I almost didn’t go. After all, like many women, I’m busy.
As a wife, mother, grandmother and business owner, my schedule is insane. So I didn’t really have the time to fit in a mammogram. Every year I’ve gone for a regular mammogram, but I decided I wasn’t going to go this year. After all, I didn’t find anything during my self-exams.
Finally, though, I decided to squeeze it into my calendar, and my life has never been the same.
On Friday, April 13, at 7:05 a.m., I received a call from my OBGYN, Dr. John Moore, as my husband, Eddie, and I were leaving for the hospital. Eddie was having surgery that day, so we were focused on his health, not mine. But I knew the minute I heard John on the phone what the news would be: I had breast cancer.
It was very difficult to wrap my head around cancer. I had to process it. I couldn’t even tell people I had cancer. It was especially difficult to tell my family. It is most difficult to see your family hurt for you and know there’s nothing they can do for you. It is most difficult to tell your children. It is most difficult to tell your parents. You should be taking care of your parents at this point; they should not be caring for you! It was as if my whole world was out of order.
I was furious with this cancer. Then I got scared. As a result, I relied more on my faith. Always being a Christian, I realized there would be times when my trust and faith would be challenged. This was one of those times. It took me several weeks to rebound with a positive attitude. Finally, I got mad, and said, “You’re not taking this away, cancer.”
There were two types of cancer cells in my right breast. Infiltrating ductal carcinoma is the most common type of breast cancer diagnosed in women. The second is a more linear cancer: ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS. About 21 percent of women are diagnosed with DCIS. This second cancer–DCIS–was the scary cancer for me.
Thankfully, I couldn’t have a better group of doctors to take over my care. In addition to John, Dr. Iqbal Garcha was my surgeon, Dr. Diane Alexander was my reconstructive plastic surgeon, and Dr. Colleen Austin served as my oncologist.
In the course of my treatment, my case was taken before the Northside Hospital cancer board for review and evaluation. In the first review, they said I could have a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous and precancerous cells, but my doctors would have to continue to keep an eye on me to see if the cancer returned. The concern here was the fact that there were also atypical cells detected during my pre-surgery MRI in my left breast.
At this point, I had a double lumpectomy in both of my breasts. The doctors also removed and tested some of my lymph nodes to determine whether or not I would need chemo. I also knew I would be facing several weeks of radiation. Thank God my lymph nodes were clear. Now I was thinking I was home free–but that was not the case. A few weeks after surgery, I was told that I did not have a clean margin. In other words, there were atypical cells sitting outside of a cancer site–not good.
For the second time, my case went before the cancer board, and the recommendation was that I could have another lumpectomy or a mastectomy. The choice was up to me; if I opted for another lumpectomy and my margins were still not clear, then a mastectomy would definitely be recommended.
If I didn’t have the double mastectomy, every time I had an abnormality on a mammogram, I would have to have a core biopsy to check the cells for cancer. I was not looking forward to having to deal with this on an ongoing basis. I’m the girl who likes to get something done, put it away and move on. Cancer does not work that way.
That’s why I decided to go with the double mastectomy. I wanted my life back. But first I had to have this surgery followed by breast reconstructive surgery. Of course, this brought more tough decisions. What type of reconstruction did I want to have? There are several options, and you have to take your body shape into consideration when making a choice. In my case, I opted for the latissimus dorsi flap, where the doctor takes muscle from my back and uses it to replace the removed breast tissue. My plastic surgeon, Diane, was fantastic. She walked me through a tough surgery with care and grace.
After the mastectomy, I faced another problem. I had lost my upper body strength as well as movement and flexibility. I was tight in the torso, and the cords in my arms were so tight, I could barely raise my arms. I didn’t realize I was going to need physical therapy. Boy, did I ever need it.
I got the help I needed at TurningPoint Women’s Healthcare. My physical therapist, Jill Binkley, was very helpful and understanding because she had worked with other breast cancer survivors and is one herself. Physical therapy was vastly important to my healing. I got emotional support as well as physical support.
Something else that also helped? During the entire process, my daughter Mollie said we needed to plan a trip. We decided to go to Mexico to celebrate Mollie’s 30th birthday and to just celebrate life. The whole time I was recovering, it gave me something to look forward to. I thought, “I have to get better so we can go on our trip.” The shop also motivated me to get better. The shop is where I belong.
As you can see, this is a difficult situation for anyone to go through, let alone share that journey with the world. So why did I choose to do so? I wanted to turn a negative experience into a positive one. I wanted to encourage women to get a mammogram. I wanted to help somebody going through the same thing that’s afraid. I wanted to tell everyone, “Don’t put your health on the backburner.”
And, be prepared for your life to change. It does change you. Cancer changes you. For me, it’s made me more aware of what’s important in life. Slow down a bit. Don’t put off what you want to do. Who knows about tomorrow?
Most of all, realize that your journey will not be the same as mine or your friend’s or your mom’s. Find your own path. There’s no set path for cancer. Those of us who wear pink know this all too well.