Breast Cancer…My Journey
It’s October again, and I have decided it is time to share my journey. I guess it is more my story of my battle against breast cancer.
I recently connected with a follower on Instagram who fighting her own fight with cancer. Cancer sucks, plain and simple it is something that makes my heart-sick. I have had a heavy heart the last few weeks worrying about this individual. She is also a mother and a new breastie. She talked to me about being someone who has always been strong and has never backed down from anything. But I can relate to her broken spirit. I can relate to her sadness and her anger. I can relate to feeling defeated.
I’ve learned through my own journey not to tell her “Everything is going to be ok, you will be just fine.” I have heard those words before, and they did nothing to make me feel any more reassured. The truth is at the end of the day no one knows whether you will win your battle. Cancer is consuming and a very scary diagnosis. That sounds harsh, but until you get your test results, nothing else that is said to you makes an ounce of difference. When you are faced with the fact you are not invincible, it is a hard slap in the face. It is a reality I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. So as I sit and think of her, and pray for her, I use my own journey in hopes of offering a sliver of hope that if I survived Cancer then maybe she will to.
So many times I have asked myself why me? Why did I survive when so many others have not. Breast cancer grabbed me by the throat and kicked me to my knees. It was May 2012 when I was diagnosed, I was 35 years old. I was a mother of 3 boys, a wife, a daughter. How could this happen to me? It was just a lump, it was probably nothing right? That is what everyone told me, but something deep inside told me it was so much more. This was one of those moments in my life, when I just know something was seriously wrong. This is my story, I fought Cancer and I kicked its butt.
I was getting ready for work one day, and I happened to bump my breast with my arm. I felt a horrible shot of pain, like nothing I had felt before. I had never done self-exams, I was only 35. No one ever told me to be checking for lumps, so when I found one I knew something was not right. It was hard and painful, and everyone said it was probably nothing. I kept hearing the words cyst, it’s probably just a cyst. But I just knew something was wrong, and I can’t explain why, it’s just something I felt. Keep in mind I was healthy and I am not a negative person in any way. I just knew something wasn’t right.
So I was sent off for a mammogram and ultrasound, which both for the most part were inconclusive. My lump was very close to the surface so it was mimicking dense tissue. Next was a breast biopsy, which came back positive for cancerous cells. I was scheduled to have a lumpectomy, which they thought would allow them to remove all of the cancerous tumor. Unfortunately, my doctor told me once he was done with the surgery this was not enough to contain the cancer.
I remember it was May 5, 2012. It was a Friday Night when I got the call of my results from the doctor. I was waitressing and I excused myself to go outside to speak with him. He started off the conversation by saying “I’m sorry.” He said the cancer had spread across my entire breast and I would need to consider a mastectomy. I just broke into tears for about five minutes, then I went inside and finished my shift. This was just like me to pull myself together and keep working. I had just got the most devastating news but I needed to finish my shift. I was strong right? I was in immediate denial.
I cannot even express how much I needed my support system. I am not one to ask for help, or even let anyone know I needed it. But once the diagnosis came I felt like a shell of a person. I needed to be surrounded by everything I loved. I needed to cry, shout, and feel every emotion. My family allowed me to push through every single emotion that came over me. My husband was so supportive, he was my rock. My parents moved in with us. I had two young boys I think they were 5 and 6 at the time.
My whole world felt like is was coming down around me. I had what felt like a million questions…Was I going to die? Why Me? Who would raise my children? How would I feel when I woke up after the mastectomy? Would it hurt? What would my husband think when he looked at me? So many questions, and who was I to ask for answers?
Strength To Fight
When I was diagnosed with cancer I realized how much I wanted to live. How much I wanted to be around to raise my children. We struggled with finding the right way to tell our children, that I had cancer. My kids knew some of our relatives had passed away from cancer, so it was confusing for them to understand. So we did the best we could to tell them what was happening without trying to scare them.
At 35 years I had to decide if I wanted to remove one breast or two. No decision any women should ever have to make, where was I even begin? Weirdly enough I knew what I needed to do for me to make an educated decision. I looked for a breast cancer support group. I wanted to talk to other survivors, and get advice from individuals who had experienced this horror, that was now my reality. So I went to my first meeting and I can still remember feeling nauseous and so scared to walk through the doors.
