Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Getting by with a little help from my fellow authors

Kindle: http://amzn.to/1x1oo3u
Nook: http://bit.ly/1CGXHEr
iTunes http://bit.ly/1x1qD6W
Kobo http://bit.ly/1xEK48M
They went behind my back. Yes, they planned all of it behind my back. It was only after a cover was nearly completed and a host of authors had signed on to be a part of it that authors Norah Wilson and Dianna Love told me about their idea — a box set to help raise money for my medical expenses.

I burst into tears.

For those of you who don’t know, I was diagnosed with breast cancer on April 21. After I had a bilateral mastectomy in June, they found that the cancer had spread to a single lymph node, making chemo and radiation advisable. I’m recovering from my last chemotherapy treatment now and will start five weeks of daily radiation treatments on Nov. 3. Sometime next year, I’ll be healed enough to undergo reconstructive surgery.

Although I have health insurance, I’ve used up my entire savings on co-pays and “co-insurance.” To make matters worse, I’ve been too sick to write. For a self-employed author, that’s bad news. It means, among other things, that I have no resources going into next year’s medical care, including reconstruction. My fellow authors know this, and that’s what led some of them to conspire together to create the LAST HERO STANDING box set.

[Read more about why these authors chose to act here.]

The box set contains 12 stories — 11 stories from 11 authors, plus a bonus short story from Dianna Love — and costs only 99 cents. That's 99 cents for the equivalent of 2,000 pages of fiction. Included in the box set is my novella First Strike, the erotic prequel to Striking Distance.

Participating authors include New York Times bestsellers Dianna Love, Cynthia Eden, Elisabeth Naughton, Joan Swan, Bonnie Vanak; USA Today bestsellers Norah Wilson, Adrienne Giordano, and Mary Buckham; and award-winning authors Stephanie Rowe and Tracey Devlin. The stories range from romantic suspense to paranormal to contemporary. So, although most readers of this blog have likely read First Strike, there are lots of other great stories to be found in this set.
It has been a hard road and oftentimes a lonely one. Chemo made my immune system crash. Even a cold could be life-threatening to me at this point. As a result, I’ve been on a kind of reverse isolation, restricted to my home, where I can receive very few visitors for fear that someone might be sick and not realize it.

Yet, despite the isolation, I've found so much support among my readers and fellow romance authors. They’ve reached out with cards, phone calls, emails and gifts to tell me that I wasn’t alone. While I sat here putting this blog post today, UPS arrived with Mrs. Fields cookies sent by author Julie James. I can’t tell you what the kindness of these remarkable people has meant to me in the darkest hours of fighting this terrible disease.

LAST HERO STANDING is available for one month only, and all the proceeds go toward my medical fund. Thanks so much for your support and concern!

Kindle: http://amzn.to/1x1oo3u
Nook: http://bit.ly/1CGXHEr
iTunes http://bit.ly/1x1qD6W
Kobo http://bit.ly/1xEK48M

Monday, September 15, 2014

DANGER & DESIRE Box Set is out!

If you love sexy romantic suspense, here’s the box set for you. It features 10 full-length novels from some of he top names in romantic suspense. The stories have amassed more than 2,000 five-star reviews between them — a mind-boggling thought. All of that for 99 cents.

I was invited to be a part of this box set and contributed my story Skin Deep (I-Team 5.5). Though many of you have read Skin Deep, there’s a good chance you haven’t read all of these authors. Even one of these stories for 99 cents is a deal. Getting all 10 is pretty fabulous.

This is a limited edition box set, available this month only. Grab it while you can!

Here are the links:

You can find the box set here: 
Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00MSDGZZG
Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00MSDGZZG
iBooks: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/danger-desire-ten-full-length/id911614667?mt=11&uo=4 
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/danger-and-desire-amber-lin/1120185366?ean=2940046118360
Kobo: http://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/danger-and-desire

I can’t believe it’s been two months since I posted. I’ve had two surgeries since my last post, and am halfway through chemo treatments. In that same span of time, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the same terrible disease that killed my Danish father. It has been a tremendously rough year for my family. At the same time, we’re doing what we can to pull through.

