There's No Easy Way to Tell the World I Have Breast Cancer (So Here Goes it)

Earlier tonight I was trying to help my 10-year-old with his homework. It didn't go so well. My body aches horribly, my brain is fuzzy, and when he moved his piece paper, I felt like I was going to vomit. In the next room, the news was on with updates about the situation in Ferguson, Mo. and the protest marches happening elsewhere across the nation due to the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

It feels surreal, to be doing homework with my son, knowing that another black mother a few thousands of miles away got her own son on the path to college, only for her boy to be gunned down and his body left out on the street for four hours. But what also makes this tough is the reason why my body aches and I feel sick.

On Tuesday I went through my first round of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy, as in the drugs that you have to take to kill whatever cancer has attacked your body.

In mid-July I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. It feels odd to write that, but it's the real deal. What does this mean? Here's the scientific breakdown from the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation:
"These subtypes of breast cancer are generally diagnosed based upon the presence, or lack of, three "receptors" known to fuel most breast cancers: estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). The most successful treatments for breast cancer target these receptors."
You with me so far? Yeah, if you're not, I don't blame you. I wasn't exactly sure what the heck the doctors were saying to me at first, either. Here's some more medical talk for you. Maybe it will help:
"Unfortunately, none of these receptors are found in women with triple negative breast cancer. In other words, a triple negative breast cancer diagnosis means that the offending tumor is estrogen receptor-negative, progesterone receptor-negative and HER2-negative, thus giving rise to the name 'triple negative breast cancer.'"
When the doctors first told me I was seriously confused. I thought being triple negative was them saying they'd gotten my initial diagnosis wrong. All my mind could jump to was STD tests--you know how folks are THRILLED to be told they are negative for HIV or negative for herpes. So I figured this triple negative diagnosis must be something good.
"On a positive note, this type of breast cancer is typically responsive to chemotherapy. Because of its triple negative status, however, triple negative tumors generally do not respond to receptor targeted treatments. Depending on the stage of its diagnosis, triple negative breast cancer can be particularly aggressive, and more likely to recur than other subtypes of breast cancer."
Awesome news: Responds well to chemotherapy. Not awesome news: Can be super aggressive and come back.

I've been pretty healthy all my life. I've run multiple marathons. I've been a vegetarian since 1991, and I don't smoke or drink. I breast-fed both my sons. I don't even use chemical hair color. My vices? Insomnia and Coke Zero. My oncologist told me that occasionally drinking the latter won't give you cancer. "But it will give you a stroke," she clarified. Good to know.

In one recent unfortunate conversation I was encouraged to figure out what I'm doing wrong in my life--what did I do to make myself get cancer?

Sorry, it doesn't work that way. Cancer isn't like catching a cold or flu. Cancer cells are genetic mutations. Someone who eats crap and doesn't exercise may never get it. Meanwhile, someone else who takes pretty good care of herself will get it. My doctor told me the average age of diagnosis is 61-years-old. But my mom doesn't have cancer. I do.

And although it's not fully understood why, this particular cancer, triple negative, tends to disproportionately affect young black women. In the U.S. alone a full 30 percent of breast cancers that black women get are triple negative.

That was a shock to me. I'd never even heard of triple negative breast cancer before. And that's one of the reasons I've decided to tell folks about my diagnosis. If it encourages anyone else there to get themselves checked out, being so public with my diagnosis will be all worth it.

Seriously, you can be 25-years-old and get it. That means if you're a black woman and you wait till you turn 40 to get a mammogram, it could be too late for you. Please get yourself checked because the age recommendations for mammograms are from medical studies of white women, not women of color.

And how many sistas out there are doing their regular self exams? If you're not, learn how and get to feeling up your boobs. That's how I found my lump.

The past three weeks have been a bit of a blur. I went on vacation up the coast with my family--I wanted to have one last bit of fun before our world descended into cancer/chemotherapy madness. It was a good decision. Tonight I was looking back at those pictures, remembering how I felt like myself.

I can't describe how chemotherapy feels. I just feel weird. My body aches. Even my teeth hurt. But I went to work the past two days. It's been tough but I didn't want to be home alone. If I keeled over and died, at least there would be someone around to notice. Besides, I wanted some sense of normalcy, some indication that my life is not about to fall apart.

Perhaps the biggest lesson for me has been being willing to ask other folks for help and accept help that's offered. My friends, both here in Los Angeles and elsewhere, have been seriously generous to me.

I can't clean my house. The smell of any household chemicals makes me nauseous. This is terrible for me because I can't stand mess all around. So when my friends say they want to come wash my dishes or clean my bathroom, I am not going to say no. My poor husband is in the kitchen washing dishes right now. My 13-year-old cleaned the bathroom earlier tonight. They're troopers.

