“My Voice” by Debbie Thomas

Debbie Thomas - 'Survivor'

My name is Debbie and I am 44 years old. Around Thanksgiving 2006, when I was 41 years old, I was getting undressed to get ready for bed when I had an itch on my left breast. I scratched and felt a lump. As I felt it I knew it wasn’t supposed to be there but I felt certain that it was NOT cancer. I looked in the mirror as I felt the lump; I looked at my face and said “This is not the face of a breast cancer patient. This is not what life/God/the universe has planned for me.” But I was wrong.

I went to my OB/GYN doctor who didn’t seem too worried about this lump but thought it should get checked.  The following week I went for mammogram and ultrasound appointments and red flags started going up. Little thoughts came to mind like maybe this lump is a problem. Then a week later I went to the surgeon for an appointment to discuss my films and decide on a biopsy. This wonderful doctor treated me with kindness and respect and told me she was concerned and wanted me to come back that afternoon for the biopsy. Then I knew. I didn’t want to accept it of course, but I knew inside me that everything had changed.

I drove home from that morning appointment in a state of shock and frenzy. I had to keep reminding myself to slow down and pay attention to the road. I remember thinking to myself, “I can survive breast cancer, so I don’t want to die in a car accident on the way home!” I went back to the surgeon’s office that afternoon and had a needle biopsy. I couldn’t stop shaking. I shook as I waited in the office making small talk with my sister-in-law. I shook as I lay on the table being biopsied. I shook as I got dressed to go home and attend my daughter’s school Holiday Concert. I also remember thinking, what good luck it was that this year I got my Christmas shopping done early!

It was one week before Christmas 2006 when my life “officially” changed. When I got the call from my surgeon that it was indeed Breast Cancer and that we would discuss it all in more depth the next day in her office. I had lots of moments of uncontrollable shaking over the next few months. Various tests were done and luckily the cancer was no where else in my body. But each new test was a source of extreme anxiety. Decisions had to be made and people had to be told. My daughter was nine at the time and I dreaded telling her. I waited until after Christmas and one day as we sat playing in the family room I talked about all the doctors appointments I was having and how they found cancer in my breast and how they were going to have to do surgery to remove the cancer and my breast and then I would have to have chemotherapy because we want to be sure the cancer never comes back. She took it all in stride, as kids often do, but as a parent it was easy to see it leaking out of her now and then. And we knew a few women who had been through breast cancer, like her Aunt Suzanne and her friend Kerri’s mom, and they were fine so we talked about those women and how I would be fine too.

I had a mastectomy in January 2007. Then one week before my 42nd birthday I started chemotherapy. I received chemo eight times over the next four months. I also got other drugs to help me with anemia and to boost my white blood cells so I wouldn’t miss a treatment.  I also started Herceptin which would I would get every three weeks for a year. And for seven weeks, starting the middle of June and going to the end of July 2007, I traveled to Boston and back home every weekday to get radiation treatments.

I know I was considered a survivor as soon as I was diagnosed. But being in the midst of treatment feels more like being on a cancer fighting treadmill than anything else. It was all consuming. So when a year and a half of treatments had finally ended and I had my port-a-cath removed then I felt like I could start to move on to surviving and living. I could begin to re-build myself and my life. I would be like the Bionic Woman! I went to the gym every day and eventually started running. I ran two 5k road races for fun and to prove to myself that I could do it. And I was loving life and this new me. I was loving running. It was the physical manifestation of moving forward, of getting on with my life. I was getting up every morning and getting out of bed and taking steps of confidence and strength. Of course it might have been a little bit of trying to run away too. I have to admit I was scared a lot of the time that the cancer would return. So maybe my running served many purposes. I was getting on with my life but I was getting away from it too.

Then in the middle of me rebuilding myself and moving forward and away from things my world came crashing down again. I was having pain that wouldn’t go away and once again I knew deep down inside that it wasn’t good. After a bone scan, a PET scan and 2 biopsies I stated treatment for metastatic breast cancer. It was only one little spot in my First Thoracic Vertebra but it was a pain in the neck! I had five weeks of radiation and I have been put into menopause, complete with mood swings, hot flashes, slow metabolism and weight gain.

Beyond all the pain of the cancer and its treatment, including a burned esophagus for four weeks and nausea for two months from new medication, was the mental and emotional pain. It felt like a death sentence to me this time. The first time I never really thought I was going to die. I thought it sucked and it was going to be hard but lots of women get this and beat it and move on, I had met many of these women. But a recurrence after all I had gone through was like ….like…a sucker punch to the gut. I felt like now I was going to die from this. And I’m not ready to die. I have lots of living left to do. And to top it all off I had to stop running. I had only been running for six months, I was a newbie. But I was running in the rain and snow. I was getting out and getting peace more than ever before. And now I had to stop. Why is it that cancer knows how to hit you where it hurts over and over? Why does cancer mess with your head more than your body sometimes?

So now I am a survivor…again. I feel like a baby taking those first tentative steps. I am wobbly and I hold my arms out in front of me to gain my balance. I reach out with my hands to grab on to anything that might hold me up. I worry that the dog will run past me and knock me down or the toy I left on the floor will trip me up. And I fall down on my butt… A LOT. Then my husband or daughter or friend will be there to help me on my feet again. They clap and smile and tell me what a great job I am doing. So I get up and try again. I keep at it, I never give up and before you know it I am not just walking I am running…again.

Today being a survivor felt like I was falling apart and trying desperately to pick up the pieces and put them back together. It felt like a struggle, a fight. It felt like trying to climb out of a black hole. As my daughter would say, it felt like a “poop sammich”. Today I felt like a tired, hungry toddler in need of a diaper change. Inside I was throwing a tantrum and waiting for someone to pick me up, feed me, clean me up, and rock me to sleep with a warm, cozy blanket and my thumb in my mouth.

Some days being a survivor feels like Wonder Woman! I feel invincible. I kicked cancer’s ass, TWICE. I can do anything. I can run a marathon. I can climb a mountain. I can cook dinner while washing the clothes, running the vacuum and dusting the furniture, all at the same time. I can leap small piles of toys and books in a single bound! I can help someone else out and be the superhero there for others in need.

But most days being a survivor feels somewhere in between the cranky toddler and the woman who looks good in a cape and tights. To me, being a Survivor means getting out of bed every morning. It means going for a run just because I have to keep moving forward. It means taking a shower and standing in the hot water, letting it pour down my head and back. It means getting my work done. It means drinking my favorite green tea with my breakfast. Being a Survivor means patting my dog, reading with my daughter, kissing my husband, calling my friend. Being a survivor means doing it all again the next day. Doing it as good as I can every day with faith, hope and love.