It was March 2006 that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I found the lump myself in February and my last mammogram had been in October, only four months before. So I wasn’t due for another mammogram for eight months. I am very grateful that I made the appointment to see my doctor when I did, despite my busy schedule as a full time high school teacher, a mother of two teenagers, and a person who just always seemed to be half a step behind on keeping up with her life.
I wasn’t expecting bad news that March. I had lived with the suspicious cloud of breast cancer over my head for many years. In 1977 my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. The cancer had spread to several of her lymph nodes. She was on rounds of chemotherapy for two years. This June my mother turns eighty. My older sister, my half-sister, and an aunt are all breast cancer survivors. My paternal grandmother became a breast cancer survivor in her seventies and went on to live to the age of 92. I have been carefully watched, palpated, and mammogramed most of my adult life. I had a lumpectomy four years ago in my right breast that was benign. So, when my doctor sent me in for an ultrasound of my left breast, I had lost the nervousness and fear that used to accompany a lump. However, when my doctor called me on the following Saturday morning and asked me to come straight in to her office, even though it was actually closed, I knew what I was in for. Or at least I thought I did.
On April 10, 2006 I had a lumpectomy and was officially diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer was larger than 1 cm and had broken though the milk duct and was therefore determined to be invasive, even though none of the seven lymph nodes removed were malignant. I was lucky in that they had caught it early, but the doctors all agreed that I should undergo chemotherapy and radiation to help insure that the cancer had not spread and would not come back. Over the next six months my body, my mind and my spirit would be challenged and my body would succumb to the effects of the treatments and weaken in ways that would eventually make me feel as sick as the word cancer implied.
I had a very difficult time with the chemotherapy and this was complicated by the fact that I was uncomfortable with my oncologist. As an educator and life-long learner, I’m not one to submit to extensive medical treatments without doing my best to learn what the doctors are doing to me and why. My oncologist was extremely busy, seemed to overbook herself and never had the time nor the patience to answer my questions to my satisfaction. I had educated myself to cancer protocols and I wanted to know which chemotherapy and accompanying drugs she was prescribing and why. Her unwillingness to compromise in this area, by spending a few minutes of my office visits discussing her plans for me, made my treatments all the more difficult. I had to strengthen my will to stand up for myself and get my questions answered at every visit. As soon as the chemotherapy courses were finished I talked about this problem with my surgeon, who I felt very comfortable with. He is a cancer survivor himself and I think this gives him a kindness and empathy that is not usually associated with surgeons. He agreed with me that although my oncologist was highly regarded medically, it is important that you can have a certain rapport with your oncologist; after all, the oncologist is in charge of your long term care in keeping the cancer from returning. So, he discussed two other oncologists with me, and I selected my new oncologist. I cannot tell you how happy I am with this choice. Although it shouldn’t be scary, “firing” your cancer doctor and hiring a new one seemed weird. But it’s not. My oncologist now is absolutely amazing. She is smart, personable and sees me as an individual. She takes the time to discuss the treatment options she recommends and treats me as a partner in the medical decisions concerning my health. This is especially important right now because I had a somewhat rare and very violent reaction to the tamoxophin. Deciding that the side effects were a lot more dangerous to my health than the benefits, I have chosen to not take the estrogen blockers. So I have to trust that my doctor is very vigilant in making sure the cancer does not reoccur. I encourage anyone who instinctually feels uncomfortable with any medical professional in their health care to speak out and not be afraid to insist on replacing that person if necessary.
So, one thing I would really like to focus on is how my friends and family saw me through the harsh effects of the treatments, how the strength, courage, love, kindness, and prayers of the people in my life supported me and gave me the hope, strength and courage I needed to get through it all.
I work as a high school teacher and I did not have near enough sick days accumulated to get me through the amount of sick leave my doctors were recommending. I was put into a leave share program and within the first day it was approved, my colleagues had donated enough of their own sick days to see me through. I cannot express how grateful my family is for the generosity of the people who donated their days, alleviating some of our financial worries.
