How My Breast Cancer Diagnosis Helped Me Forgive My Ex-Husband

Photo: robeo, Maksym Povozniuk, VALENTIN SUPRUNOVICH | Canva
Woman calling ex husband after breast cancer diagnosis

I did not tell anyone that I thought I might have cancer before our family left for vacation. In an attempt to get my young daughters away from the hectic rhythm of our post-divorce life that included my grad school studies, bartending, and working two jobs, I planned a trip to Disney.

Converting my family of four to a family of three had proven much more challenging than I anticipated. In a desperate attempt to re-create the family I had willingly given up when I divorced Matt, I planned an expensive vacation that I put entirely on credit cards with the hope that I could reconnect with my daughters.

My annual mammogram fell a month before our trip, six months before my fortieth birthday. My best friend, Lesley, died of breast cancer a few years prior at 33. Before she died, she made me promise never to miss my annual mammogram. Instinctively, on the day of my mammogram, I knew that putting my family back together was not the only thing I would have to worry about.

"Don’t get dressed yet. We need a closer look," the technician said through the paper-thin curtain. Of course, you do. I looked in the mirror at my left breast and placed my hand to the side gently pausing at the spot that two months later would be home to my surgical scar.

I knew in that moment, that along my chest wall, in the back of my breast, in a place I never would have felt it, I had a malignant lump.

The weeks that followed moved at a deliberate pace. I kept my focus on my trip to Florida with Katie and Kirsten and on rebuilding my family. When my doctor called to report the results of my mammogram, I knew I could no longer hide from cancer behind my broken family

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"If you’re calling me in person, this can’t be good news, can it?"

"There is a shadow, It’s likely calcifications so don’t panic. But you should have it checked out. You’re pretty young to get breast cancer."

I thought of Lesley who had been too young to get it as well; I attended her funeral just two years earlier.

"What am I looking at?"

"You should have a biopsy, but there is an eighty percent chance it is absolutely nothing."

So, before I left for Disney, I sent my films via FedEx to Dr. Rhei. Dr. Rhei was well known in the Boston area as one of the top breast cancer surgeons. I made an appointment in October, put the prospect of a cancer diagnosis into a box, and sealed it tight. It was mid-August, three years after my divorce became final and my priority was taking my two teenage girls on our first real family vacation since Matt left. I forgot about FedEx and focused on putting my family back together.

The Florida sun covered the peopled landscape of the Magic Kingdom. Standing in front of Space Mountain, waiting for Katie to come out of a souvenir store, I got a call on my phone from Dr. Rhei’s secretary. I walked away from Kirsten’s questioning look when I saw "breast center" on the caller ID. After looking at my films, Dr. Rhei did not want me to wait until October, so she cleared a spot for me to come in the next day. 

It is never a good sign when a breast cancer surgeon wants to see you the next day.

"I’m at Disney with my daughters. I’m standing in front of Space Mountain right now."

"When do you come home?"


"Fine, she will see you on Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. You’re the first appointment of the day. And don’t worry."

Right. Don’t worry.

How could I tell the girls? How would I convince them there was nothing to worry about when I did not believe that myself?

That Tuesday, Dr. Rhei explained to me that I had an asymmetrical cluster of calcifications in my left breast. She took a black Sharpie marker and circled a cloud of white dots on the film to illustrate. The location would require a wire-localization biopsy, not the standard needle aspiration that could be done in her office in less than an hour. A wire would thread through a needle to puncture my breast tissue as the mammogram machine helped the technician locate the spot. Because of the proximity to my chest wall and heart, this procedure would be more complicated than most.

This proximity of my tumor would later prove a complicated problem to solve in radiation treatment. "How to kill cancer without killing my heart" became a phrase I heard often.

Dr. Rhei explained the complexity and potential discomfort of this procedure, but I adamantly refused her offer of Valium. I had broken free of a bad marriage and had overcome my brutal childhood. Despite the current challenges facing the girls and me, I refused to believe that I was weak. I was not afraid to contemplate my own mortality, and I was not afraid of a wire hanging out of my breast.

The technician would insert the wire in my breast; I would have my breast wrapped to protect the placement, put my gown on, and walk from the radiology office on the second floor of the Brigham down to L1, where my surgery would take place. At least that was what was supposed to happen. I thought I would be fine. I thought I was prepared.

But I was not fine. And I was not prepared.

I had a panic attack while the doctor was trying to place the wire. My breath became labored, my mouth went dry, and a strong and unfamiliar pounding in my chest replaced all other ambient noise in the room. At that moment, I knew a fear that came deep from the inside out. All I could do was watch helplessly as it manifested itself in the form of tingling hands, sweaty palms, and unsteady, faint movements. I sobbed in a way that was out of focus and teetering. In my futile attempt to stop them from streaming, tears only came faster and more uncontrollably.

