I was high when I got the call. Shit, I’d been smashed for 24 hours, starting with the anesthesia, followed by Percocet and scores of Xanax. After the lumpectomy, I’d gone straight from surgery to Tom’s house and smoked a joint. Smoking on top of anesthesia—nice. The lumpectomy was supposed to remove a benign fibroadenoma from my left breast. I’d felt the lump in August. It was small, soft and moved around—not the kind of hard, cystic thing women are supposed to fret over.
An ultrasound told my first surgeon it was benign, but he told me that it might keep growing. “I’m single, take it out. I don’t want some guy feeling me up and finding that.” It was my first surgery. My BFF Dana and my mom accompanied me to the operation. My body had weathered Ecstasy, acid, shrooms, mescaline, coke, crystal, pot and almost every kind of downer. I’d always partied like a rock star. I was a champ under anesthesia.
When the surgeon walked out of the OR, he assured my mom and Dana that the tumor looked clean. It was nothing. He was “sure of it.”
The next morning, I felt so good that I assured my mom she could make the 5-hour drive home to Jacksonville. No need for her to stay in South Beach. The doctor said I was fine. I felt fine. I walked over to Tom’s house—he had recently become my pothead partner—and settled into a nice high. A few minutes later, my cell rang. “Mammo” popped up on my caller ID. (Today, eight months later, the number for Mt. Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center is still labeled “Mammo.”)
I was sitting at Tom’s kitchen counter in one of only four chairs in the apartment. Rene, whom I’d just met, was taking a turntable out the front door. Tom was helping him. I was in jeans—Rock & Republic—but I can’t remember any other part of my wardrobe—odd for someone who remembers what she wore at all of life’s pivotal moments.
“Uh, I dunno,” I said through my pot-thickened haze. Why would they want to schedule a checkup so soon? I thumbed through my Filofax nonchalantly. “I guess I could come tomorrow,” I said while thinking that I’d earned myself at least a week of doing nothing but hanging out with Tom and smoking.
“You can come here soon?” The urgency was evident even beneath the layers of incompetence in her voice.
“Now, miss. Please.”
“Yes, now. The doctor is on his way in just to see you.”
I hung up. I was so fucking high. Tom gets the best shit in Miami. Usually when I smoke with Tom, I’m done for the day, but unfortunately this day was only just beginning.
The only other time I’d been in this much shock was watching the Twin Towers burst into flames. My thoughts leapt to mom. I knew she’d either be on the road or seconds away from hitting the road. Rene had gone. Tom caught my eye, grasped my fear and sat down in a desk chair across the room from me. I dialed my mom.
“What? Okay, calm down.” Her voice got weak and slow. I’d heard that disconcerting tone once before, in 2004, when I’d called in the middle of a hurricane-induced blackout to tell her I was being sued.
Tom was a caricature—ginormous eyes, white skin, chin to the floor—still staring at me. I locked my eyes on his as I panted into the phone.Â
“Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it,” Mom said. “No, I’m sure it’s not cancer, you’ll be fine.”
As high as I was, and through the tornado of thoughts swirling around in my brain—I was about to be diagnosed with cancer—I remembered the most important thing: drugs.
I barked instructions into the phone to my poor mom. “Get the Xanax, mom. Now. While I’m on the phone. Second bathroom drawer on the left side. Got â€˜em? Now put them in your purse. Please. Are they in? Okay, drive over and pick me up at Tom’s behind China Grill. I’ll be outside.”
I was already calmer knowing that Xanax and Mom were on their way. After I hung up, Tom came to me from across the room, panic-stricken, the color still completely drained from his face. He sat down across from me and took my hand. “What happened, Steph?”
“Omigod Omigod Omigod Omigod I have cancer. I have cancer, Tom. Cancer. I’m 32 and I have cancer.”
“You do not have cancer. Don’t panic.”
He hugged me. I cried just a little into his shirt. He stroked my hair. Tom and I weren’t touchy-feely friends. Both straight and single, we’d never crossed that line. But in that moment I grabbed onto him like a boyfriend.
“Think positive,” he said, pleading with his brows.
“The doctor doesn’t call the day after a biopsy with good news.”
“Focus on me.”
He looked as stricken as a mother would be, a father, a brother, a husband. I would never forget that look. Even though I didn’t see much of Tom after that, I knew that whatever happened, he would be an integral part of my life story. I would never forget that room where we’d laughed, argued, smoked, drank and played with his daughter and his dog. He was, at that moment, the one thing moving while time remained still.
I walked outside and sat on the curb waiting for my mom. When she drove up, I got in the car and swallowed three Xannies.