I still remember when I walked into the room. I walked into a group of smiling faces, accepting arms, and understanding minds. This group of women was like none I had ever met before. I was so numb and fighting back the tears the entire time. But it was ok they saw right through me, they accepted my fear. They held my hand and they cried right along side me. They made me laugh and they answered every single question I had and then some. I had been instantly accepted into this sisterhood of women, who had fought the fight, and came out the other side. Although we have lost a few of these brave individuals since that visit, even thought they were fighting cancer they offered me hope. It was exactly what I needed in that moment.
Preparing for the Worst
As a mom I had to prepare thats what we do. I can remember I bought three blank journals. I wanted to tell each one of my children everything I would want them to know about life just in case I lost my battle. While my mind was sharp. I wrote about how to treat each other and other people. I wrote what I would say to them on their graduation and wedding day. I told them about me and their dad and our love. I talked about how my boys should treat women and eventually one day their wife. I wanted them to know how to raise their kids.
Just typing these words instantly takes me back, to how I felt knowing I may not be there for those moments. This was a huge dose of reality. This was my way to ensure my children had a small piece of me during important milestones in life.
The problem with Cancer is you don’t really have the time to waste trying to figure out what is the best step to take. It all happened so fast, was so complicated, and overwhelming. All I knew is that I wanted the surgery and to get the cancer out of me as fast as humanly possible. After my diagnosis I had so many big words being thrown at me; surgeries, medications, things my brain couldn’t comprehend.
I was being treated at Penn State Hershey and was blessed to have a great support system and charge nurse who helped me immensely. I always had someone to call when I didn’t understand what was being explained to me. The hardest part is when they were explaining what kind of cancer I had and what my options were. I became glazed over and had a hard time processing anything that was being said to me. I would recommend bringing someone with you who can hear what is being said to you. I also started to write down any questions I had when they came to mind in a notebook. It is easy to forget what you need to know when you are dealing with Cancer. This way at future appointments I could go down my list and get the answers I needed.
I decided to get a double mastectomy. Not an easy decision but most of the women I spoke with who only had one breast removed had to eventually go back and have the other removed. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. I sure as heck didn’t want to ever go through this process again. Also who wants one perfectly good boob, when you can’t have two?
I made it through the surgery with no complications. I woke up very nauseous and groggy. I was kept in the hospital over night. I remember being surprised when I woke up that I was not in any pain. I honestly couldn’t feel much of anything. I later learned they had put a pain pump in my chest, which I am sure helped me not feel a thing.
I had tissue expanders placed in my chest to help make room for the reconstructive breast implant surgery that would come in a few months. The first few weeks were a blur, I slept a lot and kept to myself in my bedroom. I had to wear a specially fit bra the weeks following the surgery. Luckily I only had one scar on each that is now barely visible. The next few months I had to go to my plastic surgeon, once a week to have my expanders filled with saline. I can only explain the pain of this process to how your breast feel after you have a baby. The pressure on my chest was uncomfortable to say the least. Finally I was able to have my first breast reconstruction. This surgery was pretty easy and my recovery was pretty quick. This was huge for me. I finally felt like I was normal again. My body looked normal, no one could even tell the horror I went through the months before. I could wear clothes again. I wasn’t as self conscious I could breathe a little easier.
I can remember feeling so many emotions, I was terrified, upset, angry, and I did not understand why this happened to me. I just wanted to be me, the me before the cancer. I didn’t feel pretty and I sure didn’t feel like a women. I was weak and wanted to give up at so many points, but there was always someone there to pick me up. I had to learn to let go and let people support me.
When you are a breast cancer survivor you are initiated into a group of survivor sisters. I meet fellow survivors all the time and there is an instant bond other people can’t understand. Cancer teaches you how to love and treasure each day you are given. You don’t sweat the small stuff so much.
I would never say my experience was worth it, however I appreciate life so much more. I tell people I love them, I take chances, and I always say I am sorry.
I am hoping my experiences and my advice can help someone else struggling with this journey. I am in such a different place than I was when I started this fight. Everyday is a blessing. I get to watch my children grow. I treasure every moment and memory.
Be Your Own Advocate
So what I hope you take away from this article is to be your biggest advocate. If you feel like something may be wrong, go to the doctor before it is too late. If you know what the problem, your more equipped to fight it with all your strength. Ignorance will not solve anything, and will definitely not give you a fighting chance. You have so much that blesses you every day and you need to stand your ground and fight for it.
Ask for a mammogram before you are 40. If you have a history of cancer or breast cancer in your family you need to be tested as early as possible. Preventative measures will make the difference between life or death. Do self breast exams and always talk with your doctors if you have any concerns.
Thank you for reading my story. It may not be a glamorous one but it is mine just the same.