by Karen Cleveland
The Boobyball is a true party. It gives Toronto a shot of life when it needs it most, as the weather cools and the reality sets in that summer (and patio season) are finally over. The event delivers on its objective of raising awareness of breast cancer in a fun way, as opposed to how the cause is typically approached: clinical messages, often couched in fear.
In addition to raising awareness, the Boobyball also raises money (and an awful lot of it, too) for Rethink Breast Cancer.
Before the doors opened to the nearly 1,000 guests on Friday night (fully kitted out in campy or glammed up nautical attire, per the cruise-theme), there was a smaller, intimate reception where media and sponsors were invited to hear some powerful words from the team that started this event and continue to champion it eight years later.
I actually started my career with Rethink Breast Cancer and sat on the Boobyball committee in 2008, so it was a bit of a homecoming for me. I was overwhelmed with nostalgia and a caustic sense of pride, simply marvelling at what my friends had done with this idea. It was announced in this reception that a portion of the funds raised that night were earmarked for a new program that Rethink was undertaking – a support system to connect women facing breast cancer with women that had beat it.
Despite the convivial, celebratory spirit in the room and the steady flow of champagne, I asked myself: if I had cancer, would I be lucky to have women like this hold me up?
Last spring, life was moving incredibly fast but wonderfully for me. I took a risk (and a leap of faith) and accepted a new job that I was so excited for, and was beginning in a few short weeks. I had just returned from Mexico for some much needed downtime before facing the new position and tackling some daunting home renovations.
In the excitement of securing this new job, resigning the old one and planning for a vacation, I put off some long overdue appointments. But realizing that I’d be without medical coverage for some time, I hastily booked time with my physiotherapist, dentist and my g.p. for my annual physical.
In the spirit of moving through the battery of appointments as quickly as possible, I booked off an entire afternoon and got a full once-over in one fell swoop. I raced from one appointment to the other, not expecting anything more than the usual discomfort and inconvenience that comes with check ups.
My last appointment of the day was for my annual physical with my g.p. While she checked my blood pressure, my thoughts drifted – I’m so fortunate my previous employers support this career move. Wow, I’m lucky. I’m nervous but excited about working contract, something I haven’t done since I started my career out of university. I already miss that Mexican sun on my skin. I wonder who is making dinner tonight? My thoughts continued to linger as my doctor examined my breasts. Then, I was interrupted and brought back down to earth when she kept returning to one particular spot on my right breast. “Karen,” she deadpanned, “how long has this lump been here?”
My first reaction wasn`t fear or panic — I was embarrassed. I sheepishly admitted that I couldn’t remember the last time I checked my breasts, an omission made all the more ominous by a family history of breast cancer. She guided my hand to the spot she had gently manipulated and it was unmistakeable. How had I possibly missed this dense, hard, pebble-like lump, the size of a dime?
As the examination continued, I ran the numbers in my head: statistics I knew well from my days at Rethink. Breast cancer is extremely rare in women in my age range. But I also remember literature explaining that in the rare cases of women diagnosed in their 20’s and 30’s, their cancers were often aggressive.
After I was dressed, my doctor returned to the room and told me what the next steps were: a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. In a few days.
The small seed of anxiety growing in my stomach grew and stretched into my throat. I couldn’t swallow. I didn’t want to start to cry. I knew anecdotally that waiting times for mammograms and ultrasounds were weeks or months at best.
What did she know that she insisted these tests take place in a matter of days?
The appointment was two days away. One more sleep. I’d check the lump obsessively. Every time I changed, or used the bathroom, or showered, I`d feel it and a sense of dread would wash over me. Had it changed shape? Was it harder? Had it moved?
The next day and a half was a blur. I closed the door to my office and thankfully, could hide behind the guise of leaving my job for why I wasn’t acting like myself. My colleagues immediately noticed a change in my behaviour. I wasn’t social. I worked with my head down, door shut.
The day of my follow-up appointment, I felt pretty good until the receptionist called my name and waved me to follow her to the room to meet the surgeon who would be performing my tests.
The surgeon, with crazy hair and big carton eyes, introduced himself and instantly put me at ease. I hopped up on the table with the attitude of “let’s just get this over with”. The doctor felt around for all of one second before his fingers landed on the spot. I expected him to shrug, tell me it was nothing. I waited for it. Instead he frowned and went “hmm”. The tightness rose in my throat again.
“Karen, we’re not going to do a mammogram or ultrasound”, he said. “Yes!” I thought, “thank goodness!”
“We’re going to take some samples, that means we’re going to do a biopsy, right now”.
I asked could he freeze it [no], would it hurt [it will feel like a pinch], is it ok if I look away [yes] and could he please ask me questions to distract me [yes].
