features. Typical for this young man who always appeared easy, unruffled… but I knew him better.

I grabbed the phone, not wanting to press the button to answer, knowing that once I did, answers would be released.  Answers that maybe I would not want. But, what if the answers were good? I told myself there is only one answer that is worse. It was the NOT- knowing answer, sitting in I-Wonder-IF-Land…etc. I pressed the button on the phone.

“Hello”, I mustered. I sound pretty good, I thought incredulously. More controlled then I felt.

“Hello, this is Dr. ***, I am calling to speak with Colleen M…”.

“Hi Dr.***, this is Colleen.  How are you?” Typical me, I could not help, but lead with normal formalities, even in this moment.

“I am fine, Colleen. Thank you for asking.  I am calling about your results from your biopsy procedure this past week.

“Okay, sounds good. Thank you”, I said. Now I sound like a robot.

And then suddenly she said it. It felt like it landed abruptly, like she blurted it out.  She was so steady when she said it, no tripping around, no sugarcoat, just straight…no chaser…

“I am sorry to say that you have BREAST CANCER.”

It hung there. The words had landed, had nowhere else to go except to seep slowly into my brain.  She was still talking and I was sort of hearing. She was saying something about more tests to be done…this will narrow it down…decide on treatment…your friend, Amy…breast cancer navigator…great support to you through all of this…I recommend that you go home to be with your family.

Her last words reined me in.

Go home? But I have to work.  I have to be there in an hour.

“Well, yes, I guess that is a good idea”, I said, “but I have to work tonight.  I mean, I can’t call in last minute like that and…um…I just need to get through the night, I think.” At this point I was rambling and thinking I can’t have cancer. I don’t have time for cancer. I have to go to work.

“Well, Colleen, of course you can do whatever you need to, but I am sure they will understand if you explain the news you just received I am sure they will let you have the night off under these circumstances…. If you have any more questions, you can call me anytime”…etc. The call ended with as many pleasantries as when it had started and then I realized that my son was still sitting in the seat next to me. And I realized that our gargantuan car was still running. He was fiddling with his backpack, looking busy. He knew the phone call had ended and knew I was looking at him. Jake was forced to lock eyes with his ‘Mama” once again.  Stoically he said, “You sure you’re going to go to work tonight, Mom?”

My eyes flooded suddenly and I let out a breath that had been held for eternity.  I grabbed my phone. I dialed. A familiar voice of a coworker answered, “Saint Mary’s NICU Department”  

“Hi. It’s Colleen. I know I am scheduled to come in, but I am afraid I just received some bad news”…and then I said it. I affirmed it, for the first time from my own lips. “I’ve just been told by my Dr. that I have breast cancer.  I was planning on coming in”  (and probably would have, except how does my son hold on to this information without my husband and my other kids knowing), “but I feel I need to go home and be with my family and share the news.”

And so my journey had begun.

Excerpt by author:

I remember a couple of things that I was told after I received my cancer diagnosis.

The first, told to me by my dear friend, Amy, who also happened to be my breast cancer navigator. And who also helped me immensely through a challenging time. (I am forever grateful to you, my friend!).  Just after I had received the news of diagnosis, she had written a note that said, “You are stronger than you know.”  I admit I did NOT embrace these words at first. “How does she know? I don’t feel strong? I don’t want to have to be strong? This can’t be happening? I just want it to go away?” In the end, though, there lay a hidden gem, buried deep inside of me for safekeeping. The kind of gem that is buried in a glass box with a hammer that says, “Only break if absolutely necessary.” Truth is you have to be broken in order to get to that precious gem. That special strength cannot be realized until you’re facing the hardest thing, the giant, the MONSTER!  Amy was right. I was stronger than I knew and today I am still stronger than I know.

The second, told to me by several people, was that my experience would be compared to a journey.  First off journeys cannot be called as such until they are completed. The true definition of a journey says you start at one place and you end up in another and along the way there will likely be experiences and emotions analogous to mountains and valleys…etc. I think it is fair to call it a journey in that respect, and journeys are very individual.  Our journeys with cancer are all unique and one should refrain from comparing or contrasting one’s journey to another’s.  Yet, we do have a common bond that we can share that helps us know that we are in this together. Most of us can remember the ‘moment’ we, or someone we love was told, “You have cancer”. We likely remember where we were, what we may have been doing at the time. Maybe we were in a Dr.’s office, or at home, in the car? But we received the news and our journeys were thrust upon us. At reading this, there is a likely nod? It is this common thread that binds our journeys together. And from that day we have a special bond, forever. - Colleen

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