My journey with breast cancer began during the summer of 2012 following my annual mammogram. I was contacted within 10 minutes to immediately go to the hospital’s radiation department for a second, more enhanced image of both left and right breasts. As with several of my previous mammograms, it was not unusual for me to have a follow-up scan, but those were usually just one side, turned out benign and disappeared on their own. Soon came the news that biopsies were necessary for both sides. This was a very minor procedure but waiting for the results seemed like an eternity for my husband and me. I finally received a call from my doctor’s office to consult with him regarding the results.
While sitting with my doctor, I said to him, "I hope you have good news for me." His reply as he looked at me over his tiny reading glasses was: "I wish I did. One side is negative; one side is stage 2 IDC (invasive ductal carcinoma) with possible lymph node involvement." That moment will forever be imprinted on my mind. After hearing the cancer diagnosis and taking a deep breath, I asked him what the plan was.
The doctor’s office set me up within days to meet with the surgeon who would perform a lumpectomy – a surgical operation in which a lump is removed from breast tissue – on my right breast. Once we met with him, I was completely entrusted in his care and felt very comfortable that I was in good hands.
There is no way to completely prepare yourself for the upcoming "journey." It is personal, it is individual and at times, challenging. I never felt sorry for myself or asked myself, "Why me?" I was just driven to find any and all information I could access because knowledge is power, and I had a fight ahead of me.
Bracing for the unknown
The following weekend, I was the guest of honor in a flotilla, adorned with breast cancer flags on each bow that went up the Penobscot River in my home state of Maine to a Susan G. Koman Breast Cancer 5K race to raise money for breast cancer research. My mind was trying to process everything that had already happened and what was to come. I was honored to be sponsored by my friend and her two daughters in the race. We were greeted on shore by hundreds of people cheering us on as we approached the dock. It was an overwhelming and emotional experience for my husband and me. I have never felt so supported and comforted than I did by the speakers sharing their own journeys with the crowd. My husband and I just stood there holding each other, emotional about what the future might hold. It was a very heartfelt beginning for my fight.
On the morning of my surgery, I took a hot shower and paused for a moment to prepare myself for the worst-case scenario of a possible total mastectomy versus a less invasive lumpectomy. I said an emotional "goodbye" to my right breast just in case. I was determined to beat this monster inside me no matter what it took.
The ‘red devil’
Following my surgery, I was connected with the Cancer Center of Maine (CCOM) and told about my aggressive chemotherapy treatments that would be spread over the next two years, followed by many weeks of daily radiation.
My first regiment was with a concoction of adriamycin (doxorubicin), nicknamed "The Red Devil," one of the most potent chemotherapies to date that slows or stops the growth of cancer cells. When my nurse brought the first dose to me in a huge syringe, it was the color of candied cherries. I was advised about its toxicity, and the nurse administering it wore personal protective equipment (PPE) from head to toe. Just one drop of the mix can cause severe burns. That is what would soon be coursing through my veins. Knowing all of this, I was apprehensive about how it was going to make me feel and its aftereffects. Due to its caustic nature, she had to gradually ease it into my IV line for safe administration. Because the liquid is kept at room temperature, it felt cold as it was slowly injected into my bloodstream. I could feel the flush in my veins as I started my fight.
I was told by the nurse before I started my treatments that the second regiment would cause hair loss. The thought of waking up to large clumps of hair on my pillow was enough motivation to have my head shaved ahead of the traumatic event. After having my head shaved, I felt in control again. I felt stronger than the cancer and at the same time, I also felt very exposed and vulnerable. I was fitted with a wig to keep my head warm and to boost my self-confidence. I knew then and there that this was going to not only be a fight to beat cancer but a true deep soul-searching journey as well. I was completely without any "cover" to hide behind. All of my insecurities and doubts were exposed to all.
A few days following my second treatment, I awoke with intense pain in my left arm. It felt as though I had a blood pressure cuff on my forearm that kept tightening. After tests in the local hospital, an ultrasound revealed a blood clot had formed as a result of my body trying to reject both the IV port implanted in my chest and the chemotherapy chemicals. That meant a six-month regimen of daily injections in the subcutaneous tissue of my abdomen administered by me.
Thankfully, the following treatments up to and including the last one were incident-free. Through soul searching, hair loss and fatigue, I finally realized what it means to feel humble. During my journey, I discovered what really matters in life and started to prioritize that.
Bell of triumph
Because my husband and I winter in Florida, I received the majority of my care from the wonderful staff at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. While waiting to be called in for a treatment, I would occasionally hear a bell ringing and wondered what that meant. I later found out it was rung by patients who had successfully finished their treatment. It served as a sound of hope for others still battling the disease. I finally had the chance to ring the brass bell when I finished my last chemotherapy treatment. I rang it so hard I thought I was going to pull it off the wall. So many emotions ran through me at that moment. It was also a heartwarming feeling to hear patients in the waiting area clapping and cheering for me. I felt powerful, courageous, relieved and believed this was my new beginning.
The radiation following the chemotherapy included 36 treatments, daily, with weekends off. That meant a break from the daily one-hour trip to the cancer center to recharge my energy for the next round. The medical team tattooed three dots on my breast to ensure precision due to the treatment’s proximity to my lungs and the damage it could cause. The first 32 radiation treatments were consistent, but the last four were "boosters," much stronger than the previous to ensure no cancer cells had survived. By the end of the boosters, the stronger dose had burned through my chest, causing a red welt on my back.
My hair began to grow back, soft and curly. I normally have straight hair, and the natural curls and new thickness were welcome. I was advised that it would eventually straighten again, and it did, but I loved my new look while it lasted.
Once my hair was forming a halo, I stopped covering my head and went out in public. At first, I felt very "naked." People stared, but then so did I before my diagnosis. I had no idea what cancer survivors were experiencing and never knew what to say. Now I do.
I am now eight years cancer-free. I have checkups every six months with my oncologist and yearly mammograms. I'm glad that I went through this journey. It has made me a much better person.
I still feel humbled daily every time I see the large scars on my breast and where the port was on my chest. I still have several tattooed dots from my radiation coordinates. These beautiful reminders point me toward what really matters in life. I met so many wonderful, caring people on my journey, and I pray that they won their battles too. I was so very blessed to have my daughter and her family nearby through my treatment period. It meant more than words can express. My husband will always be my soulmate and was beside me from start to finish. The care I received during my battle was phenomenal, and I couldn’t have asked for more support from my medical team. I am very blessed in so many ways.
My one piece of advice to every woman reading this is please have regular mammograms. I had a suspicious calcium cluster that would only have been detected by the yearly mammogram – and it was already stage 2. Getting my yearly checkup saved my life, and it could save yours as well.
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