Nearly five years ago, shortly after my 27th birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. As you can imagine, my world was turned upside down. With my notebook in hand, I met with lots of doctors and had lots of discussions about my plan of action. I decided to take an aggressive approach. I opted to undergo a double mastectomy.
Just two days before my surgery, I had been the maid of honor in one of my best friends’ wedding. Prior to my diagnosis, I had been nervous to give my MOH speech; it’s funny how your perspective changes when cancer gets thrown into the mix. I must say….. I got up there without a care in the world and nailed that speech! While I had a blast at the wedding, I couldn’t help but be reminded that my cancer diagnosis was setting back my own life goals.
After recovering from the mastectomy and subsequent breast reconstruction surgery, my life began to go back to normal. I was spending lots of time with friends and family, work was great, and most days I didn’t think about breast cancer; I had put it all behind me. In fact, my doctors suggested I do just that. We had caught it early, it had not spread and we had taken an aggressive approach.
About three years later, however, I felt a lump at the site of my mastectomy incision. A radiologist friend got me in for imaging and a biopsy right away. She then had the difficult job of telling me that the cancer was back.
After the shock, I put my game face back on and did what I needed to do to get rid of this stupid cancer! Thankfully, once again the cancer was low grade, non-invasive and hadn’t spread, so a lumpectomy and five weeks of daily radiation would do the trick. Somehow after all of that, life went on. It was even faster that I got back to normal spending time with loved ones, going out to eat, seeing movies and enjoying life.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t stop there. In July of 2017, I got the devastating news that my breast cancer was not only back, but had metastasized to my liver. Working in cancer, I knew what this meant—metastatic breast cancer is not curable. My cancer was incurable.
No one saw this coming. This was not the normal course for the cancer I had. My oncologist said that in his 30+ years of practicing, he had only seen my type of cancer turn metastatic a handful of times. Lucky me.
I cannot put into words the misery and anguish when I learned my cancer had spread. According to American Cancer Society statistics, only 27% of women with metastatic breast cancer live past five years from their diagnosis. When I hit my 5 year anniversary, I will just be 36 years old. My youngest niece, Charlotte will be celebrating her 10th birthday, my oldest nephew, Benny Boo, will be graduating from high school, my closest friends will be on baby number two and I’ll just be getting started. Thirty-six years is not enough time.
There are many emotions when it comes to being diagnosed with cancer and they aren’t all bad. In fact, I like to categorize them as “the good”, “the bad” and “the funny”.
- The bad is waking up to beautiful sunny day and having to remember the bad news all over again.
- The bad is having to break the devastating news to dozens of family members and friends over and over again.
- The bad is realizing I will likely never have my own biological children.
- The bad is wondering if every headache or back pain is the cancer spreading
- The bad is debating how much money I should put into my retirement account when chances are I won’t be around to use it.
- The bad is watching everyone live their best life while you are dealing with cancer or cancer treatment side effects.
- The bad is feeling like you can’t plan too far ahead.
- The bad is getting fewer phone calls, cards and texts when everyone around you moves on with their lives
- The bad is thinking about being alone for whatever time I have left. Dating is hard enough without a terminal illness. Who in their right mind would marry me now? (Actually, if you know anyone, hook a girl up!)
- The bad is being on the receiving end of t-shirts that say, “fight like a girl” or pink ribbon earrings, bracelets, magnets, or any of that breast cancer paraphernalia!
- After my initial diagnosis, my mom stayed with me in Cleveland to attend a number of my doctor appointments. We were lying in bed and she held me close and said “there is no one in the world more precious to me”. Although it took cancer, I finally got my mom to admit I was her favorite child.
- The good is my big brother sending me a video of him singing a lullaby that our mom used to sing to us as kids and we now sing to our nephews and niece.
- It is the hundreds of cards, gifts, and flowers that I received, and the meals that people were kind enough to make for me after surgery.
- The good is the amazing clinical staff I met and got to know.
- The good is watching some of my friends wait on me hand and foot.
- The good is the videos my little nephews sent me to cheer me up!
- The good is getting to meet other amazing survivors.
- The good is the fact that I now have an excuse to get out of anything I don’t want to do!
- The good is being reminded how kind and loving people can be.
- The funny is my then eight-year-old nephew Benny asking me if my cancer was contagious
- The funny is wrestling with that same precocious nephew when he shouted, “Get your tumorous body off of me!”
- The funny is the many reports of me hitting on handsome, young medical personnel while still under the influence of anesthesia!
- The funny is having countless random people touch my boobs…for medical or educational purposes, of course!
- The funny was going into a bathroom at Red Robin to let another young woman awaiting a double mastectomy see my boobs.
- As I mentioned, my double mastectomy was scheduled two days after I was serving as the maid of honor in one of my best friend’s wedding. The funny is threatening the bride I was going to drop my dress at the end of my speech and give all her lucky guests one last peek at the girls before my surgery. (Did I make good on that promise? I plead the Fifth!)
- The funny is the “boob cake” my co-workers made for me the week before my surgery.
- The funny is watching my mom cringe when I use the word “boob” instead of “breasts” when talking to my doctors.
Amidst the good, the bad and the funny, I have found so much to be thankful for.
- I am thankful that because of my experience with cancer, my perspective has changed; I feel more deeply. Everything in life is a little sweeter and all that used to throw me for a loop doesn’t seem so bad. I find more joy in simple pleasures like a beautiful sunny day, hearing a good song on the radio or having a really good laugh with friends.
- I am thankful for all the people working every day to try to give me more time with my friends and family. From generous donors who support cancer research, to the clinical teams who dedicate their lives to helping cancer patients to all those women who came before me and participated in clinical trials so I could have a better shot at a positive outcome.
- I am thankful that I am tolerating my treatment so well.
- I am thankful that I live a very full life; one where cancer usually takes a back seat.
- I am thankful that I have enjoyed 2 years of squeaky clean PET scans
- I am thankful I get to work at the Taussig Cancer Center, where I have the opportunity to use my experience to help others.
- I am thankful for all the lessons I’ve learned.
I’ve learned how much it means to people if you reach out to them when they are going through a difficult time. A small gesture can go a long way. I will never again think “Oh, I don’t know that person that well” or “They won’t care if I reach out.” I will also never again let my own busy schedule get in the way of sending a card, making a call, or simply being kinder to those around me. I understand that it’s hard to know what to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, or who has lost a loved one, but I know now that saying something—however uncomfortable it might be, is better than saying nothing at all.
I’ve learned that we all have a cross to bear. For some people it is cancer, for others it is infertility or the pain from losing a loved one. I’ve learned we all need to cut each other some slack.
I’ve learned that although life doesn’t’ always turn out the way we thought it would, or how we wanted it to, life is truly good.