I am a woman, mother, sister, grandmother, stepmother, friend and breast cancer survivor. In 1979, my 26-year-old sister had breast reduction surgery and carcinoma in situ was discovered. In September of 1990, my 69-year-old mother was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. In January of 1992, at the age of 44 and after 17 years as a single parent, I met the man (Larry) to whom I am now married.
Seven weeks after meeting Larry, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my right breast. I was lucky—the cancer was small and the lymph nodes were negative. I had a lumpectomy and axillary dissection followed by 33 radiation treatments. I worked full-time throughout my treatments, missing only one day of work. The treatments made me sick, but I pushed myself—partly because I had just met this terrific man and I did not want him to think he was dating a sick woman. My family, Larry and my friends were the best support system, helping me through every moment.
Soon life returned to some sense of normalcy. Larry and I became engaged, my son got married and my life seemed to be heading in a positive direction. But, in September 1994 a malignant lump was discovered in my left breast. At the age of 47 my life was finally in order, and WHAM! CANCER AGAIN!
Making the treatment decisionI was devastated and frightened, and emotionally, this was extremely difficult. After getting the opinion of several doctors and having many discussions with my family and Larry, I chose to have bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction. This decision is not right for everyone, but it was right for me; it lessened my fear of future breast cancer. Larry said I was more than the sum of my two breasts and that he loved me for me. We were married on Valentine's Day 1995.
Because of the high incidence of breast cancer in my family, my daughters asked me to have genetic testing for the breast cancer gene. I tested negative. Recently, my 36-year-old daughter had the genetic testing and also tested negative, but three weeks ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has had surgery and is doing very well. I still worry for her and for my other daughter; I worry for your daughters. But I know that, by being here today and telling my story, I may be able to help other women with breast cancer.
Breast cancer is curable if found early. Get your checkups and mammograms, and make sure your family and friends do the same. The best weapon we have in our war against breast cancer is education. Do not be afraid to ask questions, listen to your body and use all the resources that are available to women today.
Learning to appreciate the small things in lifeI am blessed in so many ways, and I am grateful to be alive. This experience has taught me to be more mindful of my surroundings. When I am driving to work, I try to take in my surroundings, whether it's a blue sky or a beautiful flowering bush. These are reminders that I am still here. I now realize how important it is to surround yourself with family and good friends. The fabric of my life has changed for the better since my diagnosis of breast cancer. I reflect more. I appreciate the small things in life: my grandchildren's laughter, my husband's love, my children, my stepchildren, having a sister to share things with, reading a good book, going to the beach and just staring at the water. Search out the things that give you peace.
Everything around me has taken on a special meaning. I think we all take things for granted, like the sun rising and setting, children's laughter and quiet time. I have learned to look at the big picture. Each of us should look around and find joy in the small things. Hug your kids, yell less often, kiss your husband and tell your friends you love them. Every day I am reminded of two things when I look into the mirror: I am a woman without breasts and, more importantly, I am a woman who has survived breast cancer.
Maria De La Torre