When I first found a lump in my breast, it wasn’t some planned “standing in the shower with my arm up” kind of self-test. I was just at home, literally staring off into space, touching my boobs. Out of nowhere, I felt this small hard lump the size of the marble.
I was only 33.
Being a comedian, I normally can make light of things, but this wasn’t one of them.
I didn’t tell anyone and tried to convince myself it was a cyst that would disappear in a month. Waiting made more sense, especially given that I really couldn’t afford the premium to my sucky health insurance. See, being a part-time freelance comedy teacher was a fun career, just not a lucrative one with great benefits. I needed to know that if my account was going to be in the negative, it better be serious and not some hypochondriac figment of my imagination.
So I didn’t deal with it for four months.
And contrary to what I thought, the lump was still there. I finally broke down and listened to the voice in my head that had only gotten louder: “Judy, get this checked out.”
Luckily, a friend reminded me that Howard Brown Health Center, a community health center in Chicago’s Boys Town, offered health services not just for gay men, but for all low-income LGBT folks, including breast cancer screenings.
Low-income? Sign me up.
During my appointment, my doctor didn’t see anything alarming, but said, “You know your body better than I do, if you think something isn’t right, let’s check it out.” (Side note: Remind me to send her a thank you card.) From there, I went to Illinois Masonic Hospital and got an ultrasound and mammogram.
A week later, on Halloween of all days, I got the call.
I had stage 2 breast cancer.
This might be my last trick-or-treat.
I was only 34.
My daughter Daphne wasn’t even 2 years old.
I was terrified.
That same night, in an effort to not sit and wallow at home, my then-partner and now-wife Kelly and I decided to go to the Halloween parade that night as planned. Everything was a blur. However, I do remember having this overwhelming desire to knock everyone’s drinks out of their hands and scream at the top of my lungs, “Don’t you know I have cancer?!”
In time, the initial shock wore off, but my naiveté kicked in. Like so many other women living with breast cancer, I thought, “OK, it’s only stage 2. I’ll have a few rounds of chemo and be done in no time!”
That couldn’t have been further from the truth.
There was no "one and done." This became a year-and-a-half daunting battle that I constantly felt I was losing. There were countless doctor appointments, plastic surgeon consultations, oncologists, radiation treatments, and genetic tests. Soon after, they told me that my right breast had to be removed. The surgery date? Christmas Eve. Awesome.
Afterward, there were the excessive rounds of chemo, hair loss, loss of health insurance, loss of control, nausea, exhaustion, and the deep depression. I was paralyzed by fear and yet filled with so much rage. This disease had taken so much away from me and my child. I was the mom on the sidelines, fighting for my life, missing out on everyday things like taking her to the park and reading her stories. I was the sick mom.
And yet somewhere in that, I did find solace in the people around me: My wife, my parents, my siblings, my friends, my Second City family and the doctors and nurses at the Good Shepherd Hospital. But most importantly, my baby Daphne gave me strength.
One time, she saw the scar on my breast and rubbed it. With her big, beautiful, blue eyes, she looked up at me and whispered, “Daphne help Mama.” If she only knew.
And then something miraculous happened. My cancer was gone. I was in remission. And it felt amazing! No more chemo, poking, and prodding. I was finally free — or so I thought.
‘Cause here’s another thing about cancer. Even when it’s gone, it’s still always there. My body and soul were constant reminders that I had been to war, and my emotions still felt like they were on the frontlines. Therapy was helping, but I needed something else.
Going through the journals I kept during the past year and a half, it was clear what I needed to do.
I needed to do what I do best — perform. With that, I created a one-woman show, “Are You There Judy, It’s Me, Cancer.” Each night, the theater was packed with women living with the disease, survivors, and their loved ones. After each show, they would come and hug me, cry, and thank me for sharing my story. I was a voice for them and the countless others who were gone. This is exactly what I needed.
Remission has given me a deeper purpose. And while that purpose continued on, unfortunately, my remission didn’t.
During a routine yearly MRI, three years after getting that most amazing news, my doctor told me that my cancer was back — this time with a vengeance. It was stage 4, and in time, it had spread to my brain, lungs, lymph node, ribs, collar bone, tail bone, and even 10 vertebrae.
I know what you’re thinking. Man, Judy can’t catch a break.
But I am going to keep fighting. Yes, I know I won’t ever be cured of cancer, and that I will have it as long as I’m alive. But I’m also clear that my cancer can be managed with treatment (I’m currently on round 2 of 6 of chemo).
How long do I have to live? I honestly don’t know.
I’ve asked my doctor to not tell me my prognosis, because I don’t want to be that person who is bogged down with grief, crossing the days off the calendar, waiting to die. I don’t want my daughter, my wife, and my family to remember me like that. I owe them and myself more.
So instead I choose life — and to live it to the absolute fullest — which means still being the kind of person who puts on shows about cancer, this time with my wife by my side. And it also means taking the plunge and being the kind of person who buys those VIP tickets to a Sarah McLachlan concert in Canada to meet her backstage. (Duh, I am a lesbian.)
But most importantly, no matter how much time I have left in this world, I will always be the kind of person who never gives up.
JUDY FABJANCE is a comedian, an alumnus and instructor at The Second City, and a breast cancer survivor. Learn more about her newest show about her breast cancer journey Tales of a Stage 4 Cancer at itsmecancer.com.