Last spring, my husband’s Aunt Cheryl and Uncle Tom came for a visit. They live in Northern California, so we don’t get to see them very often. Beers were drunk, a delicious dinner was grilled, and the kids got along beautifully. It was one of those visits where after they left, you really wished you lived closer, so you could see each other more than once in a blue moon. So, when Cheryl sent out an email a few months later that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, I was shocked. Tears started pouring down my face and I kept asking, “why?” Especially since a big topic of conversation that night was how both my daughter and Tom had been diagnosed with cancer that winter. Today, Cheryl has just finished the first part of her treatment, and words can’t describe how positive and great her attitude is–she’s upbeat, but very realistic at the same time. So, as we enter October, (aka Breast Cancer Awareness Month), Breezy Mama only thought it fitting to share someone’s story from the front-lines. –Alex
My day started like every other day. I hit the snooze button one too many times, I was pulling my kids out of bed with a crowbar and the dog was following me around with a ball so I wouldn’t forget to take her hour for some exercise. Then, in a split second as I was getting dressed, everything changed–I felt a lump in my breast. I couldn’t take my fingers off of it. . . What was the lump? Was it a fatty deposit? Was it a cyst? Or. . . was it cancer?
That day I went to my doctor, who was concerned, and referred me to get a mammogram. 48 hours later–after a mammogram, an ultra sound and a biopsy, I got the news I was dreading: I had breast cancer. Two different tumors and a positive lymph node! That is when I started to cry. Me, 41, with two young kids (6 and 8), a brand new business, has cancer. I was so scared.
I was diagnosed on the last day of the school year. It should have been a huge celebration with talk about big summer plans, but all I could think about was the cancer and how my summer and my family’s summer was going to be spent dealing with my cancer. As Tom (my wonderful husband) and I talked about the road ahead we decided we needed one summer vacation before all the treatments started. So Tom went online and booked a week long vacation to Hawaii leaving the next day. We never do anything like this; it was so fun and freeing. We just packed our bags that night and left early the next morning. We enjoyed relaxing family time on the beach for a whole week without thinking about the cancer, the surgeries or the treatments. It was the best decision we made!
Once we got home things really went into high gear. I met with a surgical oncologist who recommended a full mastectomy and lymph node dissection. This would be followed by 16 sessions of chemotherapy, then six weeks of radiation after which we would finish with extended hormonal therapy. I remember sitting in his office with my mouth wide open. All I could think was, “Wow that is a lot of treatment!” From there, I was scheduled for lots of different tests to make sure it had not spread into my bones, lungs or liver (the three places breast cancer tends to metastasize). I think that unknown was the worst part. As I laid under these machines I just kept saying, “Please don’t find any cancer, please don’t find any cancer.” When the scans were done the technicians would always say, “Good luck, take care.” I would over think it each time; “Had they seen something? Why would they tell me good luck?” Then I would have to wait two to four days for my doctor appointment to get the results. Finally, after the last appointment, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief that the cancer had not spread and we could continue down the road.
First came the mastectomy and lymph node dissection. It was a strange feeling knowing that I was going in to have my breast removed. I knew it was the right thing to do; it was the best guarantee to get all the cancer out of my body, but at the same time to think about being 41 and only have one breast. . . The surgery went well and I was home the next evening. The first week I was tired and laid low. Tom had to empty the fluid out of my drains for the first week. When he said “for better or for worse” in our vows I bet he didn’t think that was in the future! By the second week I was up and around doing things with one arm. My movement slowly got better and better, but the swelling and numbness on my chest and under my arm is still there today.
At this point I am happy to have the surgery behind me and totally dreading the start of chemo. My Mom and Dad both went through chemo plus two of my close friends. Nothing about chemo looked enjoyable. But the day finally came on July 22nd for my first chemo treatment. I was so scared. How was I going to feel? How sick was I going to be? What of the many side effects was I going to have? I started with my oncologist first–he went over all the drugs I need to take to keep the nausea at bay once I got home. He went on to talk about mouth sores, GI burning, inability to heal from cuts. . . it all started to be a bunch of gibber. I shook my head like I knew what he was saying and just hoped I could figure it all out once I got home. Then we went down stairs to the infusion center. This is a part of the cancer center that is a really long hall lined with infusion chairs with a curtain in between each chair. They were all filled with different people (mostly women) at different stages of their journey to healing. I felt like I was not one of them yet, I had not had a treatment, I still had my hair, I looked young and healthy. But I knew the next time I stepped in the room I would look like one of them, their would be no hiding the fact that I have cancer.
The treatment went well. I felt mostly fine–some blurred vision, a little light headed–but for the most part, fine. Then about an hour after I got home, it all hit. The nausea was intense. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sit up, and none of the medicine would make it better. It lasted until Monday afternoon. Then, slowly, I was able to start eating a bit and getting up and around. It was so great to start feeling better but sucked so much to know that I had to go back in two weeks and do it all again. Just the thought of the cancer center made me nauseous. I had to put the future treatments out of my head and focus on feeling good and enjoying the good feeling days. We pack the weekends full of family fun, baseball games, BBQ’s and anything else we could manage.
[At the time of writing this] I now have three treatments behind me. Each treatment feels like I fall into a pit of misery and then slowly, day by day, I crawl out. It is like no feeling I can explain and would never wish it on anyone. As much as I am grateful for the discovery of chemotherapy, I pray that they discover a way to cure cancer without having to beat you down and make you feel so sick. It is something that is hard to explain to my kids–the doctors have to make me feel really sick in order to make me feel better. It is one of those things that just doesn’t seem logical. . .
So here are some things I have learned from having cancer. . .
First and far most, CANCER SUCKS! But as much as it sucks, there have been some silver linings in it all. I have been able to look at all the blessings I have each day in my family, my community and my work. The out pouring of love to me and my family has been tremendous. It is amazing to realize how loved we are and how people will do anything they can to help me and my family. I have also learned that people react differently to the news that you have cancer. Some are in the group that they come out right away, they express their sympathy and offer to help in any way they can. Some are in the camp that they just do things that they think will be helpful without asking. Then there is the group of people who can’t say anything. You know they want to, but they just don’t know what to say. My recommendation to you is don’t be in that group. If you hear news of a friend getting sick, just send a simple email or text telling them you are thinking about them. It doesn’t have to be profound but the thought that you are on their mind. For me it is the little acts of thoughtfulness and kindness that go a long way, the wink when you pass someone on the school yard, the tap on the back, the sending of a card, offering to make dinner when it is helpful for the family. . . These are the things that keep me going, knowing I am in people’s thoughts and knowing I am not in this fight alone.
As I sit in the infusion center I wonder why the chairs are so full (there is never an empty chair). I wonder why we hear about so many friends and family being diagnosed with cancer. I wonder why people who have smoked their whole life can live to be in their 90’s with no cancer and I am in my early 40’s with breast cancer. What I take away from it all is: live your life to the fullest–be healthy, love your family and love yourself–you never know what tomorrow will hold. I know we have all heard this before, but it really is true. Don’t wait until you have to have an infusion of chemotherapy to take it to heart. Life is precious, don’t take it for granted!
Cheryl started a blog at the beginning of her breast cancer journey. For those of you who are interested in reading more about the journey you can sign in by clicking here.