My Showdown with Cancer
“My spirit does the driving for this car, and that spirit does not have cancer!”
The night after returning from an exciting performance in a bullring in France that July of 2006, my friend Hugo, a poet who had passed two years prior from cancer, appeared to me in a dream. I was in Central Park, high above leaning on a boulder watching the cross-town traffic of 97th Street. As I watched the cars pass each other below, I suddenly felt his energy by my side. In his soft-spoken Spanish, (I mostly dream in English), he told me to go see a doctor.
“Tienes que ver un doctor,”he warned. “Pero todo va estar bien.” All will be well.
“Tu no estas sola.”You’re not alone.
I woke up from that dream in a sweaty panic, his last words, “you are not alone” rang through my head. I remember my partner David told me, well, you better go to the doctor but you’re fine, it’s just you and your dreams. I’d had a full physical with a mammogram and pap just three months earlier. It was now the beginning of August. Although I felt fine, I did notice a slight “tingling” sensation on the left side of my breast. I probably would have ignored it if not for the dream.
The internist I’d seen for the past two years at Mt. Sinai gave me a full check-up. After the blood work came back, Dr. Poenyman, who was from Spain and spoke with that annoying little lisp, told me that I was in good health, that for a woman my age and in this area of East Harlem, (El Barrio, USA), I did not have high blood pressure, asthma, cholesterol or ANYTHING. He even took ten years off my age making me 43 before I corrected him. He gave me a copy of the numbers for the blood work, explained how to read them, and began showing it around to all the nurses even putting them up on a bulletin board as if it was a damned diploma or something. That’s when I told him I wanted another mammogram. He hesitated. I insisted. The insurance, he said, would only pay for one a year. Then I told him about my dream and my family history.
My grandmother Maria Luisa Hostos, died from cancer in Puerto Rico back in the fifties when there was nothing you could do except scream for morphine. Ten years ago in ’96, my little sister Carmen got breast cancer. Being the first born in my family, I knew I was at high risk. Yet, every one of my friends kept telling me “it was just a dream,” ‘you’re trippin’ Aurora,” listening to too many commercials they said. But deep inside I knew something was wrong. After explaining my family history to the young Doctor in that sterile room, my emotions started brimming overflooding my eyes and running down my face.
“Que se chave el seguro,”(screw the insurance) he said in his now wonderfully sounding lisp. He scheduled the mammogram.
It was mid-August. Right after the torturous squeeze of my breasts between those two glass plates, I was anxious to know the results. They usually tell you right there.
“The film looks fine. You’re good.”
My fears were put on hold.
The following week, as I packed to do a lecture/demonstration at the Afro-Caribbean festival in Vera Cruz Mexico, I received a message from radiology that I should bring in the mammography films from the past two years for comparison.
I thought of my grandmother who died at 38, my cousin Lilly who died when she was 21 and still a virgin. She never knew the joy of life. I thought of my aunt Dorca who, at fifty, got cancer in her eye and had to have it removed, then back to my sister Carmen who got breast cancer at 40. They all went through my head as I dialed the number to radiology.
When I spoke to the attendant, she told me that they found a spot, “calcification,” she called it. She wanted to see past films to compare. She also wanted to schedule a biopsy, to make sure, she said.
I was scared shit!!!! Calcification?????? What is that???????
I was told that as we age, the breasts can get lumpy and can form calcium deposits especially if you breastfed. Yes, when I had my son, I breastfed him for six months. But that, I thought, protected me from breast cancer!
I looked up calcification on the Internet. I asked other women about it. They all told me not to worry, everyone gets this, and it means nothing. I was buggin’, I was negative, I imagined things.
I asked David to do a more intense breast examination than what I would do after my moon cycles. Again, he probed and poked, pressing hard under my armpits and in the breast area and nothing, NADA! He laughed it off, attributing my panic to my type A personality telling me there was nothing wrong, and I was “trippin’.” In fact, my entire circle of friends and family told me I was freaking out since I lead a healthy lifestyle, or so I thought.
So here I was, nervous and jittery but ready for my biopsy. Considering I had not been in a hospital since I gave birth to my son in ’82, was not on any kind of medications, and only went to doctors for my annual physical, this was quite nerve-wracking.
My gown was light and airy. I blew a kiss to David who was sitting in the hallway along with about five other people. The nurse led me inside the cold white room that had a gurney with a hole in it waiting for me. I positioned my left breast inside the opening and lay face down. When the woman doing the biopsy walked in, I looked up and smiled, thinking it would be over within a few minutes. I was wrong. After what felt like my breast freezing over, there were several prods, pokes, and then what felt like slashes.
“Ay yayay, ow, that hurts bad,” I yelled.
“Sorry,” she offered meekly warning me this was not pain-free. After what seemed so much longer than five minutes, it was over. I walked out of that room in ashen shock. David later told me I looked like I had gone through a war.
