I am a medical oncologist and know how critical it can be to catch cancer in its earliest stages. With a family history of breast cancer, I’ve always been very good about going in for mammograms and doing regular self-exams.
In May 2011, I noticed a lump in my breast. That’s when I received the news that would change my life forever - I had breast cancer at age 43.“Cancer... I have a wonderful husband and two young daughters. I care for breast cancer patients every day. How can this be happening to me?” Nothing can prepare you for news like that - not even being a medical oncologist who specializes in breast cancer.
I underwent bilateral mastectomy. After the surgery I learned that I had invasive cancer and it was “triple negative.” This is the most biologically aggressive type of breast tumor. It was recommended that I receive chemotherapy so I started on a course of 6 chemotherapy treatments. The hardest moment for me was when my then 10-year-old daughter asked, “Mom, are you going to die?”
No one wants to have cancer, but you have to look at the silver lining. My spirituality and my relationships with my husband, my daughters, my girlfriends, my patients, and my colleagues have been strengthened by this frightening life experience. Cancer connected me with people in ways I hadn’t been connected before. Though returning to work was difficult, there was a new level of assurance and admiration for them when I told my patients, “I know what you’re going through.”
Every day I’m thankful the cancer was found early. If I had put off that appointment for a couple more months, it could have been a much different story. No one thinks cancer is going to happen to them. That’s why I urge everyone to do self-breast exams and have yearly mammograms and other cancer screening tests. If you find a suspicious lump, have it checked out. That way, when your children ask, “Mom, are you going to die?” you can say, “No, my cancer was found early.”
Although much of that time is a blur, I remember one thing that helped me feel better no matter how weak I was --exercise. Some days I had to stop to rest when simply walking from one end of my house to the other. After each treatment I would hit bottom and then slowly improve to the point where I could walk a mile or two and then unfortunately it would then be time for another treatment. Little did I know how important exercise and physical activity would be for me to recover and grow from my cancer experience.
I was lucky enough to go to Nepal with Above and Beyond Cancer in 2012 and participate in the Million Dollar Marathon in 2013. Training for and participating in these journeys definitely transformed me. It has inspired me to use my survivor status to support programs and become more of a credible advocate for cancer prevention, screening and treatment. After returning from Nepal I have spoken at several events using my adventure as a jumping off point to discuss survivorship, wellness, and advocacy issues.
Now I am traveling to Peru as I feel I have more room to grow and more of myself to give. During our journey in Nepal I leaned from many members of the team what compassion really means. I used to think about people “being” compassionate, but now I think about “practicing” compassion because that is truly what compassion is – a practice. It is continually looking for a way to provide support and care for someone who is suffering. Before my cancer diagnosis, I felt sympathy for my patients and their families. Since being diagnosed with cancer I am now capable of making an even deeper connection. I am truly empathetic -- I know what many are going through and can feel and understand their pain. After a journey with Above and Beyond I feel I can move beyond empathy to compassion. I am moved to transform my empathetic feelings into compassionate actions – “practicing” compassion.
During my 2012 Nepal journey with Above and Beyond Cancer I had recently completed treatment and was a new cancer survivor looking to be supported. Now I feel energized and ready to fully take on the caretaker role and provide that support to others. I am asking you to support this journey as well. Please consider a donation in any amount.