I seem to be tolerating chemo fairly well, though, of course, I feel sick much of the time. But that is the topic of my upcoming Chemo Diaries that I’ll share soon here on my blog.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A life well lived, a hard farewell

Preben Hoch, 1981

I first met Preben Hoch in the summer of 1981 when I went as a Rotary Club exchange student to Denmark. My Rotary Club liaison, Niels Henriksen, drove me from the little town of Sorø, where I would soon be going to school, out to the Hoch home in Bromme Forest. I was nervous, of course, only 17 and on the other side of the world.

My first impression of Preben was that he was very tall, a big, big man. He didn’t speak a word of English, really, but he flashed me the bright smile that would eventually become dear to me. I didn’t speak Danish, but Inga Hoch, his wife, was an English teacher. Thanks to her interpretation skills, we had our first conversation.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Preben and Inga would become two of the most important people in my life. I was to have three host families during my year in Denmark, and they were my second. But they were far more than a host family in the end. They were family, plain and simple.

I moved into their home on Nov. 20, 1981, a day that is important to me because nine years later it would become my younger son Benjamin’s birthday. I wrote in my journal about how I immediately felt at home both with the family and with my bedroom, which I described in detail. I put my stuff in the room, then had tea with the family, joined them in watching an old World War II movie on TV, and then headed to bed.

Preben and Inga in Bromme, 1982

By November, I spoke adequate Danish, and we quickly fell into a pattern. Preben, who worked as the manager of Bromme Forest, a big stretch of beech and pine that belonged to my school, loved to tell jokes. He would start supper by telling a joke or sharing some kind of Danish saying — especially ones that had double entendres. This would earn him a rebuke from Inga, and usually I didn’t understand anyway. He would explain, and I would laugh.

Bromme Forest

Laughter. That’s what I remember so much about my time with the Hoch family. I remember, too, how Preben used to tease me. But this wasn’t unkind teasing or bullying. Everything he said was geared toward making me feel good about myself. One night as we were walking into a restaurant, he slipped my arm through his and said, “Quick! Hold onto my arm! Everyone will think I’m here with a beautiful young woman.”

Many years later, I met with Preben and Inga in 1997 when they traveled to Arizona on vacation. I told them things they didn’t know about me. I shared the fact that I’d been sexually assaulted as a child and that my coming to Denmark had been a means of escaping a small town where I had been bullied.

Dinner with Inga and Preben in 1997

They weren’t surprised.

“We knew something had happened to you, but we didn’t know what," Inga said. “We felt we could help you by giving you as normal a life as possible during the short time you were with us.”

Those three months helped me to change my life. They were part of the saving of me. Their sincere effort to help a strange girl from far away was an act of compassion that made all the difference in my small world.

I spent my first Danish Christmas with Preben and Inga. I turned 18 beneath their roof, while Preben turned 50. (So old!!!) I watched my first lunar eclipse and found myself shaken by the realization that time passes and cannot be reclaimed. I realized that, just as the the lunar eclipse had passed with time marking itself in the slow disappearance and reappearance of the moon, my days in Denmark would pass, too. And so would my life.

It was pretty heavy thinking for my 18-year-old brain and left me with a melancholy ache in my heart. I remember that night to this day, but I’m sure the feeling passed quickly. When one is 18, life beckons so strongly. There isn’t time to think about much else.

Dinner with Preben and Inga in Bromme, 1999
I went back to visit in 1999 and spent a good few weeks beneath their roof. It felt like old times with leisurely breakfasts together, walks in the forest, lots of jokes and laughter. I felt like I had come home. I even slept in my old room.

But now time has passed, so much time. That restaurant where we had dinner now belongs to a classmate of mine and has been transformed into a residence. He lives there with his wife and kids. The house in Bromme still stands. A thatched-roof cottage from a couple of centuries back, it is now occupied by someone else. 

Paying respect to the past, 2014

My Danish sister, Christina, took me there for a visit the day before my 50th birthday, the two of us strolling through a shared past. In addition to other changes, a tree had been planted in Preben’s honor. Marked with a sign that reads “Hoch’s Oak,”  it commemorates his many decades of service to the forest. Standing beside it, I couldn’t help but get teary eyed.

