Maria Del Vecchio
Treatment: Lumpectomy, Chemotherapy, Radiation
I cried when my doctor told me I had breast cancer. It wasn't supposed to happen to me. I was in my 40s and single, and was told that I would have to deal with chemotherapy and radiation for the better part of a year. I kept asking myself, "Am I going to die?"
On July 1, 2002, I had a biopsy of the right breast, and within an hour my life had changed. I was diagnosed with cancer of the right breast. I underwent a lumpectomy on July 11, 2002, and because my lead lymph node had signs of cancer, an axillary dissection (removal of 15 lymph nodes) was performed to see if the cancer had spread to other parts of the breast area.
Three to four hours later, I was in my hospital room. I had trouble sleeping and could only lie on my back because of the incision under my right armpit and the "infamous" drainage tube. It wasn't very pretty and was quite uncomfortable. The fun really began with the parade of doctors, nurses and technicians in and out of my room. They explained what was going to happen next—I would have chemotherapy and radiation and my hair would fall out. Whoopee!!!
A message of support
When I came home from the hospital after my lumpectomy, there was a card for me from my niece Kristi, who is also my godchild. The front of the card said, "I Know You'll Get Through This." I carry this card with me at all times and the words became my creed—words that I lived by every time I found or still find myself getting depressed and crying. Kristi said something to me that might sound strange. She told me that, if anyone in our family had to get cancer, she was glad it was me. What she meant was that my mother or my sisters would not have my attitude or the strength needed to get through it.
I'm also a heart patient and underwent a quadruple coronary artery bypass in 1991. During that time, I did some research and learned that there are several combination "chemo cocktails"—the most common being Adriamycin and Cytoxan. I also learned that one of the side effects of Adriamycin is damage to the heart. During my visits to my oncologist, I asked a lot of questions. He told me that the "ACT" cocktail was the best and most potent combination for combating breast cancer, and he assured me that it would take more than 25 times the amount I would be getting to cause heart damage.
The "T" is for Taxotere, the second half of my "cocktail." My oncologist told me that Taxotere was optional, but that it would increase the chances of the cancer not recurring by more than 50 percent. My decision was a no-brainer. My oncologist did not sugarcoat anything—he told me exactly what was going to happen "from A to Z."
Six months of my "cocktail" parties passed quickly. There was a celebration for me and I found myself talking about what I had just been through as though it were a natural part of my life. Everyone admired my attitude, which I truly believe got me through some very rough times.
My six-week radiation course began in January of 2003. I met "Nancy," and we became good friends and had all of our treatments together. She lived in Michigan, but was staying with her sister in Abington, Pennsylvania. Nancy had lung cancer. Our treatments ended in March 2003, and Nancy returned to Michigan. She was supposed to come back and participate in a "trial treatment" and have surgery. Unfortunately, the lung cancer spread to the chest wall; surgery could not be performed and she could not participate in the trial. She wrote and sent me pictures of myself during radiation treatments. I wrote back to her, but never heard from her again. In July I learned that Nancy had passed away in March.
I knew I didn't want to die, and I was determined to do all I had to do to survive. I will never forget what happened to me, but I believe that I have started to go forward with my life. I have talked to a lot of women survivors and we have shared what we all went through, and what we are still going through. I do hope that my talking about cancer will help at least one person see that there is a future ahead. I have seen pink ribbons in abundance and I have "Raced for the Cure." Nothing is as awe-inspiring as seeing and being in the company of over 3,000 women who know exactly what I went through and what I continue to go through.
Seeing the positive side of things
Life can be filled with unfairness and misery, or it can be an invigorating challenge. I made the choice to look for the positive possibilities. Having breast cancer has taught me that I have a wonderful family that kept me going. They are the reason I am here and the reason that I have done so well. I have learned not to take anything for granted. Life is a precious gift and should be treated that way. I have learned that no matter how bad you think you have it, someone else is worse off. When you think you can't handle anymore, you can, and laughter is the best medicine for anything that ails you. I learned that it is okay to let yourself be sick and let others take care of you. I learned that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Most of all, I learned that family is what is important in life and they need to come first, and I also learned that I am really a pretty neat person after all.
There is a lot I am still learning and I know that I will continue to learn new things about myself and this life every day for whatever is left of my life. During the past two years, I have gone through a transformation. Believe it or not, I feel so lucky to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Am I weird or crazy? No, I'm not! I had to make the best of it and that's exactly what I did.
What did I gain from the experience? Some self-confidence (I am still working on that), the ability to live a happy life, less worry and curly hair. Having cancer has been a life-changing event and I have realized that it will continue to change the balance of my life, be it for better or worse. I know in my heart that, as long as I continue to fight and continue to laugh and continue to have the loving support of family and friends, I will make it!