The Moment My Life Changed
One year ago today, I launched out of bed and into the shower. I remembered that I had signed up for a Project Management Conference and wanted to look my best.
After blowing out my hair as quickly as I could, I selected my favorite black pantsuit from where it hung nestled in the closet between my grey suit and my brown tweed jacket. I pulled on a crisp white blouse and a simple gold and turquoise necklace. I appraised myself in the mirror and decided that this outfit said, ‘confident, yet approachable.’ The perfect look for a recruiter about to crash a conference full of Project Managers.
I sped downtown, cursed every red light, and careened into the parking lot below the Convention Centre. After arriving on the main floor, the meeting signs pointed upwards and I had to take two of the longest escalators in Vancouver to get to the event. On each ride, I also took the stairs two at a time. The early morning sun beat through the glass roof and I started to glisten in a non-supermodel way. I finally arrived in the spacious conference room just as one of the volunteers pulled the doors shut. I slowed down to wave nonchalantly to a few consultants I recognized. The room smelled of strong coffee and industrial scrambled eggs and I claimed a seat in preparation for the round table networking session. The table full of Project Managers began an animated discussion around me about the latest trends in managing multi-million dollar technology projects.
When I came out of the session, I smiled at the new contacts I had made, rushed to meet a potential candidate for coffee, and eventually sat down to listen to my messages.
As soon as I heard her Scottish lilt, my heart began to pick up speed, ‘Terri, it’s Dr. P. I need to speak with you urgently. Please call me right away. If you get my voicemail, please have me paged. It’s imperative that I speak with you immediately.’
Until that moment, I naively believed I had the power to control my own destiny. In a flash, all of my power evaporated. Fear reached out its arms and gripped me in a chilling embrace. The room swayed around me and my vision blurred. I lost sensation in my feet, the blood drained from my face, and my heart galloped away from me.
Shaking, I picked up my purse and portfolio and made my way across a narrow bridge to the far side of the convention center, away from the rooms that would soon empty of consultants eager for lunch. I sat on a non descript couch and faced the wall with my back to the glass partition that separated me from the main floor below. I misdialed her number three times and then my voice sounded like a stranger’s as I tentatively asked the receptionist to have my doctor paged. Dr. P had taken vigilant care of me over my last 7 years with the hereditary cancer-screening program. Maybe this would turn into another false alarm?
As I waited, I told myself the lies that had served me in the past. Terri – you will be fine. No matter what, you will not cry. You will go back to your meetings. You will continue to network. You can handle this.
Dr. P came on the line and I heard her voice breaking a little. She told me as gently as she could, ‘Terri, I’m sorry to tell you, but we have found a little cancer’.
‘A little cancer!? Isn’t cancer still cancer no matter how big it is?’
I almost crawled over the railing and jumped. I needed to get out of this moment. I struggled to get oxygen into my tight lungs. My thoughts tangled, tears sprang disobediently into my eyes, and my questions came out in a jumbled pile, ‘Will I need surgery? How soon will it happen? How bad is it? Will I have to have chemotherapy? Will I lose my hair?’
She heard my escalating panic and tried to calm me. She assured me that I would see one of the best breast surgeons in Vancouver the next day. That I might need chemotherapy, but that I should take this one step at a time. She promised that I would receive the most professional care possible throughout this whole experience. She made me vow to call her if I needed anything at all.
I scrambled to write down the details of my appointment. I couldn’t stay in my skin. I watched impassively as a young woman tried to get a grip on the massive changes flying at her. She couldn’t be me. I had lived with a known risk of breast cancer for 10 years, but I somehow never let myself believe that it would actually happen to me.
After I hung up the phone, I sat in stunned silence and thought about all of the questions that she couldn’t answer for me. What does this mean for my job? Can I afford to be sick? Who will take care of me? Who will ever find me attractive if I lose my hair? Why is this happening to me now?
Then anger took over. This is not fair! My friends are getting married and having kids. How am I supposed to meet someone and have kids while I’m still young enough? What if I can never have kids? Why me?
I blindly stared at my hands and played with my thumbnails as the tears dripped onto my white blouse. I wanted so badly for someone to share my pain and tell me what to do. I didn’t want to drop this bomb alone. I knew my news would impact the people I loved. It would create sadness, fear, and shock; it would raise questions of their own mortality. For a split second, I contemplated holding on to this bomb indefinitely. I knew as soon as I released it, the impact would be inescapable.
Maybe if I didn’t say the words: 30, single, cancer, I could avoid the fall-out? Pictures of dealing with surgery, hair loss, and infertility bombarded me into numbness. I couldn’t do this.
My intellectual side robotically took over. I dug through my sub-conscious in search of my mental list of ‘people to call in moments of crisis’. My bottom lip quivered as I put out calls and waited for someone to rescue me from my brand new hell.