PROUD TO BE A SURVIVOR
Every time I go for a mammogram I pray. Like everyone else I want the results to be normal.
After a mammogram in 2018, I got the dreaded call while walking into work. Doctors had found something, and I needed a biopsy. Tears streamed down my face as a co-worker tried to
comfort me. Fear coursed through my body. I went to the ladies’ room and cried over the phone to my husband.
That was the beginning of a long journey.
I had my biopsy right before Memorial Day weekend. That meant I had to wait forever to find out if I had cancer or not. My mind drowned in worry and fear. Will the biopsy show breast cancer? Will I get sick and die? Will I lose my hair? Will I suffer? How would my husband go on if I died? He had lost a
fiancée to cancer. Would he now lose a wife? My husband reassured me that the two calcification clusters they found in my right breast would come back benign. My mom had fibrous cysts in one of her breasts and that was probably what I had. That did little to comfort me.
The day after Memorial Day I went to work. A customer noticed I wasn’t smiling like usual. I explained to her I was waiting for the results of my biopsy. She told me she would pray for me. I checked my messages every chance I got. I heard nothing. Fighting back tears of frustration and fear, I called first thing the next morning. The nurse said she’d have the doctor get back to me. I dialled the number three times throughout the afternoon with the same message. But there was still nothing.
Late afternoon, my husband and I went to my parents’ house so my dad could make repairs on our car. I sat in the living room with my mom and I dialed the number. The nurse told me the same thing, “I’ll have the doctor call you back.” A few minutes after I hung up, my phone rang, and it was the doctor. I heard his calm voice, “I’m sorry you have cancer. You have two spots in your right breast.”
After I asked a few questions and hung up, my mom held me as I cried. Then I texted my husband, who was helping my dad, to come into the house immediately. When he came in, we cried in each other’s arms. Fear, sadness, grief and so many more feelings flooded my body. I could barely stand. I leaned against my husband for support.
In the days that followed, I went in and out of crying spells and depression. A friend, who is a survivor, gave me a shoulder to lean on and some advice. She told me to bring a notebook for notes and a small calendar to keep track of appointments. I should also take someone with me.
When I met with the surgeon, he inundated me with so much information my mind swirled. Some details lingered in my thoughts and some others went in and right out. The doctor’s nurse handed me a bag with information and a book. All I could think was, I can’t believe this is happening to me. Is this a
nightmare I can’t wake up from?
Since my aunt had stage four cancer and the BRCA gene, I had to have genetic testing done. In the days that followed, I skimmed through the book and went to appointments at the cancer center. Then I filled out a family history and I had a video conference with a woman over the computer about the BRCA gene.
Blood was taken for the genetic test, and I discussed it with a nurse navigator. I waited for what seemed like an eternity for the results of my test.
Never in my life had my breasts been touched by so many people. First, they handled them at the biopsy, then the surgeon examined my breasts, and next, the specialist at the cancer center checked them out. They were poked, squeezed, and smushed.
My breasts were no longer sacred. At each appointment, I felt violated.
Luckily one cyst was Stage 1, and the other was Stage 0. I was in the early stages and would not need chemo.
Two weeks after the tests my phone rang. A voice said, “You have the BRCA gene. You have tough decisions to make.” The genetic specialist explained one choice was to get a lumpectomy, have regular mammograms, and risk getting cancer back. The second one was to have a bilateral mastectomy, which
would eliminate any chance of it returning. The specialist explained that the gene also causes ovarian cancer. She said since that type of cancer is extremely hard to detect I must get a hysterectomy. How could a person at the age of 44 decide to either keep her breasts or to have them removed? I was dealt with horrible news once again.
I discussed my choices with my husband. I cried over them and made the decision to have both breasts removed. I just couldn’t take the chance of getting cancer again. More bad news came when I met with a plastic surgeon. Because of the size of my breasts, he couldn’t do reconstruction at the time of my
operation. I would have to wait five or six months to have other operations. Could I go through more surgeries after having both breasts removed and a hysterectomy? Should I wait and have reconstruction or go flat-chested? I feared what I would look like without breasts. Would I still be beautiful to my husband? Would I feel like a woman? Would I think of myself as pretty with a flat chest? Or would I look hideous?
I was still undecided when I went in for surgery. The surgeon said he’d leave some skin in case I did decide to have reconstruction. Six hours after everything I was taken to a room. Drains hung from each side of my chest. A nurse asked me if I had looked but I just couldn’t.
Recovering at home from the surgery was rough. My husband had to empty my drains three times a day and measure the liquid. Every move I made pulled on my drains, causing pain, so my husband had to brush my hair and help me put on a shirt. I had to sleep with pillows propped up behind me. I slept a lot. It took me several days to glance at my chest and when I did, I cried. In the days and weeks that followed I grieved my loss. My husband told me I was beautiful, repeatedly, but I felt ugly. After going to a support group called Linked By Pink and hearing stories of complications with reconstruction, I decided not to have it done.
The hardest part was to learn to love myself as a flat-chested woman. I struggled with it for months.
In time I grew to like and then love myself as I was. I listed the positives to not having breasts: I no longer needed bras; I would not have any more heat rashes in the summer; they wouldn’t bounce when I ran or walked, and there would be no more aching when they got cold.
The grief still hits me from time to time. I could have given up, but I’m not a quitter. I had overcome mental illness, bullying, and many other obstacles in my life because I refused to let them defeat me. With determination and inner strength, I was ready to fight this battle too. I dealt with the emotions, the depression, the loss of my breasts and I strived to push forward. I refused to let cancer ruin my life. My flat chest is a symbol of the battle I fought and won. I hear of the complications with chemo, radiation, and reconstruction, and I believe I got lucky. I didn’t have to deal with any of that. The surgery and loss I felt were not easy. I still struggled, and I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. But I am alive and well. I stood tall and defeated an awful disease. I beat cancer!
I no longer take life for granted. Each day I’m grateful to be alive and I enjoy every moment of my life, the good and the
I’m a fighter.
I am a proud survivor.