After radiation, it was time to return to Dr. Hershman, my oncologist, to discuss aromatase inhibitors. Dr. Hershman had previously informed me that she would recommend hormone therapy since my tumors were estrogen receptive. Estrogen receptive, or ER positive, is considered “good” in terms of breast cancer types since recurrence can be prevented by blocking estrogen production. In ovulating women, estrogen is blocked with tamoxifen; for menopausal or, rather, post-menopausal women, the popular drug is arimidex, a brand name for anastrozole. Given the chemo induced menopause that I experienced, Arimidex was the drug recommended for me. The treatment involved taking a little white pill, every day, for five years. No big deal – right? Well, I wasn’t thrilled.
Just like those ad nauseam lists of side effects described in pharmaceutical commercials on TV, Dr. Hershman had nauseated me with the possibilities – achy joints, bone loss, heart problems – so, I was not blithely walking down the hormone therapy road. I paused to gnash my teeth at the gate. My primary debate was that it seemed a sort of Dr. Moreau arrogance to tamper with natural hormonal processes. Plus, from the start, I was struck by the notion that my cancer was aimed at distinctly female organs and created or promoted by distinctly female hormones which made me wonder if I had distorted beliefs about being a woman. Actually, I knew that I had misgivings about being a woman and felt that breast cancer was calling me to surface malignant attitudes (societal and personal) and to recover a true love for myself. As reported in this blog, I learned that embracing the divine feminine was essential to my healing journey. Therefore, I felt that blocking or rejecting natural female hormones was anathema to my spiritual ideal of health and wholeness.
In November, 2009, I boarded the elevator at the hospital for my hormone therapy consultation, pushed the button for the 10th floor, and stood to the back to make room for others. Two women entered, stood in front of me and preceded to talk loudly and joke with each other about the drunken escapades they had shared the night before. Their ribald humor reminded me of my drinking days and the way I used to hide my shame behind jocular, bawdy talk. I decided that they were callow just as I was then, and untroubled by anything more than their hangovers. The short blond referenced bumping into a guy in the hospital lobby and quipped, “You know we’re bad when we see people from the bar wherever we go,” and both women sniggered. I thought, give me a break.
The people in the Herbert Irving Pavillion at Columbia Presbyterian were contending with serious life and death matters. These women were tittering about frivolous pursuits. They pissed me off. The elevator stopped, the doors opened, people got off, new people got on, the women composed themselves, and then started laughing again when they realized that they forgot where they were going. A few people on the elevator offered information. I tried to ignore them, but my ears perked up again when it turned out that the women were going to the 10th floor, oncology, like me. At the 8th floor, the tall, pretty, dark-haired woman asked the short, plump, blond for help, and lifted her sweater so that her friend could adjust her drainage sack.
My heart softened instantly and I said, “Oh, I had one of those,” in order to strike up a conversation, make a connection, maybe offer some guidance from my experience.
She responded, “I had two,” as if boasting about how many martinis she had for lunch, and indicated both her breasts.
I thought, “Oh, my.” The elevator doors opened and she lead the way out to the 10th floor suite of oncology offices, and, although we stood side by side at the receptionist desk and I glanced at her repeatedly, she did not meet eyes with me again.
Perhaps, the dark-haired woman had enough of a friend in the blond and had no need to connect with a stranger on an elevator with a similar experience in order to weather her feelings about having breast cancer and probably, judging by the two sacks, loosing one or both breasts to the disease. I, on the other hand, don’t drink anymore, and I have to share and try to be of service in order to feel at ease in sobriety.
I started writing this blog after that encounter on November 13, 2009.
Beginning the blog is essentially the end of the blog story, except to say that I did surrender to five years of hormone therapy. The still, small but strong, voice within me said, “Take the Arimidex, there will be no side effects,” and a calm washed over me just like in the beginning when I received the breast cancer diagnosis and thought “this is my walk with God.” So, I followed doctor’s orders at the behest of my inner voice and, two and a half years later, I’m enjoying great health and a full head of thick dark blond hair. I did have to work on my attitude though, and so, every morning as I swallow the little white pill, I say, “thank you.” And I pause to feel the waves of gratitude due to my lump lessons that echo through my body, heart, mind, and soul.
Thank you, a thousand times, thank you, for supporting this blog journey. I could not have walked this way alone.
In Awe, L.