If you get to the end of this story, I’ve got a secret to share with you. The upper left picture is me exactly two years ago right before I had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery for early-stage breast cancer. My “Good Trouble” photo. The lower left is me the next morning at sunrise. My “I Survived” photo. The right is my official matriculation photo from the University of Cambridge taken last month as I began my graduate studies there in sustainability leadership. My “A Dream Deferred, but Not Denied” photo.
I have so much empathy for the woman on the left. It was the first time in my life I’d ever been admitted to a hospital and the first time I’d ever had surgery. I was terrified and also determined to be brave and evict cancer from my body.
With surgery I placed my life in someone else’s hands. I told Brian, my therapist, a few days before that I was terrified of surgery because there was no way for me to product manage the operation. He listened patiently, as always, and said, “Honey, you’re talented but even you can’t give yourself surgery. You have to trust someone else. The only way to conquer fear is to run right at it.”
It was a 5-hour tag-teamed procedure to remove all my breast tissue and 37 lymph nodes, and place chest expanders under my chest muscle. 14 months of constant pain later, they were swapped for much comfier implants. I smiled through the prep, thanking the nurses who helped me, determined not to crack.
Before entering the surgical suite that looked like a NASA space station, Dr. Schnabel, my breast surgeon, and Dr. Cohen, my plastic surgeon, visited with me. Dr. Schnabel looked me in the eye and said, “Sweetie, you’ve been stoic through this. It’s okay to have a moment. Then we go into battle.” Good trouble. I wanted to be as brave as John Lewis whom Audrey, my friend Stephanie’s daughter, painted onto my mask. That photo is the last day I had any cancer in my body.
I decided to walk into the surgical suite on my own two feet, even if my only armor was my surgical gown. I was scared and I ran right at it. This was going to be the last day that I had any cancer in my body. My last thought before closing my eyes was I hoped I lived to see the sunrise the next morning.
I have no memory of the surgery. I closed my eyes at NASA and woke up in the cloud of the recovery room. I was told they’d given me just a touch too much fentanyl and my blood pressure took a nosedive. I thought this was hilarious and laughed hysterically. Then I asked for some apple juice. Ah, narcotics.
I was in recovery for a long time and wasn’t admitted to a regular room until the wee hours of the morning. My dear recovery nurse, Esther, ran all over the hospital trying to find me a fresh turkey sandwich. I hadn’t eaten solid food in 24 hours and that plain turkey sandwich was one of the best things I’d ever eaten.
I told her my wish to see the sunrise and she was determined to make it a reality. I watched Harry Potter and munched on my turkey sandwich until daybreak. Maybe it was the drugs but I did feel like a witch with magical powers, as bandaged and bruised as I was.
Esther came back as soon as the sun started to come up. She helped me walk to a corner room where I could see the east river and the first rays of light illuminate my beautiful city. She left me alone to have my moment. I survived.
Back in my room, Dr. Schnabel and Dr. Cohen visited me. When I saw Dr. Schnabel, I cried for the first time. Again she looked me in the eye, two warriors on the other side of this one battle in a series of many more to come in this war. “Sweetie, it won’t always feel like this. You’re going to get to the other side. There’s a whole team of people focused on getting you there.”
I thanked her for saving my life, and she said, “I’m just part of the team. Team Christa.”
A few hours later my friend, Marita, picked me up at the hospital to take me home to where my sister who was graciously waiting for me with my dog, Phin. I had a giant bag of meds and surgical drains hanging out of my body. “How do you feel?” Marita asked once we got into her car. “I lived,” I said. “You did,” she said. “And you will.”
Fast-forward two years after climbing mountain after difficult mountain. That war on cancer was more epic than I ever imagined it would be. I nearly died, twice, from a severe and rare chemo allergy that shut down my lungs. I lost my long wavy hair to chemo and regrew 1940s ringlets. I was badly burned by radiation and completely healed. Now I’ve got new hard-earned boobs the same size as my OG boobs. That day in surgery was the last day there was ever any sign of cancer in my body—two years clear. Dr. Schnabel was right. I did get to the other side and I don’t feel the way I did before my surgery. This journey made me fearless.
When I was first diagnosed, I was just about to hit submit on my graduate school applications for Cambridge and Oxford. Then cancer struck and I had to put those applications away, afraid I may never get to submit them. I would sit in the chemo suite and dream about those far off places, dream that someday I would swap my surgical gown for an academic robe.
In September 2022, that dream happened. I took the train from platform 9 at King’s Cross to Cambridge, my own version of the Hogwarts Express just ¾ of a platform off. I thought about how I had watched Harry Potter’s train chug along on my TV screen in my hospital room two years before.
When I arrived at Cambridge, I dragged by very large bag that felt like a trunk onto the platform. I had myself a good cry in that train station. Here it was—my dream deferred, but not denied.
At my recent appoint to get the all-clear and graduate to annual checkups rather than 6 month checkups, Dr. Schnabel called my healing and this new academic chapter of my life a triumph. The dream became a reality, and I’m beyond grateful to everyone who helped me get here.
I’ll never get back the life I had before the photos on the left, before cancer and COVID. I mourn the loss of that life. I miss it. But in exchange, I got something better. Environmental pollution was one of the main contributors to my cancer. Now I’m healed and dedicated to healing the planet.
Now for that secret I promised you at the start of this story. Along the way on this painful and difficult journey, I learned the secret of life. It’s love.
To love fiercely and be loved that way in return. To love whom we spend time with, the place we live, and the work we do. To love the planet that gives us everything and asks in return only to persist and continue giving to all of us. To love this life so much that our heart swells with gratitude for every day we’re given, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. To love and honor your time, and the time of others. That’s it. That’s the secret, and it will transform us and our planet for the better.
Get into good trouble; the planet is counting on us. Survive, and then share your story because your story’s going to save someone else. Even if you have to put some dreams on hold right now, you can still make them happen bit by bit and they’ll be sweeter when you do get there.
Love, this and every moment. That’s the only secret there is, and the only work we really have to do.