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How My Breast Cancer Diagnosis was the Gateway to the Ultimate Spring Cleaning

Photo credit: Meredith Carroll

The last photo of me with breasts

Spring cleaning started early for me in 2014. In fact, it started in 2013.

On Dec. 18, 2013, I went in for my first-ever mammogram. I turned 40 last year and it was among the boxes I needed to check on my pro-active health list. I was not expecting anything other than a pat on the back when they squished my breasts on the cold metal plate of the mammography machine. With no lump or sick feeling, I certainly wasn’t expecting a breast cancer diagnosis. It came anyway — on Jan. 6, 2014.

I didn’t collapse to the ground when the phone call came with the news. I didn’t vomit. I did cry, however. A lot. But mostly I was overwhelmed. I live 2,000 miles from my family and 200 miles from major hospitals in a city where I know very few people. I allowed myself to feel sorry for myself for about 48 hours. I drank a lot of red wine. I mewled to my husband about how I’ve spent my entire life causing my parents distress.

But then I got down to business. When you have a two-year-old, a five-year-old and freelance work that doesn’t give you paid sick days, I didn’t have time to fall apart. Breast cancer became my job. With the help of many friends — but one in particular who is currently battling Stage 4 of the disease — I called up my health insurance company and grilled them on how the process is covered, what is actually covered and what the approvals process would look like. I researched doctors in New York (where my family lives) and Denver (which is much closer to where I live). I studiously avoided the Internet — I knew that I didn’t need to go down the dark hole of other people’s horror stories about cancer. I didn’t need to; I know plenty of them. I didn’t need to know more. I needed useful information. Not melodramatic data that would only take me away from my task, which was my own recovery.

I was quickly promoted to the CEO, COO and CFO of my breast cancer. And I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I earned a raise very quickly. My friends nearby and my family from afar all signed on to become my board members — helping organize care for my kids so my husband, a friend and my mom could take me on frequent 400-mile roundtrips to Denver to consult with breast and plastic surgeons. I mobilized my home in preparation for my parents and mother-in-law to arrive and stay during the post-surgery time. I bought clothes that would be most convenient and comfortable for after my bilateral mastectomy. I took daily walks with a beloved friend who allowed me to laugh about saying goodbye to the breasts I never really liked anyway. I had endless conversations with one of my best friends about the horrors of some the plastic surgeons with whom we consulted and who were shocked  — shocked — that when presented with the opportunity for bigger boobs during the reconstruction process, I was adamant about going small.

My breast cancer education from Jan. 6 to Feb. 14, which was the day of my surgery, was the difference between a kindergartner learning her ABCs to a Ph.D. candidate successfully defending her dissertation. I walked into the pre-op room frightened and full of dread, although not because I was uninformed. But because major surgery is just plain scary.

I’m grateful that I have never been one to avoid doctors. I look forward to my twice-yearly teeth cleanings. To my annual Pap smear. To visiting the dermatologist to determine the existence of any suspicious moles. I’d rather know than not know. Of course I’d rather there’s nothing to know. But I cringe and my heart breaks upon hearing those stories of people who find out too late that they have something that could have been treated if detected earlier.

I grew up in a home where doctors were commonplace. Not because my parents are doctors (because they’re not, although I have a Jewish mom, which is kind of the same thing). Not because many of my parents’ friends are doctors (although many of them are). But because it’s just how my family is — we go to doctors. There’s nothing too small to investigate. We are not embarrassed to ask questions and have minor somethings investigated to ensure they are not major anythings. My insurance has always been good, or at least good enough. And I have just always loved my family from a place so deeply embedded in my bones to know that taking care of myself means being around for them for as long as possible.

I’m not asking anyone for a medal or a monument in my honor. My cancer was caught and treated early and for that, I am among a fabulously lucky group of women who won’t have to die of breast cancer. I assume most women would have attacked this same job with the zest and zeal that I did. I wanted, no needed, the spring cleaning to be behind me in order to reap the rewards of summer. And I plan to do just that.

Photo credit: Meredith Carroll

More from Meredith on Babble:

Follow Meredith on Twitter and check out her regular column on the op-ed page of The Denver Post at MeredithCarroll.com

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