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It All Started at The Drake Hotel is a five-part series chronicling one woman's cancer experience. Elizabeth gives us an uncut, uncensored version of her breast cancer story – and how food, family, friends and a little bit of Prosecco can go a long way.
When I checked into the Drake Hotel on a Friday afternoon for a romantic staycation, I didn't expect to check out with a life-changing diagnosis.
March 2013: An unexpected finding at
The Drake Hotel
On my last night at The Drake, I was facing the mirrored wall in the shower and pinning up my hair when I noticed a dimple on the outside of my left breast. Then I felt it. A lump about the size of a cherry. Firm. And just six months after my family doctor had found nothing on a breast exam.
I was 47, fit and active, and had no risk factors. Sure, I had a stressful job, but so do lots of people I know. It's not as though I worked in a conflict zone with
Médecins Sans Frontières.
On Monday morning, I called the Queen West Community Health Centre (CHC) and told the woman who answered I had found a lump and needed to see someone. Anyone. She didn't need to ask where the lump was.
My family doctor, Debbie Honickman, was on vacation, so she booked me in for the next evening to see Nghi, a new nurse practitioner.
Then I called my older brother, an infectious disease specialist and my anchor. "I found a lump," I said. He didn't need an explanation either. "Oh, babe…." he said. And for the first time, I started to cry.
On Tuesday evening, Nghi and I chatted first, about finding the lump. After examining me, she said, "I'm going to give you a referral for a mammogram and an ultrasound." She didn't frighten me, nor did she downplay the situation.
I had the imaging done over the next two days (during breaks while on jury duty) and was at the CHC on Friday morning to receive the results. Both Nghi and Rosie, another nurse practitioner I knew well, were there to give me the news: I needed a biopsy.
I had been looking forward to leaving on Sunday for a trip to Oakland, to present a paper at a national conference. I asked Nghi and Rosie if delaying the diagnosis for a week would impact outcomes, and they assured me it wouldn't.
I immediately connected with a friend at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and managed to get a referral to the Rapid Diagnostic Breast Clinic for the morning after my return from Oakland. Through my work at the University Health Network (UHN), I knew of many people who had visited the clinic as patients, or worked there as staff members.
Same-day service at the Breast Clinic
I had the biopsy on March 18, and was asked to come back in four hours, a remarkable turnaround. Thanks to a donation of just under $20 million from Emmanuelle Gattuso and family, women can get biopsy results same day.
During those few hours, I took a hot bath with a soothing soundtrack and a glass of Prosecco. As I soaked, I came to accept the fact that I had cancer. Between the urgency of ultrasound technician to get my results expedited, and the gravity of the nurse practitioners at my CHC, the writing was on the wall.
And yet I wasn't devastated by the thought of breast cancer. I had been keeping a gratitude journal for over a year, so when faced with a likely diagnosis, the positive things in my life still outweighed whatever health issues I had to deal with. Besides, I'm a tough cookie.
Back at Princess Margaret, a nurse practitioner I'd met that morning informed me that the tumour tested positive. She said it was probably Stage I or Stage II. In other words, we caught it early. Or so I thought.
My options? Although I could choose a mastectomy and immediate reconstruction, she said they recommend a lumpectomy followed by radiation. The outcomes are the same.
I wanted to keep my breast. I chose the lumpectomy.
Next, my surgeon and the head of the Breast Program, David McCready, examined me. I asked about prognosis, but he said he prefers avoiding the "numbers game." At the Princess Margaret, he explained, they practice evidence-based medicine and provide "maximum treatment and expect the best outcomes."
After he left the exam room, two more nurses came in to obtain my consent to the lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy. I showed them the full-year view of my agenda, where I'd highlighted all of my away dates. They smiled gently: "You're going to have to cancel your plans. You have to put your health first."
Am I going to let cancer keep me from living?
As if cancer could keep me from the maiden voyage of the Norwegian Breakaway, following the same course as the Titanic, with my daughter and our dear friends, or a presentation at an international conference affiliated with the World Health Organization in Sweden. A decision to cancel such singular events would just be feeding my own fear.
Besides, what if I never had the chance to do these things again?
I closed my agenda without saying anything. They couldn't possibly understand.
When I got home, my 16-year-old son, Solomon, was already back from school. I told him we had to Skype my 23-year-old daughter, Emily, who was in Paris. I had texted her during the cab ride home to give her a heads up.
"What's going on?" Solomon asked me.
I paused. "I have something to tell you both."
Telling those I love most was more difficult than learning the diagnosis myself.
First I told my children that I have some bad news. I said I was diagnosed with breast cancer, that it was early stage, a straightforward treatment. Nothing to be worried about!
But they were beside themselves. Emily was crying as she asked questions. Solomon was silent as tears leaked from his eyes.
What I remember most of that Skype conversation are Solomon's hands and arms. He repeatedly took my hands in his and put his arms around me, gestures so much stronger than words. I also remember wishing I could hug Emily.
Then I called my parents, and then my siblings called me. Over the next week, I had disclosed to my close friends.
Thanks to a cancellation, my surgery was scheduled for March 28, just 10 days after my diagnosis. My father flew from New York for the event. Solomon and Emily's dad and my close friend, Stephen Parkinson, made up the rest of my entourage.
Before the surgery, I used a pink Sharpie to write on my right (unaffected) breast: "What, no dinner first?"
I woke up from surgery just in time to say goodbye to my son, who was leaving to join his sister in Paris.
My father waited until Solomon gone to relay the news my surgeon had given him while I was in recovery.
In the best matter-of-fact way he could muster, and without making eye contact, he said, "So…you're going to need some chemotherapy…." David McCready already knew, without waiting for the pathology report: I had advanced stage breast cancer.
And for the second time since finding a lump at The Drake, I wept.
Stay tuned for
It All Started at The Drake Hotel: part two.
Elizabeth has a date with her daughter and a transatlantic cruise. She tackles chemotherapy, hair loss, and another unexpected tumour – this time on her spinal cord.
You can read more about Elizabeth's experience at
The Mental Breast.
*Special thanks to Elizabeth for sharing her story with such wit, elegance and candour.