Standing near Hoch’s Oak, 2014

I spent part of that day and the next with Preben and Inga. Preben was confined to a wheel chair, and Inga, too, had limited mobility, both of them having been stricken with Parkinson’s. I will always cherish the handful of hours I spent with them. 

“Do you remember your 18th birthday?” Preben asked, struggling to speak.

“Of course, I do.” 

I repeated the embarrassing story about having been drunk under the table by my Danish brother, Tomas, and having to be helped to bed. And then there was something about them trying to convince me that the forest was full of wild pigs... Or something...

Though he didn’t have much mobility in his facial muscles, Preben smiled and gave a little laugh. 

Benjamin, my younger son, was with me that day. He doesn’t speak Danish, so he and Preben had no direct way to communicate. But Preben found his way beyond that, taking Benjamin’s hand and holding it in silence. 

Tea with Benjamin, Preben and Inga on my 50th birthday
Before we left, I hugged both Preben and Inga tight and told them I love them. It’s not the first time I’ve said those words to them, but I wanted to let them know, as if they already didn’t, how very much they mean to me. When the time came for us to say farewell, I wasn’t the only one in tears. Benjamin had been deeply touched by meeting the two people who had played such an important role in his mother’s life. Preben wept, as well.

I returned from that trip to Europe to get the news that I had breast cancer. I sent word to my Danish family, certain that Preben and Inga would want to know. I went through my double mastectomy and am now almost six weeks post-op. 

My brother David and I were in South Dakota on our madcap, spontaneous road trip to Mount Rushmore, when I got word from Christina that Preben had passed away. I couldn’t read most of the message because my eyes instantly filled with tears.

“Do you want to go home now?” asked David.

We had just driven for six hours, so I was blown away that he could be that selfless. He’d come up with the idea of making the drive as a way of cheering me up and giving me something else to think about besides cancer and chemo and survival rates.

“Are you kidding?” I said, laughing and crying at the same time. “Preben loved life. He would want us to see the fuck out of this.”

And so we did. 

One of the first places Preben and Inga took me on my tour of the countryside near their home was Bromme Kirke, a 1,000-year-old church that sits on a hill looking down on the area where Hoch’s Oak now stands. They told me a bit about the church’s history and told me that they were going to be buried there when they died. My 17-year-old self found it rather macabre that anyone would find peace in knowing where they were going to be buried one day.

Bromme Kirke
Today — July 16 — Preben will at last be laid to rest at Bromme Kirke. He’ll rest above the forest he spent his adult life tending in a cemetery that overlooks the tree that was planted in his honor.  

I am heartbroken that I will never see that 100-watt smile again, that I’ll never listen to another one of his semi-dirty jokes, that I’ll never be able to hug him again. But I rejoice in knowing that I had those last hours with him on my birthday. He met Benjamin, and I was able to say those three precious words again: “I love you.”

 I am relieved for his sake to know he is beyond suffering now. In the end, he was ready to leave this life. 

My thoughts now are with Inga and the rest of the family — daughters, sons, step-daughters, grandchildren. I hope they know how very much I care about them.  I had always planned to be there, but there is no way I could manage a trip to Denmark now. 

So I sit on my sofa, surrounded by mementos of the part of my life that intersected so blessedly with Preben’s and Inga’s — photos, journals, the table cloth they gave me as a wedding present, the set of silverware they sent me when they moved out of the house in Bromme to a smaller residence in Sorø.

Can a life pass so quickly? All our lives are rushing by, it seems.

I find myself thinking of the lessons I learned from him, lessons about living fully and keeping a sense of humor. As I continue my fight against breast cancer — a fight I plan to win — I think of how gracefully he dealt with Parkinson’s Disease. Even when he could no longer care for himself, he wasn’t bitter. 

I am so lucky to have met him, and I’m so grateful.

But my heart hurts, and I will miss him.

Sov godt, Preben. Vi ses igen én dag. Og næste gang vil vi ikke være nød til at sige farvel. 

Wednesday, July 09, 2014


It’s been three weeks since I posted on this blog. Since then I’ve been focused on one thing: healing.

I’ve slept a LOT. The drains have come out. I’ve moved back to my own home and am sleeping in my own bed and not the recliner I bought for my parents’ house. I’ve gotten some of my energy back.

