I shuffled into the operating room in my ugly brown hospital socks at 10:17 a.m. on the Monday before Thanksgiving. By 10:19 a.m., I was in tears. Not like misty-eyed. Not like a single tear rolled down my face. These were the kind of tears that make your chest heave and your throat ache and your sinuses feel like they’re going to explode. The kind of tears you can’t fight back. The kind you’ll remember for a long time.
I wasn’t scared of surgery. I had been a nurse in my previous life (my life before breast cancer) and I knew what to expect: Surgeon 1 would make incisions on both sides of my breasts, removing all of my breast tissue including the remains of my 4-centimeter tumor. Then surgeon 2 would take over and insert a tissue expander into the space where my breasts once were to prepare them for later reconstruction. Surgeon 3 would make six small, laparoscopic cuts into my abdomen and one in my vagina to remove my uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes and cervix.
This aggressive surgical plan was my best shot at preventing a cancer recurrence after discovering my nasty BRCA1 gene mutation during my shocking cancer diagnosis as a healthy, 30-year-old woman. I had endured nearly six months of intense chemotherapy and I had been counting down the days to not only rid my body of the tumor, but also remove any and all organs that put me at risk of having to go through this all over again.
There were what felt like dozens of techs and nurses buzzing around the room, organizing mountains of sterile instruments, covering equipment in sterile drapes, and adjusting lights over the operating table. Each one had a job, a purpose, a part to play in my surgery. The team dynamic was palpable as they chatted with each other, communicating who would fulfill what role while I was on the table. All these people had shown up … for me?
The anesthesiologist, a relaxed, kind-hearted man I’d met in pre-op, was drawing up anti-anxiety medications and carefully sticking handwritten labels on the syringes. His trainee, an anesthesia resident, was adjusting parameters on the monitor that hung over the operating table — the monitor that would broadcast my heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen level to the entire room and sound an alarm if any of my vital signs were dangerously high or low. They had concocted an anesthesia plan that would not only put me to sleep, but would also allow me to wake up slowly and in minimal pain.
A nurse beckoned me to climb up on the table and immediately covered me in a blanket. “Are you warm enough?” she asked me. I nodded yes. From the corner of my eye I could see my three surgeons talking together quietly. As their huddle broke up, each one touched my shoulder or arm and assured me that they would take excellent care of me. The tears were coming fast now.
All of these people, three surgical teams worth, were going to play a part in saving my life. They were members of a bigger team that would keep me alive and give me the best shot at never having cancer invade my cells ever again. My heart swelled. Each one of these people had shown up for me.
As I lay there on the table with the dizzying action of the operating room swirling around me, I thought of my husband in the waiting room and of my parents who had driven five hours to sit with him during my grueling surgery day. How many times had I cried to them, raged at them, questioned my very existence with them, and they had let me? I thought of my siblings and in-laws who had kept up with every update since the beginning of my cancer journey — even from afar — and were spending today sitting by their phones, anxious for news. I thought of friends and family across the country who had sent their best wishes and prayers for this day, and had been there with gifts, words of encouragement, and well-timed visits to help me through rough days. They had all shown up for me, too.
I thought of my oncologist who had coached me through five and a half months of chemotherapy that tested my grit and will to live. I had broken down in her exam room more than once, but at every point that I wanted to give up, she had urged me on.
I thought of every person who had sent a card, made a meal, contributed to the GoFundMe page set up by my best friend, or babysat my kids for free. I thought of everyone who sat with me on chemo days, watching the infusion drip in hour after hour, just so I wasn’t alone. I thought of each person who had volunteered to stay with us in our tiny, 800-square-foot apartment so I could have constant help with our kids while my husband worked his demanding residency schedule. I thought of my two young kids (ages 1 and 3) who with their every waking breath communicated, “We need you.” All of them, each one, had been instrumental in keeping me moving forward.
The tears were now spilling down the side of my face as I lay face up on the operating table, staring at the bright lights above me.
I let out a sob.
How many times during my cancer journey had I doubted that I had a life worth saving? During my 16 rounds of intense chemotherapy, I watched myself go from a healthy, energetic, red-headed mom to a bald, weak shell of a person who could barely look at herself in the mirror.
As families went on summer vacations, I spent my days writhing in bed, my muscles and joints aching from bone marrow stimulant shots and mouth sores blistering my gumline. As moms in the neighborhood gathered at the park with their kids, I would lay exhausted on the couch in our tiny apartment, my eyes open just a slit, to watch my two toddlers playing on the floor. I planned my whole schedule around infusions and appointments and blocked out entire days in which the only thing I could do was rest and recover until the next chemo treatment. It was a miserable existence. It didn’t feel like much of a life. I felt like a failure every day.
My mental health suffered along with my physical health. I often felt suffocated by anxiety and dragged down by chemo-induced depression. By the time I had received 12 rounds of chemotherapy, I begged my oncologist to stop. My low hemoglobin had me out of breath simply getting my kids dressed in the morning. My neutrophil count had tanked so low that I was susceptible to every cough and cold and unwashed hand. My eyebrows and eyelashes (my last body hairs to hang on) were now long gone, taking my self-esteem with them. My body was giving out.
I would lie in bed at night thinking about the surgical plan. Radical double mastectomy and oophorectomy were my best options but the thought of being opened up, multiple organs removed, and then being sewn back together was haunting. How much more change could my body endure? My positive BRCA1 gene mutation put my chances of breast and/or ovarian cancer at up to 87%. Was this a life worth saving? This weak, unrecognizable shell of myself? Was this existence worth it? My body and mind felt like they had given up and the pain and grief just kept closing in. And in those dark moments, I doubted that my life had any value at all.
So on that Monday before Thanksgiving, when I walked into the operating room in my ugly brown hospital socks and witnessed literally dozens of people assembled and ready to fight for my life, I was overwhelmed with hope. Hope that all that chemo and surgery had been worth it. Hope that I would go on to live a long life. Hope that my life had value. Each person validated — just by their presence — that my life was worth saving. My life.
Sometimes, in our weakest, most vulnerable moments, we need others to remind us that our lives have value. Every single person who showed up for me on my cancer journey kept that fire of worthiness burning. They fought for my life when I had given up fighting for myself. They communicated with their words and actions, “Your life is worth saving. You are worth saving.”
As I drifted off to sleep in the operating room, my eyes still wet with tears, the last thing I remember hearing was, “It’s OK, Erin. You’re gonna be all right. We’ve got you.”
And I knew it was true.
Erin Plum lives in New York City with her husband and two young children. A graduate of the University of Maryland, Erin worked as a pediatric nurse for nearly 10 years before being diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer at age 30. Now a cancer survivor, Erin writes to share her story and inspire hope in other young women fighting their own battles. You can find her on Instagram at @erinplum.