Being a two time cancer survivor before the age of 40 was not “in the plan”. My husband, Pete, and I grew up together. We’ve known one another for 30 years. We are best friends and soul mates, married since 1992. Our children at the time were 9, 7 and 2. Everything was moving along just as we planned. Then BOOM…it all changed. December 16, 2004…the surgeon called with the biopsy results as expected…although I truly didn’t think I had cancer. Hadn’t the Radiologist suggested that I come back in 3- 6 months? Instead, I sought out a surgeon just to be sure. The doctor asked for my husband to get on the phone with me. From that point on, the room spun, I cried, the kids worried, Pete was numb….”you have cancer” are the worst three words in the English language.
My whole world came crashing down that night. I felt like I was in a nightmare as the surgeon described the nature of the “beast”. He wanted me to come in the following day to get the full explanation, but in brief, he felt it was a stage II, grade 2 cancer. “Slow growing” was what I remembered. “We caught it fairly early.” “About 1.8 c.m.” Its still all a blur of emotions when I think about it. My entire family was called and told. They came, one by one, to offer support and share in the horrible feeling of loss. My pre-cancer life ended that day. For approximately 24 hours I mourned that pre-cancer life. I explained to my children that I had breast cancer. That I would get sick for a short while, but then I would get better and be fine. They wanted to know if I would lose my hair and I told them yes, but I would wear a wig if they wanted me to. They wanted to know if I was going to the hospital, and I told them that I would go on some days and not on others. That night I cried and cried. When the sun began to rise, I decided that day two, and every day after, would be about living, not dying. I would eventually go through many more tests, see many more doctors for second and third opinions, call upon friends and family for help getting into the best hospitals. All the while, weeks were passing. This was slow growing…I had time. I could see a plastic surgeon and wait for his calendar to open up for the surgery I wanted. Surgery date: Feb 22, 2005. I was officially diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma – a 3.5 c.m. very aggressive tumor. I also had Ductal Carcinoma in Situ – two different types of cancer. I was er/pr negative and Her2+++. I had 15 positive lymph nodes out of 23. Stage III, grade 3….very different than what was expected. Quite a shock!!!
I was hospitalized for 5 days following my mastectomy, but needed help around the house for 8 weeks. I’m type A and it was very difficult to allow others to do for me. For the first three weeks, I couldn’t even pick up a gallon of milk. Since Pete works every day, my Mom took the overnight and early shift, helping with everything from getting the boys off to school to doing laundry and taking care of the baby. My sister, Michele, took the evening shift. She is a Mom herself, with two teenagers and a husband, and they just uprooted themselves to my house after school and for dinner every night. She helped the kids complete their homework and gave them their baths. I felt helpless, yet encouraged at the same time. I had two incredible people helping me and my kids were in the best hands for everything. Friends sent food, flowers, cards, inspirational messages, prayers and advice. It was overwhelming to feel the love and support from so many. I felt honored and loved and it gave me so much more confidence to fight the beast with everything I had.
My husband Pete never once thought that this thing was going to kill me. He has never wavered in his conviction that I will be well and has taken time away from his work to make sure I receive the best treatment possible. He is a self employed mushroom farmer and works 80 hour work weeks every week of the year. His entire frame of thinking changed with my cancer diagnosis and he began taking days off to attend all my doctor appointments. This included traveling to Memorial Sloan Kettering, a 3 1/2 hour drive each way, for all my Oncology treatments. I entered into a trial at MSKCC for the drug Herceptin that, frankly, saved my life. I completed 4 dose dense treatments of A/C, four dose dense Taxol with weekly Herceptin and then Herceptin every three weeks for a year. I also had 28 radiation sessions where four separate areas of my breast and axilla were radiated. Throughout the treatment, my biggest inspiration to get up out of bed every day was my children. They are my life and I vowed to be here for them when they graduated high school and college, got married and had their own children.
Every ache, pain, lump….it all brings the emotions flooding back. Each time I have them checked and they have always turned out to be “normal” post-operative issues. Until March 13, 2006. I had been diagnosed with a thyroid goiter prior to my chemotherapy. I had the goiter biopsied in the summer of 2005, but the biopsy was negative and I was instructed to let it be until after my active breast cancer treatment ended. I had my thyroid removed on 3/13/06 and several days later heard the word cancer again. This time it was papillary carcinoma/follicular variant. The surgeon explained that this was a very slow growing cancer, one that would not decrease my life by even one day. However, the shock of a second cancer diagnosis sent me reeling. I was stunned, felt faint. Couldn’t believe it…I’m 40 years old and have another cancer. Eventually the surgeon got through to my husband and me and convinced us this was very different than the breast cancer diagnosis.
I have spent these last 4 years advocating breast health. I worked with www.feelyourboobies.com’s founder, Leigh Hurst, for 18 months or so helping her grow her business that targets the under 40/pre mammogram age. Knowing how your breasts feel today will certainly benefit you tomorrow if there is a change. Early detection is key. I also help other newly diagnosed women adjust to their new life as a survivor. I help them understand what to expect from chemo, how to prepare for surgery or recovery, encourage them to be confident as a survivor rather than to be scared. I face each new survivor with the same philosophy that Pete and I have: It is what it is. You can’t change your diagnosis, but you can change the way you approach recovery and survivorship. Will it help you live longer? I think so but don’t have that answer. I do believe, though, that facing survivorship in a positive way helps lessen the burden that cancer places on you.
Although I preach positivisms, some things have changed in my life. My spirituality is still strong. I still go to Mass weekly, but I don’t believe the same things I did before. If another person said that “God only gives what you can handle” I would puke. I don’t believe God selected me to have cancer. Science and the human anatomy aren’t perfect…mistakes happen…that is what cancer is, a mistake. Not God’s will. Equally so, “There is a reason for everything” is another survivor pet peeve. There is no reason other than the mistake of a cell splitting imperfectly that caused my cancer. Paaalllleeaassee! These little isms cause a lot of frustration, but I know they are meant to be soothing…FYI – they aren’t!
I don’t know how much time I have before the beast returns if ever, but I’ll be damned if I let it impair me from living! Every day is a new opportunity to help another person, love one another, make friends on the computer, have lunch with Mom, tell your family and friends you love them, play scrabble with your sister, enjoy your kids, love your husband. I plan to live… for a very long time.