It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had good days and bad ones. The drains have been replaced by a new problem — seromas. Fluid keeps filling in the space where my breasts used to be, and it’s not comfortable. Still, it’s so much less painful than having tubes running beneath and out of my skin. Ouch!

I’ve tried to go for walks and get some excercise. It seems amazing to me that just two weeks ago, I barely had the energy to walk for 30 minutes. Yesterday, I spent three hours strolling at the Denver Botanic Gardens. I think I’m turning a corner here now that I’m five weeks post-op.

There’s an emotional element to recovering, as well. Cancer is scary as hell. Ultimately, facing cancer is about facing one’s own death. Sure, we all die. It’s pretty easy to be philosophical about it, especially when you’re NOT the one with the cancer. Until the real possibility of death is staring you in the face, you can’t grasp what if feels like.

The 45 days of waiting before my surgery drained me emotionally more than anything I’ve had to go through. In the midst of it, I told my sister that I didn’t think I’d ever feel happy or light-hearted again. That much stress has to be resolved somehow. The impact of it is real. So I’ve been trying to be very easy on myself, making no big demands and approaching each day with no expectations of what I should do and focusing on things I enjoy — music, flowers, conversations with my mother, talking with my sister via Skype, slowing organizing all the cards you’ve sent me.

It’s funny how my perspective has changed since April 21, the terrible day I was diagnosed.

I initially told the surgeon that I would not be able to survive — I would not be able to SURVIVE!!! — without breasts for any lengthy period of time. Reconstruction had to be a priority, I said, along with obliterating the cancer.

Now that I’ve been living without breasts for more than a month, I’ve begun to wonder whether I want reconstruction at all. Yes, I miss having breasts, but do I really want to subject myself to the long surgery that a DIEP flap entails? It’s microsurgery with four to five hours of anesthesia and a few days of hospitalization. I’d have chest incisions and drains, as well as a major belly incision. I’d be risking all the pain and hazards of surgery, including infection, just so that I could have sculpted blobs of fat designed to look like breasts beneath my clothing?

I’m not offended by the sight of my chest with its healing scars, so why should I subject myself to that? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself. What a shift!

I initially told the doctor that I would not even consider breast prostheses. No! No! Not me. I imagined they would be big pillow bullet bras or something. And what was I supposed to think when what they gave me in the hospital were two hand-stitched felt pillows? These were made by volunteers — God bless them! — but I’ve never worn mine. They’re not even the same shape. As I said on Facebook, I have no idea which clan they represent, but I call them my Argyle boobs.

A pair o’ wee titties for ye, lass?

Then the referral for a prosthetics came in, and I decided to approach it all with an open mind. The fitting at Nordstrom was interesting. The first pair of breasts prosthetics were so much like my real breasts that I got choked up for a moment. That was tough. Then I decided to go bigger.

Why not?

I ended up with two bras that look like grandma bras and two high-tech breasts made of whipped silicone. The prosthetics are inserted into the bra and can be adjusted so that the little nipples point the same way and such. They look real even when I’m just wearing the bra. When I’m dressed, you wouldn’t be able to tell they weren’t real unless you grabbed them, and even then...

They’re so convincing that one of my cross-dressing gay friends has offered to buy them from me if/when I have reconstruction.

High-tech boobage

I was amazed at how good they looked — and how much seeing myself with breasts again lifted my spirits. No, breasts don’t make me who I am, but they were a part of what I cherished about being a woman. They’re a part of what makes a woman feel feminine. Looking in that mirror, I felt more like myself than I had in weeks.

Some days I wear the prosthetics, and some days I go flat. I feel comfortable both ways. Whether I’ll stick with prosthetics or go under the knife again remains to be seen.

July 3 was a big day. I woke up, took a shower with my iPod blasting, and found myself dancing around afterward while straightening up my bedroom. I said to myself, “I might not have boobs, but I still have the moves.”

Then I stopped and stared at myself in the mirror because it was the first day since my diagnosis that I’d woken up feeling happy.

What a precious thing it is to feel light-hearted! What a beautiful gift it is to open your eyes in the morning and not immediately feel pressed by worries! I don’t think I’ll ever take feeling carefree for granted again, and I am actively cultivating happiness. Yes, Project Happiness is still active.

