Six years ago, the day before Thanksgiving, Second son and Middle son were home from college and I was giving Second son a haircut. The phone rang and it was the doctor from the breast imaging center calling to give me the bad news that my biopsy was positive. I had breast cancer.
My husband answered the phone and she gave him the news before he called me into the room. My son, left sitting on my barber stool in the bathroom was within earshot so he was the first of our five kids to share in our worry and fears. As I walked towards my husband to take the phone my heart sinks as I see him crying, my husband, the strong, mustached man who swept me off my feet 29 years earlier, the man who fathered my children, provided for us and protected us, the man who still made my heart go pitter pat was crying.
We spent three months researching, visiting doctors, oncologists, surgeons, getting second and third opinions, getting scans, ultrasounds and MRIs and making a plan. In late February of 2008 I had a sentinel node biopsy and a unilateral mastectomy. I had stage 1 breast cancer, ER-, Her2Neu+. They got clean margins but one of the two lymph nodes did show signs of cancer cells so I went back a month later for them to take more lymph nodes. Those looked good so my adjunct therapy would include 3 months of a chemo cocktail given every 3 weeks, then 3 months of another chemo cocktail given weekly along with Herceptin. At the end of that 3 months I continued with the Herceptin for another 9 months given every 3 weeks.
Something that helped me through it all was that my doctor told me after the surgery that he considered me cancer free; the chemo was a “just in case there were any cancer cells floating around in my blood stream” treatment. Perhaps that was a simplistic way of looking at it, but it allowed me to feel strong and healthy and empowered. Before I started the chemo, my husband had gone with me to every appointment. (I stopped counting at 27.) At this point, I told him that he could get back to focusing on work, that I could go to chemo by myself; I’d be fine and if I wasn’t, I could call him or one of the kids.
In total, I had around 30 treatments over the course of 15 months. I drove myself to every appointment, taking a book, an iPod, magazines, sometimes packing a lunch or snacks and I often napped or meditated enjoying the quiet time. I was lucky that the clinic was only a couple of miles from my home so I felt comfortable knowing if I needed someone, they were nearby. Only once did I call one of my kids to bring me some food since my treatment had been longer than expected and I was starving. Another time Second son and his girlfriend stopped in to get my signature on something that couldn’t wait a couple of hours. I imagine that might have been an excuse on his part just to check on me and ease his mind that I really was ok.
I’m sure each person’s path is distinct and unique, but my path, my independence enable me to feel like I was stronger than the cancer and the cure. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. The first three months of chemo made me nauseous, fatigued, my hair fell out, my skin turned gray and I had a metallic taste in my mouth, but the nausea and fatigue took a few days to hit and had abated before the next treatment so I was always able to drive myself to and from my treatments. The nausea affected my appetite but I never threw up and I didn’t lose any weight. I actually gained weight during my treatment, close to 15 pounds. Most of it was water retention and came off quickly, but the last 5 pounds took until this year to shed and remain off!
Well, I could tell you more, but this is probably enough to get across my message that cancer does not have to beat you. You can beat it and I believe it starts with a positive attitude. Some days you will be scared, sad, and angry, but you can also be strong, determined and positive.