They Light Up My Life

Miracles. They happen every day; big and small, but always important. Project miracle was created by Cristina Carlino in order to bring a new day to those in need. Here is a beautiful and uplifting story that illustrates the amazing bond between mothers and daughters, those who need a smile and those who give smiles and the power of believing in miracles…

They Light Up My Life


Bonnie Bridges


Cristina Carlino

Who offered her love and support to me when I was still unaware of how much I needed it.

My day started with a leisurely drive to Palo Alto (we live in SF) for a routine mammogram at Stanford Radiology at 2:30 pm on May 20, 2008. I was 48 and had skipped a few years of scans due to the oft-used working mother excuse: too busy with work, kids, husband, life, and friends.

I did the usual – undress, wear a cloth gown (that never ties quite right, seems to be designed to confound the user, AND is prone to gaping open while seated, exposing the soon-to-be mangled breasts) and wait. Get the mammogram. It is so weird to have your breast smashed into oblivion, while the empathetic nurse says “sorry that it hurts so much”. I think they must secretly enjoy inflicting pain; (just thought of this, perhaps they secretly love the pain aspect, which is why there has not been any new invention for breast cancer screening). And wait.

“Wait here while I have the doctor examine your mammogram” said the nurse, pointing to the waiting area, an eddy-like alcove off the hallway, opposite the exam rooms. I ambled in, a little bit annoyed that I couldn’t leave (as I had another business appointment at 4:30 back in the City). I carry my stuff along with my Stanford issued, non-recyclable dark mauve and tan plastic bag and sit, trying my best, along with the few other women, to appear is if waiting for the doctor to examine your mammogram is the most routine thing in the world. The three of us made the eddy feel crowded. I make a bee line for the solo chair near the New Yorker to bury myself in a few enjoyable essays.

“Bonnie, the doctor reviewed your scan and would like to do an ultrasound; come this way please”. I did as instructed, asking how long she thought it would take, thinking about having to call and cancel my business appointments for the afternoon. “About 45 minutes” she replies, which translates into 1.5 hours. Hmmm. I could still get back to SF, just in time, but I don’t like being rushed. So before I step into the exam room, I bring out my cell and cancel my appointments.

The ultrasound is painless (unlike our pre-historic mammogram exams — will someone PLEASE figure out how to get rid of this medieval medical device). During the ultrasound, the “I have to be cheery even when I’m working in a cancer radiology clinic and always the first one to “see” the cancer” radiation technologist, gave it away. The almost undetectable change in her attitude told me there was something wrong. Cancer. It was as clear as if she had yelled it across the room. I went from an annoying patient at the end of a long day, to one who needed empathy.

The ultrasound technician then asked me to wait again in the same eddy while the doctor examined the ultrasound. After about forty five minutes, she came out, with these sad, empathetic eyes and said it was OK to get dressed — helping me up from my chair (since when did I need help getting up?). Hmmmm. Highly suspicious. Something is wrong. But the tech’s can’t spill the beans. As I exit, they ask me to schedule an appointment for a biopsy.

The following week the biopsy was done and I had to wait two weeks to see Dr. Wapnir (breast surgeon) to review the results and get the confirmation for cancer diagnosis. Although suspicions had been raised, I tried hard to convince myself that the likelihood of me having cancer was so minor (I had a scare in 2004 that turned out negative) that I was able to appear calm (when in fact I was a wreck, but I didn’t want my family to know).

I went to the appointment by myself and was told by the resident doctor (Dr. Wapnir tends to be a bit over-scheduled) that I had ductile carcinoma and that there were options for treatment and that Dr. Wapnir would explain the options when she came in.

What the ____! The poor resident was nervous, scared, afraid of my reaction (it’s a steep learning curve, but I suppose it’s what’s required if you want to work in a cancer center).

Wapnir came in, cut to the chase (empathy through information style; which I grew to like and appreciate) and gave me the low down in her flat, slightly nasely voice: ER/PR positive, Stage 2C ductile carcinoma, large mass in left breast with diffuse edges and possible remote cancerous spots. Her recommendations: neo-adjuvant chemo, surgery and then radiation. She sent me home with a booklet “how to tell your kids when a parent has a terminal illness” and jump-started my confrontation with mortality. I read the booklet in the exam room, called Bill (my husband of 20 years) and we decided to pick up our 8 year old twin daughters from school and take them to Zuni Café (our family favorite) to share the news.

We sat in the window on the ground floor facing Market Street. I sat on the bench side and placed the book face open to the 7-10 year old section and told them that I had breast cancer. Nina shouted “you’re going to die” and Dora said, “Mom, I’m really sorry that you have cancer, is there anything I can do to help?”; nothing like di-zygotic twins to get the full spectrum of responses. I told them all that we knew (per the book’s advice); that I was sick, that breast cancer is treatable; that I would be in treatment for a long time, but that the doctor’s thought that I would be OK The food didn’t taste as good as usual.

The twins were born when I was 39 after a five long years of infertility treatments. They have been such an amazing blessing and I can’t imagine my life without them. I knew that they would be alright without me but the recurring thought of not seeing them go off to college, get married, have kids, kept haunting me; I would be overwhelmed with sadness and cry (but never in front of them).

During my treatment, I reached out to all of my friends and family and beyond (into the vast energy spectrum) and let them help. This was a huge step for me — as I’m about as stoic and self-sufficient as they come. One of those angels was Cristina Carlino. Through her generosity, I was able to attend a healing retreat called “Entering the Castle” given by Carolyn Myss in Austin, Texas in the spring of 2009 (in the middle of my radiation). These four days of deep inner work (on both the body and mind) were as critical to my healing as chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

And now it’s June 2010; the two-year anniversary of my diagnosis, one year out of treatment and I’m cancer free and looking forward to the next few years of emotional wrangling with my tween (pre-teen) girls. Life is truly a gift. Something I will do my best to remember every time the hormone-induced emotional roller coaster of pre-pubescent teen angst rears its ugly head. Nina, Dora. I love you. No matter what.

During Chemo (2008)

during chemo (2008) - people who received this photo thought that this was our way of telling everyone that I was going to die; but it was actually a message for people to take their white paper (that appeared blank) and hold it over a flame to reveal the "happy new year" message (which we wrote in invisible ink --- milk). a mercurial holiday card.

Holiday 2009

Post chemo (2009) - we take about 100 shots and everyone we send a card to gets a different image; we sort based on who would like funny, serious, etc. I like this one because we love to goof off and play.


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