Last summer, Benjamin and I decided we had to put a concerted effort toward having more fun. If left to ourselves, we’ll work all day every day. So we regularly planned little getaways, even if they were just quick drives to favorite spots in the mountains. We had a spectacular summer.

We learned from that. If you don’t TAKE time to MAKE memories, you won’t end up with any, and time will pass you by anyway. As a result, I’m doing that again, working to make certain that I include activities that soothe my spirit and lift me up. It’s more important now than ever.

Yesterday, we went to the Denver Botanic Gardens to see the flora and the Chihuly exhibit. I wasn’t sure when we made this plan that I would be able to handle three hours of walking around in the hot sun. Fortunately, it wasn’t as hot as it has been lately, and the beauty of the art and the flowers lifted my spirits so much that I felt as if I were being carried through the gardens. It was bliss.

Blue glass reflecting off the water

Beauty is so intensely healing for me. It soothes and inspires. It lifts not just my heart, but my mind and my spirt, too. Creating beauty is a God-like act, as all creation comes from that original Divine spark. Soaking up other people’s creations is such a joy on every level.

Still, I have a lot of physical and mental adjustments to make. The seromas need to heal. The incisions need to heal completely, a process that will take another three weeks or so. I still have to face treatment — whatever it turns out to be — and then recover from that. But there’s more.

I need to learn to cope with the fear that cancer brings so that stress won’t hurt me. I also need to change my lifestyle from the sedentary one of a writer to the active lifestyle I had before my climbing accident. I already eat organic, but I also eat a lot of sugar. The sugar has to go. These are big changes, and they’re tough. How many people want to live more healthful lives and never get past joining the gym? But this is my agenda for the year.

I plan to enlist the folks at the Integrative Care Center at BCH in Boulder to help me with some of this, through oncology massage, Reiki, acupuncture, counseling. It’s expensive, but I’ll go as many times as I can afford to go — whatever it takes to rebuild my health and my life brick by brick. That’s really what this is about.

The other elements that I hope to rebuild is my community involvement and my spiritual life. As a journalist, I was always involved in something. As a writer, I’ve been primarily focused on my books. I want to shift that. My church community has a program that helps women who are homeless after leaving jail or prison. Can you think of a cause more suited to my particular and very odd life experience and skill set? I think not. The cause of incarcerated women has always been dear to me, so I hope to become involved in that when my health permits.

As for my church, the community there has been very supportive of me. I gave up going to church for years, in part because I was going to sweat lodge and enjoyed that more. But in January after my mother-in-law’s death, I felt the desire to return to St. John’s, the liberal Episcopal congregation where I was baptized. I haven’t been to services since my surgery, but I hope to return this Sunday. Prayer helped me get through my dark days — with support from the beautiful and loving Marliss Melton — and I want to keep this change as a permanent part of my life.

When it comes to writing, I hope to work my way back to Holly’s story as soon as possible. If I don’t write, I don’t publish. If I don’t publish, I don’t have income. If I have no income...

Well, we all know what happens then.

I have some big decisions to make in the days ahead about treatment — decisions that have the potential to impact how long I live. My cancer is low risk and not aggressive, but there was 1mm of cancer in a lymph node. This puts me in an awkward position in terms of whether or not I should have chemo. Statistically speaking, I don’t stand to benefit from chemo because the specific biology of the tumor makes it highly unlikely that it will recur. The odds of recurrence are almost identical without chemo as they are with it — a 0 to 1 percent difference. Because chemo entails some real risks, including permanent organ damage and death, it may be riskier than going without. Statistically speaking.

But statistics aren't science or biology, and there are no certainties when it comes to breast cancer. Even my oncologist says this is a tough call. We’ve gotten a second opinion, and it concurs with the first. Both recommend Tamoxifen for five years and no chemo. But ultimately the choice is mine.

If you pray, then please pray for clarity for me on the next step.

In the meantime, please know how touched I am by your gifts and cards. Your kindness and your prayers carried me through this difficult time. I am truly grateful.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Most Unkindest Cut, Part II

Maybe it was the morphine. Or maybe it was being on the other side of a surgery that I had been both desperate to have and dreading. But I felt so much relief as I regained full consciousness in my hospital room, surrounded by my family.

