On February 28th I sat at my computer trying to concentrate. Twenty-four more hours to wait for my biopsy results. My life at a crossroads. It was late afternoon, right before the girls would come home. I got up to go to the bathroom and when I returned I had a voice mail on my phone from an unknown number. Could it be my doctor with the news already? I listened to the message. In an exasperated voice, losing her breath, she announced: “Adina, we need to talk. You have breast cancer.”
My hand trembled as I wrote down a name and number—I was going to need an oncologist.
Reflecting on that moment eight months ago, I want to reach out to the old me sitting alone at my desk, alone in my apartment. The palpable absence of her children. The silence filling the empty high chair. The toys lying motionless in the middle of the floor. The baby blankets folded in cribs without babies. How she kept repeating the word “cancer,” over and over in her mind. Impossible to feel the gravity of what this would mean for her life. No one to console her. At least in that moment, she—I—felt utterly alone.
Today is my last day of radiation, the end of my cancer treatment. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that we are still the same person—the woman at her desk seems almost a stranger to me, but I wish I could take care of her now that I have the wisdom to help her.
I look down at the patient bracelet on my wrist. Throughout chemo, surgery, now radiation, I’ve worn dozens of these bracelets. I even came to like them. They are markers of this experience that are not permanent. I enjoyed cutting them off. Sometimes I mutilated them before throwing them away.
Lately I haven’t wanted to take the bracelets off. Radiation brought a new patient bracelet every day, five days a week. In these final days of treatment, I catch myself still wearing it on my drive home. Later in the day, working at the same desk where I was diagnosed, I keep it on. I feel comfort seeing and feeling it there.
As much as I want to let go of being a patient, I can’t help but want to hold on the identity I have forged these last eight months. It’s going to take time to adjust to not having cancer. With every tiny twinge of pain in my body I panic: “It’s the cancer. It’s back!” That is why I wear these ridiculous plastic bracelets all day, reminding me that I am in treatment. I constantly have a team of experts watching over me. I can’t just cut the bracelets off any more than I can move on from who I’ve become.
As my treatment comes to a close, I want to feel more excited, proud, relieved, but most of the time I just feel sad about what my family, friends, and I have had to endure.
It is not only through the eyes of those closest to me, but through a stranger’s perspective that allows me to feel the weight of what I’ve experienced. I used to see one of my neighbors, a young mother with three children, on my daily walk with Ayla. I never spoke to her about my illness. We would always exchange that all-knowing look of understanding that bonds all mothers. Recently, we finally connected at a neighborhood gathering. She told me about how one day she saw me, with hair, walking with Ayla, and the next time saw me I was wearing a scarf. Seeing it through her eyes, somehow the pain of that sudden switch feels more tangible—the abrupt transition from healthy to sick. It is at the end of all of this that I can finally grasp the trauma of the beginning. I found one of my old hairs recently and I cried harder and longer than I did when it fell out. I just now mourn the loss of breastfeeding and have flashbacks of pumping breast milk with blood after my biopsy.
But similar to other moments when I’ve been stuck, there is one little lady who always seems to move me forward. I lay in my bed with Yael one recent, early afternoon. She had asked me if she could take her nap with me in my bed. Normally I turn down this request, but I wanted her to stay. She fell asleep next to me and I listened to her breathe. Full of life, sound asleep, she lay there in our giant bed, wrapped in the blue dress Ian brought her back from Morocco. It was the opposite feeling of the day of diagnosis, when I had so felt her absence. Now I, her mother, the one who gave her life, felt like she was literally breathing new life back into me.
And so, with her help and all of yours, my readers, I take a leap of faith into a new era of my life. I’m ready. I walk through a maze of corridors to finally exit the building with the scary radiation monster. I walk with my usual stride—hips swaying, lost in thought, never completely sure of where I am going. The bracelet feels different, now just a piece of plastic, and I suddenly want it gone. I turn the corner and see the doors of the hospital ahead of me. I spot a trashcan near the exit. When I get there I take a minute. Pause. Close my eyes. Take the bracelet off. Hold it in my hand. I feel something rising within me, creating a new path between the the past and the future.
And then, just as Moses lifted his arm to part the Red Sea, I chuck that sucker right in the trash, and bust open the door to the world that awaits me.