I thought taking a Valium would give this procedure more importance than I wanted it to have, and now I realize what a terrible mistake I had made. As much as I did not want this to be important, it was. And as much as I wanted to fix my family, maybe I couldn’t.

All of the things I tried to run from for the last three years came crashing into radiology that day.

This emotional breakdown in radiology meant two things. First, Dr. Rhei came out of surgery to come up to the mammography center and calm me down or there would be no surgery. Second, since it was too late for Valium, I had to do this on my own. So, Dr. Rhei whisked into the room in her blue scrubs.

"How are we doing today? Having some trouble?" She reached out to hold my unsteady hand, "I’ve got you and you’ve got this," she said.

Dr. Rhei had a small, delicate frame that belied the strength I felt from the power of her grip. The pressure on my left breast increased as I leaned into the mammography machine. I felt Dr. Rhei’s hand on my shoulder. She was right behind me, cheering me on silently. I could feel my body loosen and my breath slow to a more familiar pace. The pressure on my breast increased. I could feel the prick of the needle puncture my breast tissue. Slowly, I envisioned the wire as it wound its way.

I knew I could no longer hide; I had breast cancer. I did not need the biopsy results. And there it was, that ordinary moment in time in which my life became something I wished I could rewrite. At that moment, I thought of what it would mean to die.

Once the wire was finally in place, I had to wait in the cold day surgery room while the whisker-thin wire stuck out of my breast. It was bandaged so I couldn’t see it, but I felt it there, sharp and persistent. I was afraid to move. To add to my discomfort, the thin fabric gown I wore to cover up while I sat in the staging area for surgery left me cold and exposed.

My surgery, scheduled at noon, meant that I had not eaten anything since midnight. There were people in the waiting room drinking coffee and eating muffins despite the sign forbidding food or drinks in the waiting room. I sat there, starving, with a wire hanging out of my breast. I watched the man next to me nosh on a blueberry muffin; I felt scared in a way I couldn’t understand.

I knew I would have to tell my daughters about the biopsy and the possibility that I had cancer. When I did, Katie did not cry and Kirsten simply looked toward the bay window out into our backyard. They didn’t really react at all, which surprised me. They had no questions for me. They now knew there was a chance I could be seriously ill, but I had downplayed the whole thing, making it seem very trivial and routine. I quoted statistics to them — the 80 percent chance it would be benign.

They remembered Lesley and that she did not beat the odds.

Years later, they confessed that as I kept touting stats, they thought only of Lesley. I thought of losing my hair. I thought that I might die. I made them promise not to tell their father until there was something to tell. In doing so, I made them complicit in my subterfuge. I’ve never asked them for forgiveness, but I probably should.

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I returned to my office at the end of the day on a Friday afternoon, exactly ten days after my surgery. I felt the vibration in my pocket. I knew before I looked at it that it was Dr. Rhei. In that instant, I became a woman with breast cancer. The moment crashed into my world in spite of all my efforts to stop it.

"We need to talk"

"I know. This isn’t good news, is it?"

"No. But it is very small. And that is good news. I don’t think it has spread." She said with a confidence I could not feel. Tears slid down my cheek as I closed my office door.

"So, what’s next?"

"We will have to do another surgery. But you have a lot of options. Come in on Monday and we can talk. I’m so sorry," she said.

She was not on call that weekend, but she gave me her private pager number and told me to call her anytime over the weekend, although we both knew I wouldn’t.

I held the phone in my hand for a long time before finally flipping it closed. I looked at the phone as if I could undo the news it had brought to me. I looked at the closed door that stood between Katie and me. I knew she would be working diligently on her homework, finishing it all so she could enjoy the weekend. Katie took work, and life, quite seriously.

I knew I had to go tell her that I had cancer.

I had to tell her that at fourteen years old, her life would suddenly change in a fundamental way. I had to tell her that life would never again be what I had promised. For the second time, because of me, the life she knew had become a fiction she could only visit in memory. Her life would no longer be safe and steady. And just like our divorce, I was the reason.

On the desk in my office, I had my favorite picture from childhood in a cherry frame, which I reached for. I am two years old and sitting on a red swing set in my backyard. My hair is short, red, and curly. I am not looking at the camera but beyond it.

It is as if I am looking for something that is not there — something elusive and unattainable. I look happy in this picture and it occurs to me that this happy look is absent from later family photos. I twirled my long, curly hair that had become a trademark as an adult, soliciting attention from both men and women. I held the picture a moment longer, then returned it to my desk before opening the door to Katie.