My parents, sister Michelle, brother Robert and younger son, Benjamin, and bestie Jenn LeBlanc all looked intensely relieved, too. The frozen section of the sentinel node biopsy had shown no cancer in my lymph nodes. What we didn’t know then was that the deeper pathology would later show random cancer cells in one lymph node — which means nothing and is the same as a negative node — and a 1 mm micro-metastases in another. The third node was 100 percent clean.

What does a 1 mm micro-met mean? No one has really been able to tell me. Some doctors say it’s the same thing as a negative node and shouldn’t be counted. Others still hold to the older, more traditional belief that it counts as cancer. So...

But we didn’t know this on June 5.

We shared our relief that the surgery was behind me, that I most probably had no cancer in my lymph nodes, that the worst might be over. Having them all with me meant so very much.

But I’d just had major surgery. I had a morphine pump the button of which glowed green when I was able to push it again. The pain relief was good, but not total. I felt like I’d been stabbed in the side, the result of incisions created for drains that were threaded beneath the incisions to drain off excess fluid. The drains were to become (and still are) the bane of my existence post-op.

I hadn’t slept the night before, and with both morphine and anesthesia in my system, I was extremely drowsy. But relatives aren't allowed to push the button, nor are medical staff. Self-administered pain relief has to be just that. This basically meant I couldn't sleep, as dozing off meant my pain relief vanished in a relatively short period of time, leaving me wide awake and hurting.

My family tried to help, telling me when the light turned green again. They would point and say, “Green! Green! Green!”

But that still meant I had to be awake every 10 minutes to push the damned button.

My nurse that day was a wonderful, fun woman named Laurel. She checked my vitals at regular intervals. She also gave me a bolus of morphine to carry me through several rounds of button pushing, enabling me to doze for a while.

Of course, then I had to pee.

The cool thing about peeing after getting a sentinel node biopsy is that the blue dye they inject into your breast to light up the sentinel nodes turns your pee blue. I don’t mean a hint of blue. I mean full-on Papa Smurf blue. In my morphine state of mine, I found this hilarious and wanted to show my pee to everyone. It’s a wonder I didn’t take a photo of it with my cell phone.

Laurel, the nurse, helped me into and out of the bathroom, and it was in the bathroom as I was about to pee again that I learned she’d gone to my website to read about my books. Either my sister or I had mentioned I was an author, and she’d taken the time to check me out online.

I wished I’d had a book to give her. Alas, I hadn’t brought any to the hospital.

At one point, the physican’s assistant who works with my surgeon came to check my surgery site. This was a sobering moment that I remember.

“I don’t want to see,” I told her.

“You don't have to see. Only I have to see,” she said.

Of course, that wasn’t true. Eventually, I would have no choice but to see.

But lying there in pressure bandages only a few hours post-op, I didn’t yet need to face my changed body.

Then came the absurd part of the day where they told me to breathe. My oxygen saturation rate kept falling. My mother, a respiratory therapist as well as an RN, coached me in how to breathe. But no matter how deeply I breathed, I couldn’t get my oxygen levels up. Then someone discovered that 1) the oxygen had been shut off somehow and 2) the clip on my fingertip wasn’t working. Once the oxygen was on again and the clip had been changed, I was suddenly fine.

As the day wore on, my brother and son left for home, both of them having to return to work in the morning. My mother and father left at suppertime. And so my sister settled in to spend the night with me.

The night shift

That night is a bit vague to me.

Laurel went home, and a kind woman named Lori took over as my RN.

I know my sister went to get some supper at some point, while I feasted on broth and Jello, clear liquids being all I was permitted to eat.

I also know that I tried to go for a walk, and that the IV had infiltrated my right hand, making it blow up like a balloon. I was down the hallway away from my room when the IV was disconnected. With it went my pain relief. By the time we got me back to my bed, I was in serious, awful pain. Fortunately, relief was just a new IV and a bolus of morphine away.

Did we watch TV? I can’t remember.

My sister managed to fall asleep at one point. Dependent on that boost of morphine every 10 minutes. I couldn’t sleep without the relief it gave, and if I fell asleep it wore off.