The doctor doing the biopsy asked if I wanted to be called with the results or in person.
“Please, please call me.” I didn’t want to wait for an appointment.
Two days later, she called just as I went downstairs to check the mail. She left her pager number on my machine, and then went on vacation, which of course I did not know. I called her number every five minutes like a maniac. I went bananas dialing her like an obsessive-compulsive, the numbers burned into my brain by evening. Two frustrating days passed with no answer from her. I called the head administrator at Mt. Sinai. They called back with an appointment to see the breast surgeon on October 5, 2006; not a good sign.
I saw David coming from work as I left for my appointment that afternoon.
“Stop looking so freaked out. I’m sure it’s nothing. You want me to go with you?”
“Sure,” I responded hoping he was right.
I knew something was up when the receptionist asked me, halfway down the hall, if the gentleman with me was my husband.
“He can go in with you to see the breast surgeon.”
They never let the husbands go in with you.
As soon as the doctor walked in, I asked.
“I have breast cancer don’t I?”
She nodded yes.
I asked what stage? She said one. I sighed with relief. I knew about cancer. I knew there were no other stages after four. She wanted to examine me for a lump.
She had me lay down on the prepped gurney. She pressed deep into first my left side, the one that was sick, before digging into my right armpit and breast area.
“Do you check for lumps yourself after your period?”
“Yes, I do.”
When she found nothing, she pressed deeper. She stood back from me looking concerned.
“How did you know?”
“I had a dream. A friend of mine who died of cancer came and told me.”
She stared blankly.
“I’m always on top of my mammograms. My grandmother died of cancer, and my youngest sister got stage 2 ten years ago.”
She took notes.
“So I’m prepared to replace my breasts with zippers,” I joked.
But she wasn’t laughing. She got quiet and serious. She began talking about taking down both my breasts; a double mastectomy, she explained. It was nothing short of ripping up my body, taking parts from here, from there, from everywhere. I thought of Frankenstein. That’s when I knew it was real. I started to cry, my tears triggered David’s cry, she kept talking, and at that point, I heard no words.
I felt like Charlie Brown in class when the teacher sounds like a trombone going “wha, wha, wha, woahhh!”
The walk from 98th and Fifth to 106 & Fifth seemed endless. We held hands in silence. Once we came through the apartment door, I sat on the sofa and sobbed. I looked up at David standing against the hallway looking sadly at me. I picked my head up and told him, “I know you didn’t sign up for this. We’ve only been together three years and I know I’m going to go through a lot with this. Look, I’m already older than you, so if you want to leave, I give you my full blessing. I won’t blame you or hold it against you. This is going to be a difficult journey, but I’m ready to go through it alone.”
He came towards me, knelt at my feet, and took my hand.
“If you have cancer, I have cancer too!”
We cried together.
That night, while he slept soundly in bed next to me, I sat up, looking at my breasts and thinking, “I’ll never be the same again.” And as I was about to go into a deep, crying, “feel sorry for myself” jag, I stopped and thought: you’re not the same now as you were when you were 30, or 20, or 10. I didn’t come into this world with these breasts, and after all, they’re working breasts. They’ve given life to my son, pleasure to my partner; had fun at parties, concerts, were photographed, flaunted and thoroughly enjoyed. I can retire one of them now and continue my journey in life. Besides, you’re not the first or the last to go through this, and actually, I’m very, very lucky they found this so, so early. It’s only in one breast anyway. Why am I wallowing in this paralyzing self-pity when I have so much to do? I have this CD pending, a list of performances and presentations, and a whole bunch of writing piled up. I don’t have time for fucking cancer!”
Something deep inside began to console me.
“You don’t have cancer. It’s only in a very tiny part of your body, and your body without your spirit is a mass of flesh on the floor. You can’t go anywhere without your spirit. My spirit does the driving for this car, and that spirit does not have cancer!”
The spirit fuels the body, not the toxins that may have invaded it. With my mind now clear and my spirit strong I was able to sleep that night. I woke up facing life with clarity and purpose.
Right after my diagnosis, Mt. Sinai lost my films, and I decided to get a second opinion at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
I called my son before I had the lumpectomy Nov.28th 2006. I felt a little guilty since he’d just gotten married the month before. I didn’t want to spoil his happiness with everything I was going through. Even so, I did need to tell him, warn him even in case something happened. I was going to be upbeat about all this. But when I told him his mommy had breast cancer, I broke down and cried.
We were both a little scared. This being my baby boy, my only child, we cried again. But he was strong for me. “You’ve had a healthy lifestyle, Ma. Don’t compare yourself to all those crazy people you know from the music business. You’re always on a schedule, you go to the doctor, you exercise, and you keep yourself busy and happy. Besides, you’re not one to hold back Ma. You’ll be okay.” That helped a lot.
