In early February '08, I was diagnosed with Stage 3, Invasive Ducal Carcinoma Breast Cancer, I was 39 years old. I was to become 1 of 250,000 women living in the U.S. who were diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40. I found a lump while doing a self examination in November '07. Because I live out in the country it took some time to get all the tests that were needed to render the diagnoses. In the end it was the core biopsies that told the story.
I remember waiting in my surgeon's office for the results. It was the longest and scariest 15 minutes of my life. However, I knew, in my heart of hearts, back in November ’07 that I had cancer. But since no one had actually said the words to me...Maybe I could hope and wish it away. No such luck.
After my surgeon used my name and cancer in the same sentence, my life as I knew it changed. Every aspect of what I had come to know to be true and believed in had either come into question or changed completely. The next two weeks went by in a blur. I had so many decisions to make and my brain would not function…it could not process anything.
I called my mom and had that conversation you never want to have with your parents, " Mom, I have cancer and it's serious." We cried and she said what every little girl wants to hear when she is scared, "I'll be right there and we'll do this together." That phone call was the beginning of our journey together to kick cancer's ass. My mom left her home and partner in Washington and arrived at my front door 2 days later, prepared to put her life on hold to help me for as long as the journey took.
In February '08 I had a partial left breast mastectomy with centennial lymph node dissection. The surgeon took a total of 12 lymph nodes, 8 of which contained cancer cells. The last 4 lymph nodes were completely clear. I awoke from the surgery with such a sense of relief, that the cancer was out of my body and could no longer continue to grow and harm me. Many wonderful friends came to see me in the hospital to offer their support, prayers and love. I think I called on every single one of them over the course of the next year.
Two weeks later Cheryl, my best friend, took me to my first chemo appt. I was schedule to receive 4 months of High Dose Dense ACT, every 2 weeks. I was scared. I remember when the nurse wheeled in the IV pole that was strung with several bags of chemicals with names I could not pronounce, that it was real "I had cancer and I had to do this to save my life." Cheryl held my hand and was my strength while I cried over my new realization, She gave me one of the greatest gifts that day, she loved me unconditionally.
I had a very hard time with Chemo. I was almost immediately violently sick and lost 40 pounds off my already shrinking frame in the first 2 months. I had to go to the infusion center almost daily to receive IV hydration and anti-nausea medications in an effort to stay out of the hospital. I remember during one of my chemo treatments having to ask the nurse if it was “ok to puke with all these tubs in me”. It seemed like I was either getting sick or lying on the bathroom floor recovering from being sick. I got shingles, carbuncles, chemo soars in my mouth, all of which delayed and hence prolonged my chemo treatment, I was hospitalized twice and in if losing all my hair was not bad enough, I also lost all my toe nails. I must say that by the time I was done with chemo not only did I feel like the walking dead, I looked like it too. I had to learn to be gentle with myself during and after chemo. I could not do what I used to be able to do and on some days all I could do was get up. My mom feed me as best she could and cared for me when I could not care for myself. And we made it threw chemo alive!
Radiation was just as hard for me. I had to commute for 1 ½ hours one way to get my treatment. The radiation made me so tired. I experience 2nd and 3rd degree burns all over my left chest and back and I basically slept for 8 weeks. I was so frustrated with still being so sick at this point. I just wanted to be able to stay awake for more than a couple of hours and have a coherent conversation with the people I loved. Both were not possible for me. Again I needed to be gentle with myself and keep believing that one day, I would start to feel better.
After radiation, I went to Stanford to seek advice about my right breast and reconstruction surgery. At Stanford I met 2 wonderful doctors who outlined my options. Considering the type and stage of my cancer it was recommended that I have my right breast removed. As far as reconstruction was concerned, my radiation burns were so bad that I was looking at a 6 to 12 month wait for the tissue to heal enough to withstand reconstruction. If I choose reconstruction, I would have to have skin grafts taken from the back of my legs to create new breasts. Sigh, I just wanted to be whole again but it was not in the cards I held at that time. So on December 3, 2008 Dr. Wapnir removed my breasts without any reconstructive surgery. She removed over ½ a pound of breast tissue from my left breast. I was shocked and wanted to ring the first surgeons neck again. The pathology reports for each breast came back clean!! Thank God !!! I was so I relieved. The reports from my oncologist also came back clean. For now I was done. God, my mom, my doctors, my friends and loved one and myself had kicked cancer’s ass!!! Now I could get on with the business of healing and rebuilding my life.
February 2 , 2011 was my four year anniversary of being cancer free. Over the past years I have started to come to terms with the many, many loses that have punctuated my life due to Breast Cancer and I have begun to embrace the many, many lessons and insights this journey has given me. I try to never take today for granted…it just might be my last. I cherish everyone I love, and tell them that I love them daily. I smile if for no other reason then because I am alive. I am learning how to be good to myself and others, it heals the body, mind and the soul. I laugh a lot just for laughter’s sake. I try to remember that my loved ones and friends will save my ass when i just can’t save it myself. I am stronger than I can ever imagined. My back bone is composed of courage, honesty, compassion, determination, and faith. I have started walking towards those impossible dreams (those ones that I have held close to my heart and thought were out of my reach) . And I know, if God and I can kick some cancer ass than I can do anything. May God bless each one of us as we stand tall and walk into the next phase of our lives and discover our "new normal" as survivors!
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