I listened to my sister sleep. Sometime in the course of the night while she was sleeping, I took this awesome selfie. Note the glazed eyes and the fabulous hair knot.

I watched the hours go by and tried hard not to have to pee because I didn’t want to wake my sister up. Also, the CNA who was assigned to me for the night wasn’t very good. Though I wasn’t supposed to be left alone out of bed, she would help me out of bed, then rush off, leaving me to get back in myself, complete with a massive IV pole. She didn’t chart certain things, and left me to figure out how to put on my oxygen again.

I waited from four AM to six AM to pee because I didn’t want to wake my sister. Rather than calling for the CNA, I went by myself. As I predicted, it woke my sister. By this time, the blue was gone, and I was back to ordinary yellow pee again.

Outside the window, the sun began to rise on another Friday morning.

At this point, I hadn’t slept since getting up Wednesday morning. I was tired, in pain — and hungry.

Soon, Laurel was back, and things were done right again. The surgeon’s partner checked me on rounds and told me I was being discharged. Some part of me wondered if this wasn't grotesquely soon. But at least I was allowed to eat again. I ordered breakfast — an omelet and potatoes — and did my best not to worry about what came later.

I can’t remember who brought me that first latté — my sister or my mother. But damn! That was too good to be true. Jenn showed up soon thereafter with another. And before I knew it, I was being given discharge information and told it was time to go.

In truth, I was being rushed out the door. I’d had a bilateral mastectomy and was being discharged in 24 hours.

My mother helped me dress, which meant removing the hospital gown to face the pressure bandages that wrapped around my flat and hurting chest. The post-mastectomy camisole I’d bought wasn’t comfortable. Fortunately, my mother had bought a smock with Velcro down the front. It was loose and had pockets for the infernal drain bags.

By the time I was dressed, I was in tears. Pain, exhaustion, tension, trepidation about going home where I would have to face what had been done to me — it overwhelmed me. Jenn, my sister and my mother were with me as I was rolled to the front exit in a wheelchair, where my father had his SUV waiting for me.

We drove for 1.5 hours to my parents house, where we arrived to find that the motion of the drive — those bumps and curves — had started a surge of bleeding. Blood had filled the drains and drain tubes, spilling out of the incisions in my side and down my skin. I was also in a great deal of pain.

What happened next was a mini-nightmare.

They had prescribed Dilaudid for my pain. Not only did the drug not work for me, but it gave me a terrible allergic reaction. My entire body began to itch horribly. My face turned red and began to swell. My lips started to go numb.

My mother gave me Benadryl, and we got back in the SUV for a long, arduous, horrible drive back to the hospital’s emergency room, where it seemed at first that they would make me wait in the waiting room.

“I just had a bilateral mastectomy for breast freaking cancer! I have no pain relief, and I'm having an allergic reaction. I am NOT sitting in the waiting room!” I shouted at the medical intake guy, who seemed more interested in getting my financial info than hearing what was wrong with me.

By then I was exhausted and in tears. Fortunately, my mother and sister were more than up to the task of advocating on my behalf. My sister can get angry when pushed. If she raises her voice, watch out. Soon, the head physician of the entire ER was attending us. I was given IV Ativan, morphine and Benadryl. And I pretty much drifted off while my mother dealt with the rest of the medical stuff — getting a new pain med RX, figuring out a way to get me home that would be less painful, and so on. I barely remember the ride home.

Between Oxycontin, Ativan, and Benadryl, I managed to sleep a little that night.

Facing myself in the mirror

When you’re getting ready for a mastectomy, everyone tells you that your breasts don’t make you a woman. They don’t make you who you are. They aren’t the source of your beauty. True beauty is on the inside.

This is all true. But to some degree it’s all just platitudes. 

There is no easy way for a woman to lose both of her breasts. There is no way for a woman to lose such an important part of her body without feeling a sense of loss and grief.

During the long weeks prior to the surgery, I’d told my mother to buy a bunch of cheap sleeveless T-shirts because I didn’t plan on taking a shower nude until/unless I was ready to face what this terrible disease had taken from me.

But when I woke up the next morning, I found myself wanting to know what lay beneath the bandages. When no one else was around, I lifted up the edges and looked beneath. Long incisions. Steri-strips. Puckered skin. A sternum that seemed to bulge out. No breasts. 

