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I’m Finally Getting Surgery for Triple-Negative Breast Cancer, After It Was Almost Delayed Due to COVID-19

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Marissa Sullivan Breast Cancer COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown hurdles in everyone’s lives, but the way it has affected cancer patients in the midst of treatment is particularly rough. I’d say it’s a bit more of a hardship than waiting another month to get a haircut or having to get your margaritas curbside.

I am thinking this as I lie on a mattress on the floor of my empty L.A. apartment, eating broccoli mac and cheese the day before my long-awaited lumpectomy.

Because of COVID-19 and its numerous disruptions, many people feel like they have nothing to look forward to right now. Not me.

I’ve been eagerly waiting for this surgery ever since I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer six months ago. My cancer is considered a clinical stage 2. We don’t know the actual stage yet since, for this kind of cancer, chemotherapy is typically given before the tumor is surgically removed. It’s a grade 3 tumor, which means it is fast-growing.

I have been anxious, stressed, and worried that my surgery would get postponed because of COVID-19, but thankfully it is on track.

I have already endured 20 weeks of chemotherapy — most of it before COVID, but not all. It’s been nearly one month since my last chemo treatment.

I’m getting more and more energy back each day, my hair has finally stopped shedding (and thankfully still I have a full head of it, thanks to DigniCap scalp cooling), my leg hair is growing back (which is good news for my eyelashes and eyebrows), my hot flashes have subsided, and my heart rate is no longer sky-high at all times. It’s pretty scary to lie in bed all day and have your Apple watch alert you that you’ve reached your daily moving goal when you’ve only gotten up to use the bathroom a couple of times.

Getting Unstuck

Back to the mattress-on-the-floor scene. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, I’ve been stuck in my own version of purgatory, along with the rest of the globe.

I’ve been stuck geographically, since I’ve had to remain here in L.A. for cancer treatment. I’ve been stuck in my career as an entertainment reporter and events director, since a lot of my work is canceled and I’m on disability anyway. I’ve been stuck with my health, in a holding pattern while waiting to see whether the chemo worked and whether my surgery could take place as scheduled. Even my marriage feels stuck right now (more on this below).

The week leading up to surgery, most people rest up mentally and physically. Me? I decide to spend days packing and throw my life into a storage pod. Yes, I like to pile on as much stress as I can for some reason. Does that make me a masochist?

I need to get un-stuck. That’s why as soon as I get clearance from my docs, I’m hightailing it out of here and driving across the country to spend some much-needed time with my family in Florida at a house with a pool in the backyard. I’m looking forward to quarantining in comfort after months of being trapped in an apartment — what feels like a vertical cruise ship — in downtown L.A.

As I packed up my belongings, sifting through boxes of senior-year pictures, old headshots, and young love notes, I couldn’t help but think dark thoughts. I felt as though I were a living ghost going through my things after I had died.

What if this is the last time I will see any of this stuff? Then, SMACK! An imaginary hand would slap those negative thoughts out of my head. I have to tell myself to think positively, but I’ve always had a flair for drama.But this might not be drama! You could actually die from this cancer. See, there I go again.

I had planned to pack up my things a few weeks after the surgery, but something came over me and I was compelled to handle it beforehand. Partly to just get it over with so that I could focus on healing afterward, but also because of our rapidly changing world. Who knows what a difference three weeks will bring these days.

Sure enough, the day after I decided to start packing, Governor Newsom extended California’s shelter-in-place through the end of July yet at the same time began to allow more low-risk businesses to open in a phased-out plan. Then there’s the possibility of a spike in COVID-19 cases from this reopening phase, which could lead to further shutdowns and possibly even more restrictions at state borders.

Putting My Health First

I want to get to Florida safely before any of the above could possibly threaten my travels. I believe it is the only form of utopia I have within my reach at this point. The reward, I hope, will have been worth the week of self-torture from moving for the second time since my cancer diagnosis.

The first was moving into my own little peaceful studio loft (or “che-motel” as I call it) a block away from my husband so that I could heal in peace. Sadly, we weren’t getting along before my diagnosis. Although cancer and COVID-19 have brought us closer and he’s been staying over a lot, I told him that living together full-time again is sort of like the reopening of America: It has to be done in phases.

Once I am recovered and past this, I can figure out what’s next with my marriage and my life, but until then I MUST put my health first and be as stress-free as possible. After all, it’s my life. And there is a high chance of recurrence. I cannot bend on this, it’s simply not worth it.