Before my first chemo treatment on Tuesday, I liked eating. Now, I have never had less of a desire to even smell food. But I have to eat to keep my energy up. So when the sweet folks I work with offer to get me soup from Whole Foods for lunch, I say yes.

I can't drive. The chemo drugs (and all the other stuff I have to take to manage the side effects) make me feel very slow and dizzy. Trust me, you don't want me behind the wheel on the streets of Los Angeles. So for now I'm taking the bus and when my friends offer to drive me somewhere, I graciously accept.

Then there have been those friends who have sent me care packages, sweet notes of encouragement, and have even loaned me a juicer. They also set up a fundraiser for me because having cancer isn't cheap. Every time I pull into one of those $18 parking spots at UCLA's cancer center, I think about all the low income families in Los Angeles, like the parents of my former students when I taught in Compton, who can't afford that.

How often does the cost of treatment keep women from taking care of ourselves? If a woman works an hourly job or lives on a fixed income, real talk, it's pretty impossible for her to take the time to drive out to UCLA, the best hospital on the West Coast (which is why I go there) for treatment.

I've also come to terms with the reality that thanks to the chemotherapy drugs, all my hair will fall out in a couple of weeks. This morning I got on the bus and the driver was all, "OMG your hair is sooo awesome!" I almost blurted out that it won't be around much longer. At least if I'm bald, I won't have to have an imaginary Do Not Pet My Afro sign across my forehead. (Silver lining.)

It's all a small price to pay for getting healthy. So I'll rock my Depeche Mode t-shirts to those appointments and keep a smile on my face. All so that I can sit next to my son and fuss over his homework this time next year. After all, that's something Michael Brown's mother won't ever get to do again.

Comments

Q said…
Liz,

I just read this, and I wanted to thank you (if that's the right phrase) for sharing your story. My grandmother died from breast cancer at the age of 51, well before my parents were married, and I've got cancer running throughout my family. Your words are powerful, and if they encourage one person to get the checkups and tests they need to help them, you'll have saved lives. I'll be thinking about you as you continue to undergo your treatment, and sending many good vibes your way.

And playing some Depeche Mode for you too.

-mike
:( I'm here for you. Whatever you need!
Love ya and praying for you,
Joy
If you need cleaning or driving, let me know. Happy to help. Xo- Alessandra
Chookooloonks said…
Oh SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT, Liz. FUCK CANCER.

You're in my good thoughts. Will be sending you a steady stream of them.

K.
Pam Williams said…
Prayers for you and divine healing. I know all to well what you are going through. I am 5 years cancer free from triple negative breast cancer also BRCA1. You can and will kick cancer's butt. Britni Danielle's post led me here. Take care and if you ever need to ask any questions or vent I'm a click away.
Toni Campbell said…
Thank you for sharing your story. I know I'm all the way across the country, but I am good for prayers, good energy, and book recommendations when you need them.
Christian said…
Good luck! From one Depeche Mode fan to another.
Adding you to my prayer list and upping my commitment to my work, in your honor.
Anonymous said…
Wishing you well on this most unwanted journey, and sharing your post with two of my closest friends who have never had a mammogram. I had no idea that this triple negative cancer existed until I read this, much less that two girls who mean the world to me are at a heightened risk AND may not be encouraged to get a mammogram until too late. You will rock the bald look!
Unknown said…
You blog ate my comment. I blame cancer because it's an asshole and makes everything difficult. Donated and am sending positive thoughts. You are brave and strong and it's a sign of your bravery that you can ask for help. Love to you and your family and everyone else who is there to help you through this.
Glen Hammarstrom said…
Keeping you and your family in my thoughts Liz! Stay strong and fight!
Anonymous said…
Best wishes and prayers for a full recovery from Belfast.
slobig said…
Stay strong! We'll be thinking of you, but we all know it'll take more than this to break Liz Dwyer. Much love from San Francisco.
Anonymous said…
Of course, Liz. Of course as you fight for your health, you fight for others. You provide such perspective, a vulnerability and a strength simultaneously. Cancer won't know what's hit it. Sending you lots and lots of love always. Let me know how I can help beyond the above. :)
Breana Daniels said…
I'm in love with your spirit. I'm in awe of your grace and strength of self. In spite of what you are facing, you are informing women like me not only to take care of themselves, but the best ways in which it can/should be done. You more than rock! You fly and soar above all others. I've told you before, and I'll tell you again...if you need me, I'm there. No time difference or plane fare could keep me from you. You are my girl. You always have been. Bald or Fro'd, you always will be. Love you to the moon!
Sucker punched. Oh, Liz.
Unknown said…
Dammit, Liz. I am so sorry to hear this. I will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers.
Sili said…
I don't know you but I will be praying and praying and praying. And if there's an address where I can send you a care package (I saw this post on Denene's timeline and I'm not a complete creeper), please let me know and I will ship it your way. I got no words. Just prayers.

