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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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Breast Cancer: The Journey Continues

I studied her every move and expression as she walked into the office where my husband and I had been waiting. The nurse who took my vitals indicated that the doctor had been running behind every since the first patient showed up late. I wondered if that were really true or if that was a ploy to prolong telling us the inevitable. I’d been consumed in research and investigation for about a week now. With every appointment and test since 9/8, I had been studying the body language of the technicians, nurses, and doctors for clues. I had also been in utter anguish since I had gotten the voice message from the nurse that the doctor requested that I come in to see her the next day. I already knew the inevitable, but still hoping, I watched her face – her eyes and her mouth. I watched her hands as she slowly pulled out the papers from the pocket of her white jacket. She said they were the pathology results. I could sense the hesitancy. I braced myself. Finally, she said the words as her eyes welled up. It was on Wednesday, 9/28/16, that my doctor told my husband and I that the test results came back positive for breast cancer – invasive ductal carcinoma. Tears poured out of my eyes. My husband held his head down.

Her final words before we would venture off into the unknown was to not google everything in the pathology report and to follow the “science” not the homemade “other” stuff you find on the internet. Too late…I had already become familiar with most everything on the pathology report. I had been following the science. My husband laughed and said, “You must know my wife.” Our laughter lifted the dread for about 2 seconds, then we left the office with instructions to see the surgeon that same afternoon. I cried as my husband held me as we walked to the car. I wanted to vomit.

Three days later and I’m at a much better place. That day was so surreal. I didn’t expect to cry that much because I had made peace with it already, or so I thought. The words were just hard to hear and made it oh so very real. I’m not a doctor, but I had a very strong suspicion based on my own research on the 4 or 5 charactertics of the mass that was found on my left breast as seen on the mammogram and ultrasound. When I suspected malignancy, I didn’t want to pray to God that it not be cancer because I thought if this was His will, then so be it. I honestly didn’t know what to pray for initially except that I be healed. I remember at one point saying out loud that I was already healed, even though I didn’t actually believe it like I do now. Up until the diagnosis, I had been talking to my two older sisters, who have each gone through the call back process and ended up with benign cysts. They kept reassuring me that it was likely benign and to refrain from the internet. My husband wouldn’t entertain me either and said the same thing. I didn’t listen.

Over the summer, I noticed a dimple of sorts on my left breast. I didn’t know how long it had been there and it turned out to be the only noticeable symptom of my breast cancer. I would share a picture to educate other women, but that area is still slightly swollen from last Friday’s biopsy. You can do a google search to get more information. I thought to myself, and told my husband, “this is weird looking…I wonder if this change in shape has to do with getting older? I should make an appointment with my primary care physician.” I didn’t think that it had anything to do with cancer, but it caught my attention. I saw my pcp on 9/2, but forgot to mention it. I’ve been getting mammograms since I was 35 due to a family history of breast cancer, and most recently had one last year, so I knew she would request another. I had the initial on 9/8. I had the diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound on my 19th wedding anniversary, 9/20, since I had scheduled the day off. I had a biopsy on 9/23 and was diagnosed on 9/28. September 2016 will be forever remembered.

After meeting with the surgeon and oncologist, they’ve assured us that the prognosis is very good and this type of cancer is treatable. No one wants to hear that they have cancer, and despite having a family history, I never thought that I would get it. However, there has been much progress in treatment and huge efforts in early detection. There’s a lot of information on breast cancer on the internet. I’m so glad that I was aware of changes in my body and I acted on them. I believe in prevention, so I’ve made it a priority to follow up with my doctors. I’m actually relieved to know what has been going on with my body. I’m thankful that I have good insurance and that my doctors have acted quickly to get me seen so that I can have a plan for treatment. Truth be told that I am not looking forward to treatment, which requires surgery in the next month, and possibly radiation and/or chemotherapy, depending on the genetic testing results and what’s found in the lymph nodes after surgery. It’s also possible that I may be placed on hormone therapy. There are still many unknowns.

Once the breast cancer diagnosis was confirmed, I contacted the people who I can rely on for support (except my mom although she is also my support…a different post) because I recognize that I will need it. Ten to fifteen years ago, I probably would have gone on pretending that I was superwoman and would care about the appearance of being weak. I’m at a different place now. I sent texts to my supporters asking them to pray for me. I was too emotional to talk to anyone except my husband and my siblings. I notified my boss and some of my coworkers. They have been amazing. My boss told me that she and another manager will offer their sick time if I need it. One of her texts indicated that God is making provisions for me at home and they will make provisions at the office. When I spoke to her the next day, she said I will get to add “breast cancer survivor” to my list of many accomplishments. In 3 days, I learned of 3 other women that I’m connected to who have some form of cancer. I would not have known this had I not reached out to let others know what I was going through. The support has been phenomenal and I couldn’t ask for more.

On Thursday morning, I awakened rested and at peace. Even though I have a rough road ahead (considering that I am squeamish and don’t like needles), I can see that I have support and a good prognosis. Although my boss told me not to come in the rest of the week, I was scheduled to provide a presentation to a group of directors from across the state. The meeting was scheduled for Friday, but as it turns out, that was an error. It was taking place on Thursday, as in that day. My boss sent me a text indicating that they were looking for someone else to fill in for me, but I offered to do it as planned since I was only waiting to hear back from the oncologist. I’m so glad I made the presentation because for that hour and a half, I was in my element, and it took my mind off of breast cancer. I was told that nobody would have been able to present the information like me. In all humility, I knew that, which is why I went. Afterwards, my director told me that she couldn’t believe I was there, but she was glad I did it and directed me (as directors do) to “go home and take care of yourself”. The picture below is of me at home after the presentation.

There are many unknowns in my breast cancer journey. I’m not going to lie, it’s scary, but not as scary as when it was initially confirmed (3 days ago). Plus, I’ve had my supporters praying over me and offering encouraging words. My friend’s mom practically breathed life into me with her soul stirring words. She pointed it all back to God and reminded me to PRAISE Him for everything. I am strong and look at this as another temporary life challenge and opportunity for growth.

The main points here are to pay attention to changes in your body no matter how small. Regularly see a doctor for preventative care. If you don’t like your doctor or clinic for whatever reason, choose another one (I’ve done this in the past). Let a few people that you trust know what’s going on with you. It’s beneficial to educate yourself by exploring reputable resources, but recognize that if it’s not your area of expertise, that you likely won’t have the full picture. Maintain healthy lifestyle habits such as exercising regularly, eating more whole foods, and getting plenty of sleep (I’m still working on this). Avoid smoking and minimize alcohol consumption because research shows that these lifestyle factors are huge cancer risks (google it) although these were not my risk factors. My plan is to incorporate more strength training in the next couple of weeks to have an even better surgery outcome. And finally, pray and praise. I left this out in the initial version of this post, but the spiritual really does supercede everything else. I posted a message on my Facebook page on Thursday indicating that I was floating on other’s prayers for me.

My pcp said to stick with the “science” and avoid the other questionable stuff. For the most part, I plan to do that. I’ve already been to Barnes & Nobles and picked up a breast cancer “smoothie” recipe book. It was written by a nutritionist and there is some science in it. Update: the book indicates that it has researched based science to support the recipes. I’m not sure if this what my doctor had in mind, but I couldn’t help myself because I love green smoothies so much and consume at least one daily. I can’t wait to try the new smoothie recipes. In the coming weeks, I plan to research foods that help relieve symptoms and/or prevent cancer. More blog posts to come.