It has been nearly 4 years since that awful day – the day I learned I had breast cancer. I was only 35 years old, and breast cancer does not run in my family. And silly me… I thought that the Universe was done doling out medical problems to me. After all, I had already beaten death in 2001 when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease (something else that doesn’t run in my family). So until the night I found that lump, I lived in comfort believing that cancer could never happen to me. I could tell you what it was like going through breast cancer treatment, but I’m not going to. Instead, I want to tell you what I learned through my journey.
When I tell people that I had breast cancer, I usually hear, “I’m so sorry.” I never quite understood that reaction. I’m not sorry that I had breast cancer. Sure it sucked lemons that I had to have 5 surgeries within 8 months, that I lost my breast and that I was thrown into early (and perpetual) menopause. But I’m still not sorry. Breast cancer doesn’t define me, but it did change me, and it changed the world in which that I live. The first lesson I learned was a tough one. People who I thought cared about me let me down. And then there were people who came out of the woodwork and stood by me. When you’re faced with something as scary as cancer, you learn who your true friends are. As painful as that lesson was, I’m still glad I learned it.
And I learned how to stand up for myself. Early on, before I knew that the lump was malignant, I had to deal with an arrogant Radiologist who accused me of wanting unnecessary surgery. He threatened to call my surgeon and tell him to cancel my lumpectomy. He thought that because I was so young and had no family history, that I was overreacting. And I did something I never thought I’d do – I called him a white-coat bully and walked out! Then I marched straight into my surgeon’s office and demanded that they not cancel the lumpectomy. If I had allowed that Radiologist to shame me into submission, I probably wouldn’t be alive today. The lesson: be your own advocate. And remember that you have a right to be treated with compassion, respect and dignity. This goes for your medical team as well as others in your life. If you don’t feel comfortable with your doctor, get a second (or a third) opinion. Talking about breasts is still rather taboo; the pink ribbons everywhere are just a PC decoration. When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of it, there is a lot of judgment out there. When I decided to reconstruct, someone in my family told me that I should just be happy with what God gave me. I told her that should she ever have to face breast cancer, she could make that choice for herself, but she had no right to judge me. The bottom line is that nobody has the right to judge your treatment decisions.
My entire outlook on life changed with cancer. Some things that were once so important to me hold little value now. I had a high-powered (and high-stress) career in the corporate world. After beating cancer, I found it increasingly difficult to engage at work. I really didn’t care about projects and goals anymore. I felt like I had been given a second chance at life… a chance to make a difference. I wanted to put my energy towards helping people, and I wanted to live each day fully. Cancer teaches you that every day is precious, and I wanted to spend my days doing something meaningful with my life.
Going through treatment for cancer was tough. It’s not easy to put your mind on a shelf and submit to the needles, the scalpels and the drugs. But cancer brought a few gifts along with it. It gave me the courage and the drive to do something different with my life. After spending 15 years in my career, I no longer felt afraid to walk away in search of something better. And I made some amazing new friends. I have connected with women all over the globe who I never would have met otherwise. My “Survivor Sisters” have brought such light into my world.
Throughout my ordeal with breast cancer, many people commended me for my bravery and courage. And it made me think … what choice did I have? I could fight or I could give up. Courage isn’t born from battling the disease. Courage emerges when you can ask yourself, “what is the lesson I am supposed to learn from this,” instead of asking the question, “why me?” Courage is not about not being afraid; courage is born when you can push through that fear and do what you have to do despite being afraid.
Up until I battled breast cancer, I never pictured myself as a Survivor. What does being a Survivor mean to me? Well – I’m really not sure, but I can tell you that simply surviving is just not good enough for me. The Universe is so complex and yet so elegantly simple, and so I believe that there is a reason for everything. Experiencing cancer has shaped the person that I am today. And I like who I am. My journey helped me let go of a lot of old fears. I’m no longer afraid to stand up for myself, to speak my mind or to express myself. I have tattoos and piercings – they’re part of who I am. I used to worry about what other people thought, but I don’t care anymore. I’ve never felt so free to just be me.
I want to impart upon you several things before I conclude. Cancer cannot steal your dignity. It cannot dampen your spirit. It cannot take away your beauty and it absolutely cannot taint your soul. And one last thing … there is always hope.