oxoxox
Unknown said…
I'm so sorry to hear this, Liz. Will be keeping you in my thoughts and prayers <3
Anonymous said…
I wish you the very best and I hope the good days far outnumber the bad. From a devotee in Sheffield, England.
Liz, this saddens me to hear, but I'm going to be sending you all the happy vibes I can muster. Keep you head up and if I can do anything, even if it is just coming by to share a smile and a laugh on a day you are up to it, let me know!
Julie said…
Ugh. I'm so sorry to hear this. You will be in my thoughts.
Anonymous said…
Sad to hear that. I don't know you personally but I've seen that picture of you with Martin Gore and thought "wow, such a lucky woman!" and you truly are, despite having this disease because you have your family supporting you, sadly a lot of people don't have that.

Please be strong and you don't know me, but I'll be sending you a lot of good vibes ~

Lots of hugs for you and I liked that last paragraph, Depeche Mode always with us in the bad and good times!
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Unknown said…
sad to hear that...
youre pretty tough though,going through all this chemo and thing...
i have a neighbour whos having the last stage of chemo-she has breast cancer as well-and has shaved her hair off!looks pretty good!
youre both tough ladies!im sure you will recover soon...keep your head up...
good luck...
love from konya,turkey
Kim Moldofsky said…
I think of you every time I hear a Depeche Mode song. Just saw this and my first response was anger. Damn you, cancer! I'm sorry for the news Liz. You are strong, you have lots of family who love you and a supportive group online and IRL who care about you. Sending you good vibes and healing thoughts.
Liz Dwyer said…
Oh that is one of my FAVORITE pictures. (OK, any pic with me and MLG is one of my faves.) but seriously, thank you for the kind wishes and it's so good to have the support of dear DM fans both near and far.
Liz Dwyer said…
I was really in shock and I think I still kinda am. But hopefully a year from now I'll be cancer free--and I really could NOT do this without the love and support of my friends and family. :)
Lana Bogan said…
I wrote a long response to your email, but deleted it. Too exhausting to read. Just a bunch of suggestions revolving around PUSH "Pray Until Someting Happens." But that's a specific conversation. At another time. I deeply feel you Liz!

Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks, Jelena. YES, please encourage them to go get checked.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks, Mike. Sorry so long to reply. Just been wiped out. Whew. :)
Liz Dwyer said…
Thank you, Joy! Hope all is well with you.
Liz Dwyer said…
Keep those good thoughts coming lady. Hope it's not too long before I see you again.
Liz Dwyer said…
Pam so glad to hear that you hit that 5 year mark. YES! Thank you for your prayers.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thank you, Phyllis. xos.
Liz Dwyer said…
I may need some good book recommendations altho one of the bummers right now is if I look at words too long I start to feel dizzy.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thank you, Christian. So appreciated.
Ask A Brotha said…
Prayers for you, your sons, and your husband during this battle. You can survive, you should survive, you will survive.
Allison said…
Hi Liz, A friend of mine, Demetrius Sajous-Brady, shared your post on FB and I wanted to pass on a resource. I am currently training for the Chicago Marathon representing Imerman Angels. Imerman Angels is an organization that matches cancer patients (and caregivers if needed) to a mentor "angel" who is a person of the same gender, age range, who had the same kind of cancer. It is a way to get a level of support beyond what well meaning family and friends can provide. While based in Chicago, Imerman Angels has angels all over the country and internationally. You can google Imerman Angels to learn more. Best of luck, wishing you strength and wellness in the days ahead.
Meryl Rizzotti said…
Hi Liz: I saw your post and my heart goes out to you. My father died of Male Breast Cancer 9 months to the day before my daughter was born. At the time it was pretty rare and there was no known correlation between men who had breast cancer and their daughters getting it. My father was the victim of medical malpractice--he had the lump for over a year before he could get a surgeon to remove it. His second wife was a doctor and she was unconcerned--her comment, "ask your doctor". Needless to say, after a mastectomy and many other procedures he died after 5 years. On a funny note he never lost a hair. About 6 years ago it was discovered on mammography that I had DCIS which would never have been discovered by breast self exam. I, naturally, was panicked but with the help of a friend who had "real" breast cancer I was reassured that I would be ok. I had a lumpectomy and a sentinel node biopsy which was negative. My tumor was estrogen receptor negative while my father's tumor was estrogen receptor positive. My father, a second cousin on his side, and myself are the only ones in our family that ever had cancer; so heredity is not always indicative of what will happen. My only course of treatment was 6 weeks of daily radiation. It wouldn't hurt to have a consultation at City of Hope as well--they do great things there. You should also discuss with your oncologist your sons' risk factors. More and more men are getting breast cancer. Keep your chin up and do things that make you laugh--great medicine. You obviously have a lot of support, you have a positive attitude and you will survive.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks for sharing your story, Meryl. What a journey you and your family have been on. I have heard a little about City of Hope. I have to check them out. Have already had convos about risk factors for my sons and am glad that the doctors are bringing it up because most of us don't really think about men getting breast cancer. Best to you. ;)
Liz Dwyer said…
Ah freaking comment eating! Thanks for donating--so sweet of you. DIE CANCER DIE! :)
Liz Dwyer said…
The DM mix you made me is in heavy rotation. THANK YOU!
Liz Dwyer said…
Thank you so much!
Liz Dwyer said…
Hey Allison, Thanks for the heads up. I have never heard of this before. What a GREAT organization--I just went and signed up for an angel. I can't wait till I can be on the other side and BE someone else's angel. HUGS and THANK YOU.
Liz Dwyer said…
Heh, I was listening to Gloria Gaynor earlier today and now your comment reminds me how I was belting out "I will survive!" ;) Thank you for the prayers.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks, Nukhet. Hugs to your neighbor and WOOT she made it through chemo!
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks so much. :)
Liz Dwyer said…
Sili -- lol, that word creeper cracks me up. Email me at los.angelista@gmail.com and I'll give you my addy. So kind of you to offer.
Liz Dwyer said…
You know one of the things that made me MOST mad when I first found about my diagnosis was that I had breastfed those boys for years (18 months and 3 years) and folks would always tell me "you will never get breast cancer because you nursed them so long" and I think I'd started to believe it. Ah well. Thank you for the prayers.
Liz Dwyer said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks, Chelsea. You gotta come over and see me one of these days. Want to hear all about your wedding plans!
Liz Dwyer said…
You better watch out cos next thing you know I'm gonna assign you to de-funk my sons room. ;) Just kidding. Would love to hear what you're up to one of these days.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks, Z! Those SF memories were just what we needed before all this madness.
Liz Dwyer said…
Ack, I was trying to reply to everyone else's comments but they keep getting eaten! JUST KNOW I love and appreciate your words of encouragement and care. HUGS!
Liz Dwyer said…
I keep trying to reply to all the comments but this form keeps eating them. I don't know why or how but just wanted to say THANK YOU to everyone who has left me encouragement and good thoughts. SO appreciated.
Kim Coles said…
Helllllloooooo beautiful!
I remember that I met you somewhere very "woman- empower-y" right? Was is Maria Shriver's event?
Anyway, I told you then how much I admire you and I'll tell you that again. You are strong and you can beat this!
We are all holding you in our prayers and well wishes and I see total healing and RE- GROWTH of hair too, mama! I cannot resist sending you a WooWOOWoo!!! xoxoxoxoox Kim Coles
Anonymous said…
Wishing you a speedy recovery! I know it's going to continue to be a challenging journey, but don't lose heart. You can beat this! Sending you love, light and my regards, KR
Anonymous said…
Wow. For a while now I kept thinking "I haven't read LosAngelista in a while; I need to check in"...Now I see why. I'm going STRAIGHT to the point: there are several proven natural remedies that KILL CANCER CELLS rapidly. Perhaps you already know, perhaps you don't. Turmeric the culinary spice is a super cancer cell killer. It makes mustard yellow, people use it for yellow rice, etc., etc. Ask your doctor to be certain it doesn't conflict with current treatment. I could write a book on cancer information...but the info is out there. Sigh: I'm gonna add this...The FDA has practically made it a crime in this country to declare that there are cures for cancer so I'll just say this: "Back to Eden" by Jethro Kloss. Book. Get it. Today. He was CURING cancer with natural remedies ions ago. Bless you. --Jennifer in D.C.
Chookooloonks said…
They're still coming, friend. Constantly. And yes, we'll connect -- in the new year, perhaps?

Stay strong,

K.
Marcy Massura said…
Well holy crap Liz. I am so bummed to hear this news. But I know if anyone can have the moxie and motivation to kick cancers butt- it will be you. So I had a mammogram yesterday. Waiting to hear....let me add this is such a weird comment. I don't know what to frickin say here. Wait, I know....I just want to say I LIKE YOU and believe you will be well. And if there is like anything I could possibly do...ask. Hang tough. Kick ass. :)

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