There were so many ways that people reached out to show their support. A colleague of mine in the English department sent me an email about her own experience of living through her mother’s breast cancer. Her words were so full of courage and hope and inspired me so much that I printed the email and kept it in my bedside drawer, to take out and read when I got depressed and needed cheering up. One of my closest friends and colleagues gave me a subscription to Entertainment Weekly, which turned out to be my favorite bedside reading. How light and fun and generally distracting it was to get lost in reviews of movies, television, and books. Another friend bought me cool new lounging pajamas and boxer shorts for those days when I wanted to stay in my pj’s all day long. I think she knew how wearing something jazzy and comfortable when you are home and feeling blue can be that extra something that helps you feel OK. My older sister sent me her breast cancer books and literature and was there for me long distance whenever I needed to talk to someone who had recently experienced breast cancer. Another friend, who I had known casually for years, reached out to me and shared her own story of breast cancer recovery, creating a bond that added a new and deeper connection to our friendship. My girlfriend on Maui sent me a book on healing that led me to experience healing on an entirely different level than the one the doctors were working on. Another friend brought over a home cooked meal for my family after every chemo treatment. My mom sent me a card every week for the entire time I was on chemo and radiation, some were loving and thoughtful, some were outrageously funny - my mom always seemed to know exactly what would cheer me up each week. The list of friends and family who reached out to help me through the ordeal is endless, but every phone call checking up on me, every card, every act of kindness, helped.
My husband, my daughter, and my son were there for me 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are the main reasons I stuck with the chemotherapy. Every single day they reminded me how grateful I am for my life. The tenderness and attentiveness of my husband and my son was amazing. The quiet yet powerful presence of my daughter watching over me strengthened my every day.
I’d like to share with you one of the most memorable moments from my darker days of cancer treatments. One day I went to pick up my son from a friend’s house. My daughter was home making a special meal. She said she wanted to treat me to a home cooked dinner and I have to say I was fairly excited by the idea that at seventeen she was starting to show an interest in cooking. She was planning on making some of the dishes from the food TV network. For some odd reason, when I was too nauseated to eat or even stand the odor of cooking, I would watch the food network and download all the recipes I wanted to try later, when I felt up to eating. I’d had a hard time watching the food network before. It would make me hungry and I couldn’t get through a half hour show without getting up and making something to eat. But while I was on chemo, I could watch it by the hour. I would sometimes watch for an entire day.
This day, my daughter had looked up some of my downloaded recipes and was going to make them for dinner, but she wanted me out of the house because I can be a little bit bossy in the kitchen. When I returned home I got more than a home cooked meal with recipes from the food network. My living room was full of my friends. My daughter had planned a surprise and had secretly invited my friends over for a hat and scarf party to cheer me up. You see, I had recently lost my hair. I wasn’t comfortable with a wig, it didn’t suit me and aggravated the heat and the hot flashes brought on by the sudden menopause the chemo had caused. I guess I had been hiding out a bit while I got used to my new look. But it just took that one day, surrounded by the love and support of my friends, for me to get over myself. We ate the delicious food prepared by my daughter. I opened my gifts and we took pictures of me in each and every hat. My friends tried on the wig that I didn’t like so much and posed for pictures. I had felt uncomfortable taking off my baseball cap to try on that first hat, allowing my friends to see me bald. But after a lot of fun and laughs, love and support, they got me to take a picture without any hat, or scarf or wig. And I am smiling in this picture with my bald head. I am smiling and I am happy and I am truly alive and well. You can see it in my eyes. And I am grateful for that picture and for that day.
On Labor Day weekend I was about halfway through my radiation treatments when my friends planned a ladies only weekend retreat at a beach house on the North Shore. “D” told me we had been talking about doing this for too many years and my bout with breast cancer was a wakeup call that we needed to start doing those things that we talk about doing but don’t get around to. Our husbands and kids would just have to get by without us for three days. Those three days of hanging out on the lanai, relaxing and yakking, of swimming in the ocean, long walks on the beach collecting shells, and yes, especially the evening when “J” put on the pump it up playlist on her I-pod and all the women danced their hearts out in the living room - those three days were amazing. And if I helped inspire through my illness a spark amongst my friends to live life this fully, than I am grateful and fortunate and can see the silver lining.
The courage of those of us who become victims of breast cancer is so intricately linked with the courage of those of you who are there for us, who support us, who live through the fear and the sickness with us and rejoice in our triumphs, who give us hope and remind us, everyday, why we are so grateful to survive.
My friends under the umbrella.
That first year I could not go in the sun, so cruised up here reading and relaxing.
Edit Update: The Laborless Labor Day Ladies only weekend has become something we all look forward to. Last September was our third year of taking the time to enjoy our friendships and take a long breath of the good life.
For more spins or to join the Spin Cycle, head on over to our host, Sprite's Keeper.
There are a couple of contests going you might be interested in. Over at Tiffany's she's giving away two $100 gift certificates to Target.
The Ladies at The Secret is in the Sauce are getting ready for the Spring Fling on March 10th, lots of contests that day.
Mom on a Spin is having a limerick contest and is giving away an autographed first edition copy of her upcoming book that is being published.