"I'm going to die," were my first thoughts when I received a diagnosis of invasive carcinoma breast cancer in 1993. I was devastated at the news and I prayed to God for guidance, strength and healing. My dreams of being a singer were shattered as I thought of Minnie Ripperton, a famous singer who died from this disease by refusing to have a mastectomy. But now, I am a 13-year survivor and in the best health yet!
My symptoms began in February 1993 with swelling in my feet and mild joint pain in my knees and elbows. My body was giving me warning signals that something was wrong, so I made a doctor's appointment. The first physician I saw thought I might have arthritis, but since that doesn't run in my family, I decided to get a second opinion. I saw a gynecologist who sent me for a mammogram and sure enough, there was a mass next to my chest wall. A biopsy confirmed that it was cancer that had spread to 13 lymph nodes.
I confided in a friend who was knowledgeable about breast cancer and she gave me a book that explained lumpectomy and mastectomy options. I wanted to have a lumpectomy, but my team of doctors (surgeon, oncologist and radiologist) didn't think lumpectomy was the best option for me. But I prevailed because I was determined that I would not lose my breast. I did not have clear margins after the first surgery, so I had a second surgery to remove the involved lymph nodes. Following surgery, I began chemotherapy treatments. A nurse came to my home to administer the treatment—an IV drip over a three-day period. By the third day of the treatment, I would be bed-ridden. Since I was a single, working mom, I scheduled the treatments to begin on Thursday so I could stay in bed over the weekend.
Throughout the treatments, I was hoping the inevitable wouldn't happen. But it did—my hair began to fall out. One morning as I was combing my hair, a big patch came out in the comb. I pulled out the rest and stood before the mirror looking at the new bald-headed me. I was used to wearing wigs anyway, so I got over it real fast. Besides, the battle was on for my life and my hair would grow back!
During this time, I met a man who was attracted to me even though I was bald and going through this life-threatening ordeal. (Girls, there is hope!) He was there for me. He made me go to the hospital when I developed chills and hot flashes. My blood count had dropped too low, his insistence saved my life.
After radiation treatments, I was cancer-free. My doctors thought it was a miracle and I knew it was a blessing from God. My prayers were answered for a healing. But seven years later, I had a recurrence. I noticed my nipple was looking abnormal and had a slight discharge. My oncologist ordered a biopsy, and there it was again. In June 2000 I went ahead and had the mastectomy and I'm OK with it. If I choose, I can have reconstructive surgery later.
I was placed on Tamoxifen for five years and now I take Femara, which actually shrank a large mole on the back of my leg, so I know it's working. My health is good and I have survived 13 years with breast cancer. My joint pain has completely disappeared and my skin is baby-soft. I love my oncologist, Dr. Susan Luedke, for all she has done for me over the years with her close follow-ups.
I have never stopped singing, whether in church or for hire. I have a God-given talent to write and sing and I have been given a second and third chance at life to share my gift with the world. Even though I'm older, I haven't given up my personal dreams or my resolve to battle breast cancer. All of us can help by supporting our local Race for the Cure®, which helps fund breast cancer screening, treatment and research projects. I feel the cure is near...so let's celebrate life.
Sharon Spencer Schlesinger