It's been eight years since my last surgery for breast cancer and at 46 years old I am healthier and more conscious than I have been in all the years before breast cancer. I thank God everyday for where I came from and where I am today. My life is full and I am whole. It has taken a long time to get here but it was worth the trip.
I just had my annual check-up and yes, I feel the fear today just as much or sometimes more so than I did eight years ago. But, the difference today is that it is all condensed into that one space of time, maybe a couple of hours a year, between the chest x-ray, the mammo and then getting the results.
In August 1996, I decided to go for my second mammogram - I had just turned 38. A co-worker of mine had just been diagnosed with Lymphoma, he was 36 years old, had just had his third child. Within two months he was dead. The thought came to me that I really should go and get a mammogram, even though I was told I did not need another one until I was 40. Thank God, Brendan's face and words gently nudged me "go and do it, it can't hurt". So I went. It is never a pleasant experience but for some reason I was very uneasy and when the nurse said they saw something suspicious and wanted to inform my doctor, my heart sank, I felt sick. By the time I returned to my office, my doctor had called me and wanted me to come in. The fear welled up in me and I called my "then" husband, we went to see the doctor immediately. He tried to calm me down but the fear just lurked there in the background. The radiologist had seen some suspicious micro-calcifications that had changed and multiplied since my last mammo and he did not like the look of them. I scheduled an appointment with a surgeon and the journey began.
After a biopsy of my right breast, I was diagnosed with DCIS (all you survivors out there know what that means). It is an early breast cancer, the pathology was good. It was low grade, caught early, the prognosis was good - lumpectomy, followed by radiation. Thank you Brendan - you saved my life! Seems pretty simple doesn't it? There is all the fear and weirdness you feel just walking through life. I felt like I was having an out of body experience - when I would go out shopping, I felt so separate from everyone around me - like I had a big sign on me that said "I have cancer". It was all a hazy, dream, a bad dream at that. I attended church everyday, communion was my medicine. I felt safe in church. I had a couple of guardian angel experiences. One as I knelt at the foot of the Blessed Virgin with Christ lying across her lap, I looked up and there was a young man, kneeling beside me. He had black hair and was strikingly handsome. It was right before one of the surgeries and I had just prayed that the pathology would come back with good results and that I would be ok. As I looked up he mouthed the words "God wants you to know that everything will be alright, do not fear". As I turned away, quickly, I felt very strange. I thought the guy was a weirdo and when I looked up again, he was gone. I got up looked around the church he was nowhere in sight. The thought came to me that it was my guardian angel but I kind of dismissed it. It wasn't until I shared the experience with a friend and she said "that was your guardian angel" that it confirmed what I thought and I accepted it and thanked God for his compassion and love.
After a lumpectomy I was happy to see that my breast still looked good and I felt ok about the radiation. I had spent the best part of a month in the library, researching breast cancer and treatments. I am better off when I know what I am facing. I asked lot’s of questions and my doctor spent hours with me explaining everything he knew about what I was facing. I was not thrilled about radiation but felt that it was the best alternative at the time. After healing from the surgery, I had to do another mammo before starting radiation. That’s when the ball dropped. The films indicated that the calcifications were still there and the doctor seemed to think it was more DCIS – I had to have another biopsy and he determined from the pathology that it was more cancer and I should have a mastectomy. I was in shock. Now we are talking life changing surgery and a much more serious outcome.
I had my own suspicions that he had missed the area of calcifications or had not taken enough tissue and sliced through the area. Only the films taken during surgery could determine if that was indeed the fact (from my research and reading I knew that a film should have been taken with the tissue in tact at the time of surgery). I was informed that there were no such films taken –they missed that step. Those films were a vital determining factor for me deciding on whether or not I should go for another lumpectomy or a mastectomy.
I went to the hospital and insisted I meet with the head of Pathology – he was unavailable. I called him and he did talk with me and from what I understand – the protocol was changed to include that vital step so that others did not have to go through what I went through – thank God. I, on the other hand – went to my doctor’s office, took my file, went to the hospital, took my slides, my films and decided to see another doctor at the renowned Memorial Sloane Kettering. I knew I needed the best and I believe they are the best. I went to the Breast Cancer Center – I knew that they specialized in breast cancer, the surgeons, the pathologists, etc., that is all they see, day in and day out. I felt they could determine, firstly, if my pathology was correct and what the next step should be.
To cut a very long story short, it was determined, by me (I like to make my own informed decisions about my body and my life) – to go ahead with a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. I was not happy about it but felt that it was the most proactive step that I could make so that I did not have to visit this experience again. I spared you the experience I had with a local plastic surgeon who basically humiliated, dehumanized me and reduced me to a body and body parts. Please, doctors out there, whether you are a pathologist or a surgeon or whatever, you are dealing with people, not simply bodies or body parts. We are real people with real lives!
Well here we are eight years later, the breast cancer experience, long behind me. Over the years, I was involved with support groups, even started one myself. Did all the cancer walks, the relay for life. I wanted a cure, still do and hope that I will see it in my lifetime. I have seen too many friends, die of cancer. I actually believe that there is a cure out there, but cancer is big business and too many dollars would be lost if the cure was made available to the public. Conspiracy you may say, but with all the advances in medicine and technology there just has to be a cure.
My life has changed dramatically. I divorced my husband. There was a time I thought I would die without him. Then I determined I would die if I stayed in the relationship. He wasn’t a bad person, just that the cancer experience forced me to grow emotionally, spiritually and beyond where the relationship was at or even where it was going potentially. My children and I moved to an apartment, and then two years later I purchased my first property. I felt great!
Life is a gift, a very precious gift. I cannot take one moment for granted. I have read so many self-help books, spiritual books, searching and searching for the meaning of life. Trying to figure out my place in this world. I wanted to make an impact. I needed to give back to the world. I asked God what is his will for me, what does he want me to do. Finally I just stopped questioning and started living my life again. I stopped being afraid (at least most of the time).
6 years after I separated from my husband, I married a man that I had known when I was around 9 years old and had not seen in about 35 years. We fell in love over the internet, sight unseen. We connected on a heart and soul level. I affirmed with myself and him on a daily basis that I never wanted a relationship and certainly not marriage. I was going to be with myself and my children and simply devote my life to raising them and having fun with myself and my friends.
I believe God determined that I needed a mate, a soul mate. He opened my eyes to what is real. Only love is real – the rest means nothing. So, finally, I realized that the meaning of life is to love, simply to love. To be humble enough to know that I don’t need to make a statement with my life. I just need to be grateful, honest, loving and kind. I am so not perfect, but I strive to be better today than I was yesterday and I always remember that there is nothing like the present, that life is a gift, I just have to live it.