After the outpatient lumpectomy was over, I produced a Christmas show over at the Harlem Stage. I had the King of the Cuatro, Yomo Toro plus 25 dancers in this show that helped me heal faster than I thought. I made all the rehearsals. Everything would be fine. Or so I thought.
My follow up appointment, however, did not bring the news I’d expected. The breast surgeon at Memorial told me I needed a mastectomy for the left breast. My family history, and the fact that they couldn’t see a tumor after the lumpectomy meant I had a 50% chance it could come back!
Why do they have to go Rambo on me? I thought. They already took out the less than one centimeter of carcinoma why this now? But again, my spirit reared its strong will and told me, “cry for 20 minutes and then get over yourself. They’re trying to save your life.”
The breast reconstruction class the following week gave me a few choices. Quickly the room with the bay windows facing a street-level garden filled with women. Two rows of about fifty chairs lined up auditorium style.
There were women in their 20s to their 70s; corporate women, working women, moms, and retired women; women in saris, kaftans and kente cloth. There were Asian, Indian, Spanish, and Caribbean women, Wasps and Jewish, Catholic and Atheist. Our presenter for this one-hour presentation revealed that she too was a survivor. That breast cancer is now considered a worldwide epidemic with 1 in 8 women contracting it.
I crossed both my hands over my breasts, bit my lower lip, and thought of Hugo. I was not alone.
I cried throughout the entire talk. Whether you choose to have breast implants of silicone, a Trans flap that transplants your belly fat into a reconstructed breast, or nothing at all but a prosthesis in the bra, you still have to go through the ordeal of removing the breast which they presented in all its gory, graphic, glory.
Fear gripped me. Still, more terrifying was the thought of these little microscopic cancerous threads growing and spreading inside me. There was no way I was going to understand the results of all these procedures. It was so much to process in such little time. I could understand why some people become overwhelmed, suicidal even. No, I had to bite-the-bullet and do it. So even though the transplant required more recovery time, that it was like having three operations in one — a C-section for the belly fat, the breast removal followed by the breast construction and attachment, — in the long run this procedure seemed a more natural part of my body than a silicone breast.
Besides, I was never a chesty girl to begin with. I was more of a nerd. The only time I ever had cleavage was when I was pregnant and breastfeeding. So the thought of living a high-maintenance life with a faux breast (that could pop under compression in a plane) was just not for me. Plus, having a rack like Pamela Anderson when I become 70 is not happening.
I didn’t know it before, but smokers, diabetics, and the obese reject transplants because the blood in the veins constricts, preventing the body from fully accepting anything foreign. Even in good cases, there’s still a 2% chance the body could reject the breast. But I was cool.
“The best time to get cancer is when you’re healthy,” the doctor laughed. He tested all my vitals before the big show as I called it.
“Yeah, right,” I laughed, “because if cancer doesn’t get you, the medical procedures will.” He laughed with me.
My operation was set for January 26, 2007. I ate nothing the night before, put on no perfume, no jewelry, and no deodorant. I got there at eight in the morning, optimistic but scared. It was like when I was about to give birth. You’re happy because the day has finally arrived, but there’s that fear, that dark shadow that lurks behind the healing knife of surgery.
Since we were working on our first CD, I brought along a copy of it to play during the operation.
The doctors and attendants at MSK were so cool they came prepared with a salsa playlist of music to operate by. Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Celia Cruz all of them provided the metronomic clave beat to my healing movement.
I’m on the gurney in that big, oval operating room. Everyone is smiling, explaining all their quickly orchestrated movements.
“Now count to ten backward.”
I don’t remember hitting seven. The entire procedure took eight hours.
I had to stay in the O.R. overnight so they could watch for fever or rejection from my body of the procedure. When my moms walked in she stopped, shocked, her eyes began to water. She stared at the oxygen tube in my mouth, the machines, their sounds, the sterile smell, the dark steel crib.
I, on the other hand, felt no pain.
“Hey, this isn’t so bad,” I slurred before catching that teary glint. I propped myself up on the pillow and, still smiling a big cheesy grin, I said, “Don’t you dare cry Ma. This is not a “brujo” someone from the music industry put on me. It’s not the Hostos family curse either. Look at that crib.”
Right beside my bed was a six-year-old boy his tired looking parents by his side. He was completely bald.
“What did that baby do to deserve this? Is that a “brujo” or some “curse” placed on the family because your father didn’t marry grandma? C’mon Ma. Don’t do this.”
When she left the room, I asked David if she stopped crying. “Yeah, she’s much better. She’s out there with your sister who’s not in a good mood. The doctors had to throw her out, they said you’re the patient not her. She’s quite overbearing and competitive.”