“I fucking have cancer, Mom,” I yelled. “What the fuck?”
“Whatever it is, we’re going to beat it. Everything’s going to be just fine.”
“Stop jinxing me!” I shouted back at her.
Mount Sinai is in Miami Beach, a mere 10 minutes from my apartment in South Beach. I instructed Mom to drive around the hospital grounds until the pills worked their way into my blood and I was fully sedated. Dana was still unreachable, so we went into the office to face the news without her.
I knew it was breast cancer, but I wanted to hear it from Doctor El Schmucko who’d told us the day before that the lump was “absolutely nothing.”
I forget his exact words, something generic—”the biopsy came back positive for ductal cell carcinoma.”
“Yeah, no shit.” I was impassive, slightly maniacal and majorly medicated.
Dana appeared at the door of the exam room shortly after El Schmucko made his diagnosis. “What. . .?” she said entering, looking confused but unalarmed.
“Hi-iiiiiiiiii!” I squealed like we were meeting at a bar. “Guess what? I have cancer!”
Dana started laughing and crying at the same time. Her first thought upon hearing my frantic phone messages was that they’d operated on the wrong breast or left a sponge in me. (She watches those medical reality shows.)
Next I remember getting into the car. I called Tom, told him the news. He went silent. I may have called some other friends. I remember my mom on the phone with my dad, telling him as we left the hospital: “She’s doing remarkably well, actually. Xanax is a wonderful drug!”
I was oddly giddy after Schmucko’s diagnosis. “I’m registering at Neiman’s!” I declared, out of the blue. “I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, I’m not getting married and I know people will be sending gifts. So I’m going to register, and we’re going to have a huge cancer party!”
* * *
The next few weeks were a blur of drugs—benzodiazepines mostly—and doctor’s visitsthat entailed a posse of Mom, Dana and Mom’s Palm Beach BFF, Lynn, a breast cancer survivor diagnosed when she was 31. I dressed for the hospital like I did for a ladies’ lunch: head-to-toe designer gear, full makeup and hair, stilettos, jewelry. I looked and felt amazing. That’s the scariest part of cancer; you can look fabulous and feel even better while the cells in your body are waging a civil war.
I had nice tits, too. Bra-less, they were saggy, but in a 34C, they were hot. Men loved them. Women envied them. I liked them in clothes, hated them naked. In Lynn’s car on our way to my first consult with an oncologist, we videotaped me saying (in a slightly nasal, JAPysounding voice): “They’re not going to chop of my boobs. Fuck that.”
After many, many doctor’s visits, I finally met Dr. Larry Norton in New York, the head of Memorial Sloan Kettering Breast Cancer Center. Norton is the Anna Wintour of breast cancer—if Anna was a nice, humble Jewish man with a sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor. Norton and his team invented the Sloan Protocol, the chemo regimen followed by hospitals throughout the world.
Mom, Dad, my brother and I packed into Norton’s office on the Upper East Side. “You know, we could’ve done this over the phone,” he said.
“I wanted to meet you in person. . .and it’s the perfect excuse to go to Bergdorf’s.”
“Ahh, my kind of people.”
After he spelled out my treatment options, I asked the question I ask all doctors: If I were your daughter, what would you tell me to do?
“The safest treatment for you would be a double mastectomy and chemo.”
This meant a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction followed by four months of chemotherapy, capped off with a year of Herceptin infusions. I had stage II, high-grade, infiltrating breast cancer and was—as the genetic testing later revealed—BRCA1 positive.
Ashkenazi Jewish women have a one in 40 chance of inheriting a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, which gives us lucky ones up to an 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer. If I’d chosen not to have a double mastectomy, my chances of recurrence would have been greater than 30 percent. But by chopping â€˜em off, with added chemo and Herceptin, my recurrence rate dropped to less than 10 percent.
I didn’t panic, which is ironic because prediagnosis, I had panic attacks at the threat of taking mass transit or going somewhere without Purell. I’m usually the neurotic, navelgazing alarmist, but suddenly I was the strong one. Denial? Probably. But I had no choice. It was what it was.
My friends and family freaked out more than I did. One night, my mom was so out of control emotional that I crushed a Klonopin and mixed it into her hummus and salad. It worked. About a month later I told her and Dad about it, after threatening to do the same during one of his tantrums.
* * *
People keep asking me how I didn’t freak out, break down, feel sorry for myself or play the victim card. Meditation? Fuck that shit. Medication is more my speed. “Xanax,” I say. Sometimes I’m joking. Often I’m not. The real answer is: Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, Seroquel, Percocet and Valium. Plus friends, family, excellent doctors and a sense of humor. Pot brownies don’t hurt either.