"Hey … what are you working on so hard?"

"Bio. I’ve got a test on Monday."

"We need to talk. Can you put that down for a second?" I recognized this as the same preamble I had used when we sat down at the kitchen table to tell the girls of the divorce, and I wondered if Katie remembered it as well. She looked up from her work.


"Well, I got the results back from the biopsy and it isn’t what we had hoped … but the good news is that it is very small, and they don’t think it has spread." The statement hung in the middle of the room between us like a heavy curtain.

"Did you tell Kirsten yet? What about Dad?"

"Not yet."

"Will you lose your hair?"

"I don’t know. I’ll have to have some more surgery. And from there, I don’t know what they’ll do."

I noticed that Katie’s eyes did not stray too much from her biology notebook, but she began to tap her pencil. As was the case when I told her about the divorce, she did not cry; she simply focused on the task in front of her.

And now there was one more conversation that I knew I had to have.

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I was unsure of what cancer would really mean for me in the day-to-day. Other than the obvious "Would I die?"  Now that my diagnosis had been confirmed, I knew I had to tell my ex-husband, Matt, about it. Would he be able to muster the courage to help our girls through this? I had to tell him that Louanne’s role as step-mother suddenly became much more important.

I had to tell Matt that I might die.

There was a part of me — a jaded and pessimistic part, I admit — but a part that expected to hear hope on the other end of the line. Not hope that I would recover, but hope that I would die and that our acrimonious divorce and the child support payments that went with it would finally be behind him. I wondered if the bitterness over our divorce remained so strong that he would feel a sense of relief.

I sat on our former marital bed with my cell phone in hand and my bedroom door shut. The girls were in the living room eating a Mystic Pizza pizza and watching Charmed on the television.

I knew I had a few quiet moments to have the conversation. I had a large glass of chardonnay on my nightstand. I flipped open the phone and dialed his number, praying that he wouldn’t answer and that I could simply leave a message. Then, if my worst fears were true, I would remain unaware. After we disposed of the niceties of how the girls were, his parents, etc., I got right to it.

"Have the girls mentioned anything to you about the doctor appointments I’ve had in the last few weeks?"

"No, why?"

The girls kept my secret.

"Well, there is no easy way to say this, so, I’m just going to say it — I’ve got breast cancer. They think it’s early, but I’ve got a long road ahead." I said.

And then the part I really hated:

"I’m going to need your help with the girls to make this okay for them." The air between my phone line and Matt’s sat like a heavy fog over Nantucket. I’m not sure how much time went by, but I do remember that I had several sips of wine as I cried against the silence.

"Is this my fault?" he asked suddenly breaking the spell.

"What? No, what do you mean your fault?"

"Did I hurt your heart so much that I caused this?"

My heart broke for him. I suddenly remembered why I fell in love with him all those years ago — of course, that was ancient history and a lot of really horrible things had been said and done by both of us since then, but these words of self-reflection provided me a space — space for a forgiveness that I had not thought possible. In that moment, I remembered the courage that I had to muster to have my biopsy a few weeks earlier. How it came from a deep part of me that I didn’t know was there.

I remembered the freedom that came with finding that courage within me, and I now knew, that Matt had mustered that same courage to really take responsibility for what had happened between us. And then I found the freedom to forgive him — not the platitudes, but to really forgive. To finally let go of all of our bad history and begin to remember the good times in a nostalgic and kind way.

"I don’t think things work like that. I think it’s just a bad thing that is happening to me." I truly meant this.

"What do I need to do? How can I help?" he said.

"Just be there for the girls. Tell them it’s going to be okay and not to be scared. I don’t think they believe me anymore."

"Is it?" he asked.

My breath caught. I took a moment and a large sip of chardonnay.

"I have no idea," I said. Again, a long pause. More chardonnay. I was starting to feel it by this time. I suspect, although I’ve never asked, that there were tears on both ends of the phone. Tears of fear, rejection, and tears of things we both wished that maybe we could have fixed. Of things we wished we said, but of mostly things we wish we hadn’t said.

In that moment of frailty and quiet, I finally understood the full power of forgiveness and the burden it can lift from a person.

Somehow in that moment, Matt and I were once again a team, our divorce long in the past, and we both healed in a way we didn’t think possible.

This year, Denise P. King celebrates 19 years cancer-free.

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Denise P. King is a Cape Cod-based writer who writes personal and compelling essays with the core belief that the story should serve the story rather than the teller. Portions of her memoir entitled, The Weight of Winter have been recognized by the Columbia School of Journalism with first-place awards in both non-fiction and poetry.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.