I turned my head, my left cheek pressed flat against the paper on the examining table. I felt the cool of the alcohol swab and a few tears sneaking out, trickling down my face. I was happy I was facing away from him. I was embarrassed that I was crying – and namely, over what. I was crying because it was a bit painful but mostly because the situation completely blindsided me: I felt totally out of control. I was scared. Two days before that, I was celebrating the good news of a new job and in a state of post-vacation bliss, revelling in how healthy I felt after some time in the sun and ocean. This was not in my plans. I couldn`t pump myself up for this. I didn`t have time to prepare myself for this – whatever this is.
When I had the go ahead to sit up and get dressed, I awkwardly tried to clean up my face and put my bra and top back on. The surgeon`s office was one door over from the examining room.
In an effort to break the tension, I breezed in to his office, flashed him a million dollar smile and said “well, good thing I took that like a champ!” He mustered a grin (one look at my red eyes and mascara-streaked cheeks, and it was very clear that I took it like a wimp) and gestured for me to sit. He talked me through that this might be nothing, but it may be something. A biopsy is the most comprehensive test so that’s why he opted out of the other two tests and cut right to the chase. He asked about my lifestyle (non smoker, regular exerciser, occasional drinker) and my family history (breast cancer on both maternal and paternal sides, no one in first generation lineage, touch wood).
I was told that in five days, I was to call the receptionist. If the findings were troubling, he would ask me to come in person to discuss. If they were not, the receptionist would tell me as much over the phone. In the car, I turned my phone back on and glanced at the calendar. Fancy that, five days from now is the day I start my new job.
Before going to work, I touched up my makeup and conceded that for the next few days, I had to keep busy or I’d go crazy playing the “what if” game. Back at work, door shut again, I called my mom. Her furtive mom-radar would pick this up in no time, so I might as well be straight with her. Her response was encouraging: over the years she too has had some lumps and bumps, several biopsies and even one lump removed. All were of no cause for concern. I took solace in that and resolved that for the next five days, I needed to focus on making a smooth transition between jobs and keeping this as neat as possible. The fewer people I told meant the fewer people I’d have to share the results with, whatever the results were.
Over the next few days, I did what I`m best at, and that is burying myself in a task. I snapped into project management mode and focused on what I needed to do to wrap my current job and start my new one. I wrote letters to my current clients and gussied up my portfolio. I obsessively cleaned my closet, mended clothes, affixed renegade buttons and polished shoes.
My colleagues gave me a lovely send off and essentially shut down the office for the last few hours of the day and gathered everyone for a drink. People said really nice things about working with me. They gave me a poster that was a blow up photo of me, and everyone signed it (like a yearbook, but better). I couldn`t tell which were tears of gratitude or fear.
On the day before I started my new job (test result day, I could call in at 11am), it was a miserable, rainy Sunday. I had absolutely nothing to do: I had done and redone everything around my house twice over. I read every magazine and newspaper cover to cover. I called everyone I wanted to chat with. The moment that I had nothing to distract me, I had a total meltdown on my kitchen floor. What if I need cancer drugs and now I’ve lost my benefits? What if they just flat out fire me – they have nothing vested in me. What if this is the beginning and tomorrow will always be the day that everything started?
My morning at my new gig was great. At 10:58am I found a private area to make the call from. The results were great. Best news I could ever ask to hear. To be short about it, the lump was a fibroid adenoma – not cancerous – and there was actually a smaller one on my other breast as well, but deeper so it was very tough to feel. To err on the side of caution, my surgeon set out a year`s worth of mammograms and ultrasounds. Time well spent, as far as I was concerned.
Each appointment, after I’d pop my stuff in the locker and sit in the waiting room wearing a paper gown, I`d look around the room at women my mom’s age, and we’ve give each other a smile or slight nod – some sort of gesture or acknowledgement of solidarity, something to say “I hope your tests go well”. From the series of mammograms and ultrasounds, so many people saw my breasts last year, it was ridiculous.
My body and I have a new relationship now. I am committed to being kind to it. I try to accept it. It works. It`s healthy. It`s certainly not perfect, but it is the only one I’ll ever have. I am conscious now of the inner dialogue that I used to have. I work hard to stop that voice that was forever critiquing my body (and let`s be honest, whatever state our bodies are in now, we’ll be looking back at photos when we`re 70 and know that these were the glory days). I shut off that narrative of picking myself apart in the mirror, or trash talking myself when trying on clothes. I`ve always been quite comfortable in my skin, but I`ve also always been hard on myself.
This was a nice surprise to discover. What an unexpected derivative from this stress.
So when I poured myself into a body-conscious dress for the Boobyball and it was a little snug around my hips (seriously, I swear it didn’t fit like that before!), I fought the hard-wired instinct to curse myself for missing a few runs this week. I grabbed my heels (and a sailor hat) and a glass of champagne. I was celebrating more than raising funds tonight.