"I Took the Road Less Traveled"
Never did I think seven years ago that I'd be writing the story of how breast cancer changed my life for the better! Back in l996 I was in Mexico for the summer, with my daughter who had just taken a job at a language school. One day, the news came that my mother-in-law had suddenly passed away. I decided to cut my vacation short and go home. If I hadn't, I might not be here today to tell my story. I am one of the lucky ones who has benefited from early detection.
I was the kind of woman who pushed my health to the side, taking it for granted. With that said, I'll honestly confess that I was going to skip my mammogram that year to be with my daughter, knowing full well that I wouldn't get it done for another year. As you can figure out, I didn't skip the appointment because I ended coming home early. The week after my mother in law's funeral I had the mammogram.
The diagnosisI knew something was wrong as soon as the mammogram was taken, by the look in the technician's eye. I heard the radiologist and technician talking in the next room. Next thing I knew they told me I needed to see a specialist. For the next week, it was all I could think of. I'm sure some of you can relate to this! Intuitively I knew something was wrong. I saw the specialist. I had a biopsy and one week later was confirmed to have ductal carcinoma in situ stage l breast cancer.
I walked around in a state of shock, angry at everything and everybody, but mostly with my own body that had always been so healthy and now had betrayed me. I had this horrible disease called cancer. This was something that always happened to someone else, not to me! Not only that, but to make things even worse, after I met with a panel of eight doctors at Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke's Hospital, they all agreed that I needed a bilateral mastectomy!
I wanted to run away, to anywhere but where I was. I even asked the breast surgeon what happened to the women who never came back to see him after their diagnosis. He said that yes, there were always some who never returned. I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to hide and pretend that this wasn't happening to me.
But I didn't. I stayed and for six agonizing weeks as I awaited my surgery, I read voraciously to learn everything I could about my condition. I read about the surgical options and subsequent treatments available. I often wondered what would become of my breast when it was removed. I mean, what do they do with all the body parts that are taken during surgery? I wondered which of the surgical options suggested was the best one for me. But, most of all, I wondered if I would die. Would I just close my eyes and never wake up? Was I ready to accept that?
The surgeryOctober 22, 1996 was the date of the surgery. The day before, I took a leave of absence from my high school teaching position. It was so hard to say goodbye to my students. How do you tell teenagers that you have breast cancer? I didn't want them to worry about me. Many people, including my boss, were crying. In fact, I think I was the only one who didn't break down that day. I seemed to have a superhuman strength, but now, looking back, I know it was the will to survive. I needed to conserve all my energy for the surgery I would face the next day.
The phone never stopped ringing the night before the operation and I finally took it off the hook. I was so scared. I knew that I needed to pray. I found an old Bible that my Dad had given to me at my confirmation. I opened it to a page and an orange paper fell out. It contained my grandmother's handwriting. I had loved her so. She had helped me through so many difficult times when I was young. I heard her voice speak to me as I read the words she had written to me so many years ago when I was 16:
"God is at work in my life and affairs, so I am not tense anxious or concerned about the outcome of my affairs. I put my trust in God. I am calm and confident in the realization that I can depend on God to guide me, to sustain me, to make all things right." She concluded by writing "There's so much good in the worst," followed by a verse from Isaiah 41:13: "I am holding you by your right hand, I the Lord your God, and I say to you, don't be afraid, I am here to help you." I memorized these words that night. I needed the comfort of my grandmother and wished she would be there to put her arms around me.
The next day was a blur. Things happened so fast. In the pre-op room, I felt like it was a bad imitation of the movie Flatliners—we were all dressed in blue smocks, footies and caps as we awaited our surgeries. I was wheeled into the operating room and that's the last thing I remember until I woke up over10 hours later. I had a TRAM flap surgery, a difficult and delicate operation where nerves and tissues are taken from stomach muscles and brought underneath the skin and up to the breast area to be reconnected and form a new breast. It involved the breast surgeon Dr. Thomas Witt, along with two plastic surgeons—Dr. Craig Bradley and Dr. Sami Bittar—and it lasted eight hours.
A second chanceWhen I awoke, I couldn't talk. I was connected to tubes, monitors and other beeping machines. At first I thought I was dreaming. I was swathed in bandages from my chest to my hips and I seemed unable to move any body parts. My family was there, but the best part was...I slowly realized that this was for real, I was alive. I survived. Now I was sure of it. I had been given a second chance to live!
In the weeks and months after, my new life began to unfold. Many times I joke and say that I was born on October 22, 1996! I had so much time to reflect as I rested and recuperated and let my body do its healing work. I came to realize that cancer can be a death sentence or a life sentence, positive or negative, depending upon what a person chooses to do with their life after cancer. I began to send my body "live" messages; I realized that I had been allowed to live because my job here on this planet was not yet done. There was more for me to do, but I didn't know what it was yet. I began to realize how precious every day is, that life at any time can be taken away. I remembered a quote from a commencement speech given by Oprah Winfrey, "turn your wounds into wisdom." My wounds were physical, of course, because my body had been radically altered. There were also emotional wounds. As I began to read more books about healing after cancer, I came to know that having cancer can be a catalyst for change, allowing you to reveal your greatest dreams trying to come true. My dreams began to take form as I decided to use my own wounds to help others deal with theirs.
