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What breast cancer has taught me…

Breast cancer awareness month is nearing its end. I often spend September and October reflecting on my life after my breast cancer diagnosis, mostly because I was diagnosed right at the onset of breast cancer awareness month.

About 10-12 years ago, when my mom was attending to her breast cancer treatment, I had no knowledge of the disease. She told me she was struggling with how to proceed in her course of treatment considering how much her breasts meant to her. My mom had a mastectomy and breast reconstruction with an implant. I didn’t think she needed to get a breast implant. Admittedly at the time, I thought it was odd my mom was talking about her relationship with her breasts, considering she was in her late 60’s. I thought she wouldn’t care so much since she was in a different phase of life. Looking back, I was insensitive.

She wasn’t sure what to do and I wondered if she was repeating what medical staff might have told her to consider in her decision making. It’s possible I wasn’t accepting her position because I had never heard my mom discuss how she felt about her own body. The procedures took a toll on her. There was a complication with the breast implant, so she had a repeat surgery. She got through it. My mom is my finest example of a strong Haitian Queen.

Three years ago, I was faced with contemplating what my breasts, and LIFE, meant to me. Upon initial cancer diagnosis, doctors arm you with so much information. In a week’s time, I had met with my primary care physician, two different surgeons (one who would remove the tumor and one who would perform the breast reconstruction), and the oncologist. It was overwhelming. I presume they do this to ensure you know all of the options because of the unknowns about the cancer until the initial surgery to remove the tumor is performed.

There are different regimens of breast cancer treatment – surgery to remove the tumor, plastic surgery for breast reconstruction, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and oral medications.  These activities don’t necessarily occur in this order and one may not need every type of treatment. Characteristics of the tumor, and whether or not the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, determine the course of treatment. The initial surgery to remove the tumor is the main treatment. Tumor pathology results further dictate the course of treatment.

Ultimately, I had a lumpectomy, followed a week later by breast reconstruction of both my natural breasts, then radiation therapy daily for 3 weeks, and finally (I pray), due to my age, I take oral medications for another 2-7 years.

I have a long complicated history with my breasts, but not as long as women who are diagnosed around the average age of 55 years old. I’m an anomaly, along with other women diagnosed at younger ages – twenties, thirties, and forties. We may no longer be anomalies in coming years given younger women are diagnosed every day. Much of that has to do with the increase in breast cancer screenings and earlier detection thanks to breast cancer awareness campaigns.

I developed breasts early. I was around 11 years old. I remember my mom’s friends at times whispering to her while pointing at my breasts. It felt awkward. I was getting the messaging I was developing early.  This caused me to be self-conscious. By the time, I got to high school, I really noticed how the boys reacted to my breasts. They gawked at them, which made me even more self-conscious. I recall my first day as a freshman, waiting on classes to start in the gym. A boy said “hi” to me. We chatted for a bit, then he whispered to his friend (not really a whisper), “Nice cherries!” They both nodded and snickered.

It never occurred to me that I should love or be proud of my breasts. I was conflicted about them for sure. I knew boys and men loved them. They would just stare. I knew this type of attention is what girls are taught is not good attention. Plus, it also made me uncomfortable with my sexuality and how to process the attention I was getting.  Growing up in a religious environment didn’t really address body image issues and sexuality. Sex occurred after marriage and that was it.

Fast forward, I got married and had my two children, both of whom, I breastfed. I loved I was able to breastfeed my babies. I was doing what was best for them. However, breastfeeding two babies left me with sagging breasts. It wasn’t long before I started wishing for the beautiful size C cups of my youth. I was left with some large, lanky size double D’s. I had to double up on sports bars for my workouts. I would complain to my husband, Bryan, I needed a breast reduction. We would joke about it…”one day, when we got a lump of money…”.

Three years ago, I was in my plastic surgeon’s office listening as he explained plastic surgery options. By this time, I had shown my breasts to every doctor/nurse I had seen in a week’s time and this continued for a year. The awkwardness of showing strangers, especially male doctors my breasts can’t be fully explained. I already had a love/hate relationship with my breasts.

If I chose to get a double mastectomy with breast reconstruction, fat could be removed from my stomach to rebuild my breasts. The surgery is 8 hours with a minimum of 1 week in the hospital and 1 month recovery post surgery. I could opt to get breast implants too like my mom. I would need to make a plan for nipples because I would lose them through surgery. But there was a resolution for that too….tattooed nipples. I’m as squeamish as they come, yet he was showing me before and after pictures. I could hardly stand it. My preference with my body is to always pick the least invasive approach.

I didn’t want to go through any surgeries. I wanted to be alive for my children. However, the path to wellness was surgery. Also, I was finally going to get a breast reduction and my size C cups back, but this was the farthest from my mind. I couldn’t imagine how I would get through all that was ahead of me, but I did by taking things in small bites – day by day.

When I told my mom I had breast cancer, she wailed, pleaded, and even told me on repeated occasions, she couldn’t accept it. Her reaction was as if she blamed herself. The fact is, I may have quite possibly gotten it through her genes, considering my grandmother, my mother’s mother, also had breast cancer. Genetic testing results came back negative. Genes are a trip. I’m thankful my siblings didn’t get it. It’s the luck of the draw. My children do have a real risk of getting breast cancer.

By the time, I told my mom, I knew I had a positive prognosis and had full faith I would be healed. I think I surprised her with my calm demeanor and positive attitude. I knew I had to get through my treatments to get to the other side. I was determined to do just that. I showed her how brave I was.

There is no question a cancer diagnosis brings you face to face with your own mortality and makes you consider what’s really important in life. You often will hear people who have had a sudden onset of a serious health condition say things like they know what’s important in life now, they don’t sweat the small stuff, they are more grateful, etc.

I agree with all of those things, but I still have a hard time with overachieving and overall doing too much and feeling guilty when I do try to do less. I’m working on it though. It’s takes awareness and deliberate action daily.

Ultimately, breast cancer has taught I can brave any storm and my one body is beautifully flawed. How people process their diagnosis varies and should be respected. Breast cancer has also reminded me of the need to:

  • Fuel my body daily with nutritious food and liquids
  • Reduce stress
  • Move daily
  • Think kind thoughts about myself
  • Have self-compassion
  • Slow down
  • Do things I love
  • Ask for what I need
  • Say what I mean to say

What have life challenges taught you about yourself?

 

 

 

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