The sight of it settled somewhere in my stomach — and it wasn’t as horrible or shocking as I’d feared it would be. Of course, I’d only caught a glimpse. But I had looked and lived through it.

After we emptied my drains again, I found myself desperately wanting a shower—not a small thing when you have very long, very thick hair and it hurts like hell to move your arms. 

We had strategized about the whole shower thing ahead of time. My mother had bought the T-shirts I’d requested. She’d also bought a lanyard for me to hang my drains from so that they would be out of the way. My brother had installed a big, hand-held shower head in my mother’s shower so that it could be used by anyone to wash my hair if necessary.

They helped me undress, and my mother carefully cut off the pressure bandages, which we could have removed the night before if we’d chosen to do so. When the big bandaging came loose, I surprised both my mother and my sister by stepping away from them — and standing naked in front of the mirror.

And what did I see?

I saw a woman who’d been through hell, a woman who was fighting to live, a woman who would bear the scars of that battle for the rest of her life. I could see in her eyes and on her face that she’d been through a terrible time, and I felt compassion for her. But I also felt her strength, her will to survive. I felt the iron inside her. 

There aren't a lot of times in my life where I can say I felt like a hero, but looking in the mirror at the four-inch incisions that had replaced my breasts, I respected the hell out of myself.

I didn’t shed a single tear. 

My sister and mother were surprised. I think we had all expected a bit of a breakdown. But I didn’t. Instead, I waited for my mother to turn on the water, then stepped into the warm stream, lifted my arms slowly and began to wash. 

It took an hour and a half from start to finish, but I washed my own hair, combed conditioner through the tangles myself, and then washed my skin, each motion of my arms sending pain across my chest. Afterward, they helped me dress and get settled with pain meds.

Looking back, I really don’t know how I made it through that first shower without crying. Some things in life you simply have to face head on. When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, that list grows long and dark and scary. 

A mastectomy is, to steal a few words from Shakespeare, “the most unkindest cut.” And yet a mastectomy is a small price to pay to live. The core of who I am is unchanged. I am defined by what I love and what I do. I am not defined by what has happened to me.

Still, I will always miss what was taken from me. 

The night before my surgery, I asked my sister to photograph my breasts. I wanted some way to remember them. And before she left for Sweden, I asked her to photograph me from the same angle with my mastectomy. 

The photo of my breasts I’ll keep to myself. My breasts were beautiful. I always loved them. That photo is one of my personal treasures.

The photo of me after my bilateral mastectomy I will share. I share it to prove that there is no shame in a changed body. I share it to challenge superficial notions of womanly beauty. I share it for the sake of other women who may be facing a breast cancer diagnosis and feel afraid that they can’t face surgery. I share it so that those of you who have friends or loved ones fighting breast cancer can understand perhaps a bit more deeply what your friends and loved ones might be going through. I share it to show you my battle scars, the part of me that is standing up to cancer and telling it to fuck off. 

Here’s what I see when I look in the mirror. 

The ridge in the center is my sternum, my breast bone. Where my breasts once were are small concave spaces that make my sternum bulge out. The doctor left some extra skin to help with my reconstruction, and I still have some swelling from the surgery. The steri-strips haven't fallen off yet, and the bruising is still there.

Yes, my body is changed. But breasts aren’t the only thing breast cancer has taken from me.

It has also stolen the illusion that life is certain, that tomorrow is mine to do with as I choose. This disease has robbed me of that pleasant fantasy, leaving me face to face with the stark reality that we are all living on borrowed time.

On my desktop is a document I created in January titled ”Goals for 2014.” In that document, I mapped out how I would spend this year — the books I would write, the trips I would take, the new activities I would explore. Two I-Team books. A new contemp series. A trip to Canada. A painting class. Tai chi. What a year it was going to be!

This year, I will fight cancer. 

I plan to win that fight. 

When my brother sat beside me in the hospital, he told me that I’d just fought that battle that would win me the war. 

“There are still more battles to come, but that was your D-Day,” he said. “Keep fighting, and you’ll win the war.”

It was June 6 when he said those words — the anniversary of the real D-Day. A good omen? 

I hope so.