If I were in my twenties or even thirties and cancer-free, fine. But no stress is worth it right now for me, whether it’s a job or a relationship. I need to focus on the present and my survival. “If there’s no me, then there’s no us,” I tell him. It’s time to be selfish.

Feeling Hopeful

And now that my coveted cancer surgery is finally upon me after I was told it was almost postponed due to COVID-19 (many others had been, but I am apparently one of the lucky ones), I’m realizing that although this has been a semi-torturous wait, it’s actually been pretty blissful and relaxing.

Why wait in agony for answers when you can enjoy the present? That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the most part or trying to. My aunt put it like this: It’s like stressing about a mortgage before you’ve even bought the house.

My doctors seem hopeful and reiterate the same. There is no use worrying about something that might not be. So, no mortgage-stressing for me. I have enough bills to pay.

My surgeon, after I nicely demanded during my pre-op appointment that she tell me anything that they may have kept from me from their assessment of tests and scans, says everything is looking “very good.”

My oncologist echoed that sentiment but admitted that even if microscopic cells have not spread to my lymph nodes, they may have traveled through my bloodstream. Oh thanks, I wasn’t thinking about that until now. She also mentioned that if I do not have a pathological complete response to the treatment that I will need to be on a type of chemo pill for six more months after my two months of radiation. The pills would target any possible microscopic cells that may have escaped the breast area. If that’s the case, then I’m not even halfway through my treatment. Sigh.

And it’s all Hail Mary from there. I went to a Catholic school growing up (although I’m not really religious) and Mary is the patron saint for “Marisa” so I’m hoping my girl comes through for me. That would be chill.

Interpreting My Dream

I’ve started having some pretty bizarre pre-surgery dreams. A famous Hollywood star’s D-list son was my surgeon last night; he also was moonlighting as a bartender at the famed Roxy nightclub on Sunset. The hospital doubled as an event space with Suzanne Sommers strolling by and muttering, “I’ve got to get out of here.”

Perhaps this dream symbolizes me leaving my Hollywood life after 20 years and this tumor coming out was all the toxicity I’ve been exposed to, including the pollution and fires here in L.A.

A change of pace will be nice.

Moving on With My Life

I had several appointments this past week leading up to my surgery, including a mandatory drive-through COVID-19 test near the hospital, 48 hours prior to my scheduled admittance. I swear they even made us keep our cars six feet away from each other. Health care workers in scrubs on top of scrubs, masks, and face shields swiveled a nice long swab up my left nostril and then I was on my way. No word back, so it’s safe to say I’m clear.

I’m not really nervous, but I am ready to get the surgery over with. Although part of me has come to embrace this protective cocoon of the unknown, I want to wake up to good news and get on with my life.

Luckily, my surgery was moved out of the main hospital into another building away from COVID-19 patients, which is such a relief. That had been one of my main concerns and I had even lined up two back-up options at other cancer hospitals just in case. Of course my doctors had reassured me all was fine, but given the fact that the surgery was indeed moved, I suspect I was right to be concerned.

No visitors are allowed, which I expected, but it is a little sad that I won’t have a comforting face to smile at when I wake up from boob-gate.

My mom wanted to fly in, but I told her it was too risky to travel at her age — and what if I was exposed? My white blood cell count is still not too high, according to this week’s blood test. Still waiting for those suckers to increase to healthy, infection-fighting levels.

My family and friends all have a good feeling about this. A legitimate good feeling — I know they’re not just blowing smoke. I do as well. As someone usually prone to anxiety who currently doesn’t really have any — not even from dealing with cancer in the era of COVID — it makes me wonder if my body is already telling me the good news.

To hear the words “cancer-free” would be a dream come true. But I also want to prepare myself for the alternative, which I know can still be far from a death sentence. Even if I have some residual disease left and even if a couple of my lymph nodes are positive, there’s still a chance that cancer cells have not yet widely spread. I’m aiming high but will settle for second- best. One step at a time. Chemo, surgery, then we’ll figure out the rest. I’m just super thankful that my lumpectomy is able to happen on time, as that really had been my main fear thus far. Then I’m one step closer to hitting the open road and finishing my treatment out east in some relaxing tropical weather.

And finally, if all goes well after my surgery and all of these treatments, the last phase will be the reopening of ME. Cancer-free. Ready to take on the world yet again.

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BY: Marisa Sullivan

May 19, 2020