I’ve always been fundamentally and wholly afraid of getting breast cancer. I got it anyway and yes, breast cancer changed my life for the better. It did, and I still can’t believe that I just typed those words!
Would I do it again given the choice? Well, I’m not going to ask myself that question it’s pointless. It happened to me, and it was like an avalanche of lemons burying me, bad news after bad news hitting me because I ended up having a very aggressive high grade triple negative cancer and somehow, life made lemonade out of this “abundance” of lemons.
I was so afraid of breast cancer that I can’t believe I could get lemonade out of a lemon like this, but it happened. And, it wasn’t intentional. It just happened as I navigated the process. Looking back is what’s brilliant because it shows me the challenges and choices that turned this into a positive. A diagnosis like this can be a wholly horrible experience, like I expected it to be, or it can be something else. For anyone about to go through a health crisis such as breast cancer, I tell you, I wish I knew some of this when I started into the journey. It would have saved me a boat load of suffering and the need to live on Ativan for the first few months. It also would have gotten me to that lemonade a whole lot faster.
My breast cancer story:
I can’t speak for any other woman, only for myself, but as I look back on what I call “The Breast Cancer Year,” I marvel actually. I knew I could get breast cancer even though I’ve done everything I could to NEVER get THAT diagnosis. With magical thinking and a ton of optimism, I planned (hoped) I’d dodge the bullet in spite of the frightening statistics that 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer. And, in spite of the fact that I have a family riddled with cancer, including breast cancer, breast cancer is the one that really scared me the most. Any time I’d start to worry, I’d soothe my fears with an inventory of my risk reducing factors: my really healthy lifestyle, having kids relatively young and breast feeding them, exercising regularly, eating really well, avoiding hormones of any sort because I had a hunch they were “bad” for my personal breast cancer risk. But, in August 2013 I became “that 1” in the 8 of us that we all don’t want to be.
It started when I found the small hard lump in my left breast while doing my breast self-exam. (That breast exam probably saved my life please girls and boys, do yours every month, really!) I scheduled a mammogram, which I was due for but not behind on.
I went for my mammogram thinking this would be a false alarm and a quick in and out. I had even actually started to fear the annual mammo less as I aged, silly me! Like always, as the tech checked my films to be sure they weren’t blurry, I looked over her shoulder. The place where the little lump was looked bad, and I knew it. My doctor was in the building so she called him and he came down. I tried to dance around the impending disaster when I saw the serious look in his eyes. I said “but I can’t have cancer, I just bought 4 really pretty bras this summer in Italy on my 30th wedding anniversary trip, and I’m planning on enjoying them!” I swear I saw a tear in the corner of each of his eyes.
From there, time is a blur. But what isn’t is the way the final news hit me and left me a complete, emotional train wreck. Things in my life were going so well at 55. Like many people, I’ve had phases in my life that were filled with stress, where I lived on an adrenaline edge always looking out for the next drama. But, this was not one of those times, and the bad news blindsided me. And, it kept getting worse. It was cancer, then it was the dreaded and very aggressive high grade triple negative cancer, then it was one in each breast meaning my prognosis and statistics were doubly bad (note that the second cancer did not show up on the mammogram, so girls and boys, just remember that!), then it was having the BRCA gene mutation and needing to worry about cancer in my ovaries too. It was an avalanche of bad news.
As if all that wasn’t traumatic enough, the treatment news became yet another avalanche of lemons what my doctors were telling me was frightening and one of my worst nightmares! I needed 4 months of really strong chemo with really toxic and old fashioned drugs. These were drugs that I had used on patients way back in the 80s. They were dangerous, damaging and they make patients really sick. They were not recommending new fancy miracle drugs that are like pharmaceutical “smart bombs.” No, apparently the cancer type I had is resistant to the “smart bomb” drugs and only responds to high doses of the old fashioned “nuclear bomb” type drugs. My really amazing and experienced breast cancer surgeon said to me:
“Chemo is your only hope with this kind of cancer. I’m going to be honest with you, this is really bad cancer. If it comes back we can’t cure it, which means it’s a matter of time before it kills. Most people only last at most 5 years if it comes back. I’m going to be honest with you again, don’t take this wrong, but you’re stupid if you don’t do chemo, surgery alone won’t beat this one.”
And, after that, he said I also needed a double mastectomy. Taking my breasts off was what was needed to see how the chemo worked and if I needed more. Plus with the BRCA gene, my breasts were cancer minefields and needed to get off of my body before they blew up into cancer again. He also said we needed to take lymph nodes on both sides of my arms meaning that my arms would always be at higher risk for serious infection for the rest of my life. He continued, “If there is still cancer in your breasts or lymph nodes when we remove them then you will need more chemo, and your prognosis will be pretty dire.”
He went on to explain that, after he was done treating the breast cancer, we would need to tackle my ovaries. If there was cancer there, we would need to see a gynecologic oncology specialist for more surgery, AND I would need more chemo. He said we wouldn’t know what my future looked like until we were done with all this but that I needed to plan on a minimum of a year if all goes well.
My head was swirling. I have two kids and this nightmare is hereditary. That’s even worse! I was buried!
I was absolutely devastated, and it happened so fast but so did the lemonade.
When it comes to the lemons to lemonade “opportunity” that I was buried under, I’ve always had a deep spiritual belief that there is a reason behind what happens in life. I kept wondering:
Did this happen in my life for a reason? Is there something I’m supposed to do or change? IS THERE A MESSAGE IN THIS FOR ME THAT I SHOULD TRY TO HEAR?
Whether it’s God’s will, a guardian angel, the law, karma or whatever, I can’t say I know for sure, I just know deep down that there IS a reason for something like this. So, I started to look for the reason, and it changed how I felt about my situation and that changed the situation.
Regardless of the outcome, I realized that this was where I was supposed to be. In addition to figuring out how to cope with the treatments and support my health while I underwent this process, I started looking for ways to make lemonade out of this abundance of lemons. Good things started happening, they are the fond memories from “The Breast Cancer Year,” and they are the sweet lemonade that came from the abundance of lemons.
As I celebrate National Cancer Survivors Day this month, I’m excited as I reflect on all that I’ve learned from my experience. My story is about how my avalanche of lemons became an opportunity for an abundance of lemonade. It’s made me not only a survivor, but it’s also made me a thrivor.