The road less traveledThe title of my story reflects the path I chose to take as I embarked on my new life—the road less traveled. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Go not where the path might lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." In other words, it is up to each of us to make the decision if we want to go along day to day living a half-lived, unfulfilled life, or if we make the choice to live each day as though it could be our last, having gratitude for what we do have and not lamenting what we don't have. This is truly living in the moment, for this very moment as you sit here listening to me is really the only thing that you can know for sure.
Let me tell you, it's damn hard to change your life, to take a risk to go where your path leads you, where your heart leads you when others tell you you're crazy! If you listen to your heart and trust your intuition or your inner voice, your own path will begin to appear. What did my inner voice tell me? It said "Be not afraid, for I am holding you by your right hand."
Slowly, my life began to change. It began with taking a yoga class at my local park district. My path then led me to California to become a certified yoga instructor, then back to school here in Chicago to receive a degree in Stress Management. I began to teach yoga and stress management. I opened my own business. I now regularly lecture to groups on topics relating to stress and illness in the context of mind-body-spiritual connection, because I came to believe through my own experience that being healthy not only means the physical aspect of health but also the psychological and spiritual aspects.
Giving backMy path led me to become involved with Susan G. Komen for the Cure® over five years ago as a member of the Survivor Committee. I have served on that committee these past few years and now, on the newly formed "Pink Brigade," with survivors like me who are willing to share their cancer stories. Last year I was interviewed on WLIT radio as a Komen spokesperson the week before the Race for the Cure®, and the day of the Race, I was interviewed on WLS TV as a Komen representative. My most treasured role on the Survivor Committee has to be my job of rounding up the survivors and lining them up after the race, holding our banner and leading out the "Parade of Survivors"—last year we numbered over 400—all of us wearing our pink survivor t-shirts, past the crowd gathered to watch the race. Words are inadequate to describe this awesome experience as everyone cheers as we walk by. Surviving cancer has united us and we are all ages, nationalities and from all walks of life.
My new life also includes my work with the Salvation Army Children’s Home in Acapulco, Mexico. I became involved with them back in l996 when I was vacationing with my family at Christmas as I recovered from my cancer. One night, a group of eight beautiful children came to the table where we were seated at a restaurant and began to serenade us with Spanish Christmas carols. My son and I were so touched by them that we decided to become involved to sponsor one of the children. We ended up spending our Christmas Eve at the
Orphanage, surrounded by 55 children of all ages and it was the most meaningful Christmas of my life! The home now has 75 children and we are always looking for sponsors for the “padrino” (godparent) program that we have for the children.
As I went through my life changes after cancer, I also became involved with the Lutheran Family Services here in Chicago in their wonderful program called “The Storybook Project”. As a volunteer, during the weeks before Christmas and Mother’s Day, I visit incarcerated women at the Cook County Jail and we make tapes for their children, with mom’s voice recorded reading a story to each of her children. I then mail the books as well as the tape to the children’s caretakers during the time that their moms are incarcerated.
And my high school students continue to amaze and inspire me. Last year at our high school, Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, 90% of my forty Spanish Heritage students who took the Advanced Placement Spanish Language Exam received a top score, which entitles them to receive college credit. I love teaching them and helping them to achieve their goals. They have now become involved as volunteers for the Komen Race for the Cure and last year, ten of them came to help out on race day. They too are learning that in giving we get so much back. Isn’t that so true?
As I said before, the “road less traveled” is not the easy path to take, because you don’t know where it is going to take you! I have been so very fortunate to have so many wonderful family members and friends, people who are positive and who are always there for me with their unconditional love, support and acceptance. Some people from my former life are now gone, but others have come into my life, sometimes in the most unexpected ways! I know that if I had not had the experience of breast cancer, fear of failure would have prevented me from taking some of the risks I have taken these past few years . I haven’t always been successful in these risks, but I don’t let fear and self-doubt be part of my thought process anymore. “Today is a gift…that’s why it’s called the present.” I try to always keep that in mind, especially when I start to stress out about anything. If we look at the big picture, most of the things we get stressed about are so little, aren’t they?
To conclude, my hero is Mother Theresa, who said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” The greatest lesson I have learned from having had and survived breast cancer is that love is where it’s at. It’s all that matters. Working together, doing small things with great love, perhaps in my own small way I will help Komen for the Cure to find a cure for breast cancer. And in my own small way, perhaps I can touch the lives of other people by sharing my story. When I die, I want people to say that the world is a better place because I have lived. Thank you and God bless you.
Sandra M. Mitchell