Sometimes life throws you a curve, and you must literally stop and look fear straight in the face. That is what happened to me on December 31, 2003.
Statistics tell us that most women find breast lumps themselves, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be one of those statistics. A mammogram? We are told to begin that at age 40! Just a few months before I discovered my lump, I had complained to my physician that I felt something different about my breast. He basically brushed it off, suggesting that it was hormonal since I had nursed my twins for a quite a while. After I found the lump, I called my doctor, explained the situation, and asked where I could go for a mammogram.
Getting a mammogramI was 37 years old with two small children and a breast lump - this couldn't be right. I called around and finally found a place that would perform an immediate mammogram. I was persistent about getting the report that day, and the news was bad. I had a suspicious mass. I was frightened and scared.
The very next day my husband David and I, along with my mother and father, met at a surgeon's office. The surgeon told me that I would need a mastectomy but that first I needed a specific type of biopsy. I turned to my father for help (he is also a physician), and in less than 24 hours I not only had a new and accurate mammogram, I also had an additional six mammograms, an extensive ultrasound and a stereotactic biopsy. A firm decision was made for immediate definitive surgical therapy. I was scheduled for a diagnostic lumpectomy.
The next step in my medical care was determined after the lumpectomy. Cancer cells were found in the lymph nodes. We made our decision by taking into consideration my age, family history, and genetics (ten percent of Ashkenazi Jews have a genetic defect that may predispose women to breast and ovarian cancer). I was advised to look at my family tree on both sides, not just the maternal side. Because my father's mother, sister, and niece had died from breast cancer at a young age, I should have begun yearly mammograms at the age of 30, not at age 40, as recommended by my doctor.
Arming yourself with knowledgeMy husband and I both got on the Internet and did a lot of reading about this type of breast cancer. The key is to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible without confusing yourself. With my physicians, we finally arrived at a decision--I would have a bilateral mastectomy since there was a 50% chance that I would eventually have to have the other breast removed. The surgery was 14 hours long and included a five-day hospital stay. I am so very grateful to my husband David, my friends and family, as well as our Rabbi and Temple friends and family for being there for us and for keeping me in their hearts and prayers.
Shortly after my surgery, David and I selected an oncologist who would handle my chemotherapy. I went for a full course of chemotherapy every two weeks. My last treatment was over Mother's Day weekend - what a good time to be over this. I was so tired of all the drugs and keeping track of all the various medications. When I lost my hair, I tried a wig, but it felt unnatural and uncomfortable, so I wore a hat. When the children asked me about my hair, I explained to them that the medicine I took made my hair fall out. When I had to give my son Brandon some Tylenol, he asked me whether his hair was going to fall out, too!
Starting a journalWhile going through chemotherapy I decided to keep an online journal of my daily experiences and emotions. During a serious illness, friends and family members may avoid the patient because they do not know what to say. I started my journal for them as well as for me. People use many things as therapy. My journal, keeping occupied with my children, Sabrina and Brandon, and other activities kept me focused. Coping with a serious illness is a challenge like no other, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest the value of a positive attitude in these circumstances. One of the most notable stories is that of Lance Armstrong, the champion cyclist who overcame testicular cancer to then dominate the Tour de France.
I had my last surgery on my birthday! And every three months for the next three years, I will have a blood test to make sure that the cancer hasn't come back. I admit that I get a pit in my stomach every time I go in for this test. But, I will continue to have a confident and positive attitude, like the one described in a poem I read in high school:
The Man Who Thinks He Can
If you think you are beaten, you are; If you think you dare not, you don't; If you'd like to win, but think you can't, It's almost a cinch you won't. If you think you'll lose, you're lost, For out in the world we find Success begins with a fellow's will; It's all in the state of mind.
If you think you're outclassed, you are; You've got to think high to rise. You've got to be sure of yourself before You can ever win a prize. Life's battles don't always go To the stronger or faster man; But soon or late the man who wins Is the man who thinks he can. -Walter D. Wintle
From my parents, I learned early that a positive attitude gets you farther in life than a negative one. And my faith, Judaism, is based on eternal optimism. If you expect things to turn out well, they are more likely to do so.
This is very hard for me to let my kids see me like this but I always tell them I'm ok even if I am not.