I was an avid, ‘go to the doctor, get a mammogram, ‘every year‘ person from the age of about 45. In early March of 1999, I went and had my annual/mammogram, and in mid-March I got a phone call that the doctors had seen something unusual and they wanted to do another mammogram. After they did the second imaging, they called me back and said they saw something abnormal, so they wanted to do a biopsy. When they went in they saw lumps (at this time they called it “duct cell carcinoma”). During the biopsy, the surgeons saw the cancer, so they went ahead and tried a lumpectomy, but they were unable to get all of it. So, ok, you know…that word…cancer.”
A few days went by and I was having difficulty healing from the biopsy. My doctor gave me some choices: he could go back in and get what was left (but that would leave me disfigured) or he could do a radical mastectomy of my left breast. I was so nervous and didn’t know what to do. I searched around, because I wanted to get the best doctors. It was then that a former NASBA co-worker gave a great recommendation of a surgeon, and he recommended a top plastic surgeon here in Nashville (I wanted reconstruction immediately after removal). My daughter, cousin and I met with the surgeon and plastic surgeon. We discussed my options and it was then that I learned that the mastectomy would allow me to only need radiation treatment and no chemotherapy, and hopefully no further medicine afterward.
My family and I didn’t make a decision immediately. After leaving the doctors, I went home and prayed over the decision. I said, “Well God, I want to be whole, I don’t want chemo.” I thought that was the best thing for me. I talked it over with my daughter, and she said, “Mom, I think you want to go this route because you don’t want to go through chemo if you don’t have to.” So, that’s the route I chose, and I felt peace. I was 50+ at that time.
Initial reaction to the diagnosis:
When I was given the breast cancer diagnosis, I was 50-something years old, and mind you, I was dating! So, some of the initial questions I asked myself were: “Will I be half of a woman?”, “Will this man still care about me?” and “Will I look disfigured even after reconstruction?” All of those thoughts weighed heavily on me; but most of all, I wondered, “Will I have life? A quality of life?” That’s what I was most concerned with, above all of the other issues I felt, was quality of life.
This is why I’m such a firm believer in yearly annual physical and mammograms, as well as self-examinations, especially if you have a family history of breast cancer. Had I not had this mammogram, it would not have been caught so early, and the treatment and outcome could have gone a very different way.
Reaction of others:
My family and friends were extremely supportive. My family all came in for the surgery, my church took turns cooking food for me and NASBA was GREAT. My co-workers prepared “Sunshine Baskets” filled with books, candy… all kinds of things to pamper me. I took something out of the basket every day and it lasted over a month! Friends from work also came to visit me many times when I was in and out of the hospital with the surgery, reconstruction and recurring infections that arose from the surgery.
The man that I was dating at the time was also very supportive. Even though he was living in Savannah, Georgia then, he was there by my side for everything. During my diagnosis and treatment, he drove back and forth from Savannah to be there for me. He really cared and loved me for who I was. Then, after my bout with cancer, he moved to Nashville and asked me to marry him. He’s now my husband.
Dealing with the different stages of grief:
Throughout my journey, I experienced the different stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). First, I felt very depressed for a while. Then, I was in a denial for a minute, but had a “bounce back ability” that, because of my faith, went really beyond. It was amazing because even during the time I was recovering, my relationship with God increased. In fact, that’s when I received my calling to minister, when I was laying flat on my back and could not do much and sometimes was in excruciating pain. My “new normal”:
I have to have diagnostic mammograms every six months to monitor me very closely. I’ve really changed my diet, added more vegetables and fruit, and I exercise much more regularly now. I believe in exercising. I believe in taking care of my body, eating right and examining myself. That’s all we have is one body. You can do all those things and still be diagnosed, but the outcome can be different.
My advice to others:
For families: Give the survivor space and meet them where they are. Sometimes it takes awhile for them to internalize what is going on. Help them be lifted when they need to be lifted, because bitterness can take a toll and increase stress level.
For survivors: Besides prevention (getting yearly exams/annuals/mammograms and self-exams), I advise going deep inside to search for the strength and the power that you’ve always relied upon to get through this journey called life. Don’t have to a pity party – because it’s easy to fall into the “Why me?” I asked that question, and I heard back, “Why NOT you?” Perhaps I was chosen to make me stronger – and I believe it did. Winning this battled caused me to be a better person, appreciate life…every moment, to touch someone along the way and allow my life to not be in vain.
Battling breast cancer also taught me to hold on to life and not get angry or bitter, but to understand that if the Powers That Be allowed this to happen, that somehow there is good in it. There is good in it, even if you can’t see it, there is good – for someone in your family, for someone connected to you, perhaps you. You could be a witness to someone else with your strength and power.
If you’ve ever read the poem “Footprints,” I feel like at the time. I felt as if I was being carried and I didn’t even know it. I had to resolve my spirit that even unto death I was going to walk this walk, and I was going to be loving and kind, no matter what – because it really didn’t have anything to do with me. Others say I smiled even during that time and I just don’t remember it because I was being “carried.”
Positive outcomes and the future:
Three major outcomes that came from my experience with breast cancer were my deepened faith in God and call to ministry, meeting my husband and gaining a deeper connection to, and genuine love for, others. You never know if you’ll be a testimony to someone else – an encourager or inspiration. That’s why I’m such an advocate for breast cancer awareness. I’ve had at least five of my friends die from breast cancer, so it’s very dear to my heart, and something I will always be an advocate for. I hold the candle for HOPE, AWARENESS, and INSPIRATION.