The ninth floor of the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston is dedicated entirely to breast cancer. When you arrive there for the first time, you stand in line to receive your very own plastic bracelet with your very own Dana Farber bar code. You are handed a clipboard and directed to sit in a very busy waiting room chock full of women, some alone, some with accompanying loved ones.
On the day I visited, several women in the waiting room wore surgical masks, a few wore wigs or hats or scarves or hat-scarf combinations. There was no long hair that wasn't fake. A woman wearing a blazer and turtleneck, chatting with her husband, had only one breast. Two women in wheelchairs, pale and exhausted-looking, had their almost hairless heads bowed together in conversation. I caught several women looking at me, taking in my healthy glow and very long, very real hair with and a sort of wry, ironic sadness in their eyes and knowing Mona Lisa smiles on their lips.
New kid, I imagined them thinking. You're one of us now.
It is in moments like this that the surreal numbness wears away and I want to run screaming from this nightmare. How is it possible that I have breast cancer? That I had a cancerous lump in my breast, in fact, a breast riddled with cancer, cancer in my lymph nodes, a very serious life-threatening situation, and I had absolutely no idea, not one clue? How is it that I was happy and proud of my body, confident in my health just days before, and now my breast is gone, the lymph nodes under my arm are gone, the skin across that side of my chest and underarm are entirely numb and will most likely remain so for the rest of my life?
I have not returned to Dana Farber, will not return any time soon. My surgery and the remaining treatment I have chosen was and will be administered an hour from my home, in Hartford, CT. I expect my chemo will begin in the first week of the new year. I suspect that when I walk into that chemotherapy room, people with IVs attached to their bodies will glance up at me with knowing, sad, Mona Lisa smiles. I will again want to run screaming in the other direction, to insist that no, I am not one of these people. I do not belong here. There has to be some mistake!
It's going to be hard.