I dozed off in a drug-induced sleep. The next morning, Dr. Disla, the reconstructive surgeon, walked in with four other doctors. They surrounded my gurney in the recovery room. MSK, being a teaching hospital, demonstrates, analyzes, and documents their procedures.
But I never expected them to pull off my sheets like a waiter replaces a tablecloth, leaving me in the buff like I was under a giant microscope. Still under “the good stuff” I joked: “Wow, now I know how Britney Spears feels.”
Three of the two doctors couldn’t hold back their smiles. They put the sheet back on me. The orderlies took me upstairs to my room.
On my floor were two young Latina girls who looked like they were in their 20s. One was completely bald from the “red devil” chemo, a rush of red liquid that kills cancer cells along with everything else in its path. The other girl was very depressed. She’d had a mastectomy the week prior and was inconsolable.
“There’s nothing you can say to her.” The cute, bubbly baldy told me. “She’s overwhelmed. She’s only 23. Doesn’t have kids. She’s not married.”
“But she’s so pretty. Tell her she has everything to look forward to now. She’s so depressed. She’s not even interested in all these cool lipsticks on the table.”
“I know,” replied Baldy. “But I talked to her sister; her whole family’s coming this afternoon. She may take a long time to get over it. But we’ll be there for her. We won’t leave her alone.”
That made me feel better, that she wouldn’t be alone. I worried also. She didn’t even want to try on all the free expensive make-up they gave us to feel good on that second day.
The morphine drip made everything feel groovy but groggy. By the third day, my buddy the Jamaican nurse removed the catheter. I had to use the bathroom as soon as possible, she cautioned. That didn’t happen until evening.
That night, I crawled out of bed, grabbed the metal pole with the saline bag still connected to me, and shuffled my way into the darkened bathroom. The door was ajar. I didn’t turn on the light and, still dopey from the drugs, proceeded to lift my gown before sitting on the seat. When I looked down, I saw two engorged red balls hanging between my legs. I screamed! I placed one hand over my left, now bandaged chest and yelled. “They made me a man!”
My nurse immediately opened the bathroom door.
I lifted the gown where the balls now swung. The nurse pointed to where safety pins secured the drains to the front inner center of my nightshirt. They weren’t drained. So they hung there swaying between my legs, round, red latex circles engorged with blood and pus. We laughed so hard I peed all over myself.
By the fourth day, as I sat up in bed, my aunt, uncle, cousin, sister, brother, mother, and three girlfriends all showed up at the same time. I had music in my room and a gourmet menu from which I could order anything although I wanted only soup. Still, with all my visitors there, I decided to order a little bit of everything from the menu. Maryland crab cakes, saffron rice, chicken cordon bleu, mesclun salad, salmon fillet, the only thing missing was wine. We closed the door, turned the music up and we had ourselves a “party.”
I invited the other girls from down the hall to join the fiesta in my room. Jamaica, as I called my new nurse buddy (Boricua — she called me), had my back. She kept watch as she did her rounds, letting my friends and family know where I was.
When cousin Yvette came in, “We were roaming the halls, sad, looking for your room. I asked the nurse where you were,” then, mimicking her Jamaican accent, “ ‘Aurora? Yeah man, that’s my girl, she right here’ “and led us to you. We were so happy when we saw you sitting up in bed with that big smile looking like you were going to do a show.”
I was discharged on the fifth day. But not before getting a call from Larry Harlow. The famous bandleader had tracked me down to the hospital. As soon as I heard his deep, raspy voice say “Whadayadoing in da hospital?” a big smile peeled across my face.
“If you need any groceries I’m here for you. You need me to walk your dog, I’m here.”
I knew I’d be all right. I was not alone.
“We got everything out,” the breast surgeon told me. “We only removed one lymph node, and it was clean.” She placed her hand on my shoulder. She smiled. “You won’t need radiation.”
“But I’m making an appointment for the oncologist.”
“I still want you to get a little chemo. Chemo-lite we call it.”
“Sounds like a diet soda.”
“It’s not as strong as the red one, and you probably won’t lose your hair. It’s only eight treatments of one hour each. We want to make sure it doesn’t come back.”
As I got in the wheelchair to go home, David showed up. My ride waited downstairs.
“So what do we have to look out for?”
“Fever mostly, and they tell me I’ll get swollen. But what bothers me most is all the grumbling inside my stomach. Everything’s all outta place inside there. It’s like the guys from the south are trying to get used to the guys from the north.”
As soon as I got home, I went straight to my Buddhist altar, sat down, and rang the bell. As I began to chant, tears fell forming trails down my cheeks. David got worried.
“Why are you crying? What’s hurting you?”
“I’m crying because I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for life, for love, and for so many people around me. I’m grateful to be here.”
I looked up and thought: Hugo, I’m not alone.