It was March 6th, approximately 4:30 a.m., when by the Grace of God I changed my sleeping position in such a way that I pulled my arm across my body under my breasts when I suddenly felt something, jumped up and woke my husband. “This is definitely something.” A few weeks prior I thought I felt something, but after feeling both breasts, I figured it was normal. Who knows if I truly felt something those earlier weeks or not, but this was something. My regular doctor was not available but his associate was. She told me she’d wait one cycle; that my coffee intake probably caused a cyst. She gave me a prescription for an ultrasound but told me to cancel it after my next cycle because it would probably be gone. “I’m not even going down the cancer road,” she said.
I didn’t give it another thought until March 26th. I felt for the lump to be sure it was still there and it was. I dropped the kids off at the bus stop and headed off to my ultrasound. The silence in the room from the technician was enough for me to know that this was something to be concerned about. The doctor came in, quite surprised that I had been there 10 months prior for a mammogram. “You were here when? We didn’t see this?”
I knew in my heart it was cancerous because of his instructions that this will be coming out, that fibroadenomas are normal in women, but the irregular golf ball-like shape made him think otherwise. He never used the word cancer, and I thank him for that.
A week later I meet my breast surgeon whom I love. We decided to not do a needle biopsy because either way, it needed to come out. Unfortunately, he was leaving for vacation and I’d have to wait an extra week. The three weeks between March 26th and April 17th, my lumpectomy/excision biopsy, were extremely stressful and anxious. I knew in my heart it was cancer.
One morning during this three-week period of wanting this thing out of me, I was making breakfast and thought “What if it is cancer? What if it’s the aggressive kind and I’m told I have five years to live?” Two thoughts came to mind: “Have you done all you wanted to do?” and “Have you lived how you wanted to live?” Both answers were no. I certainly am nothing like the mom I wanted to be to my children and quite frankly, I really would like to do a triathlon. Funny thought, the second one, but it’s what crossed my mind.
April 17th, my mom’s birthday, couldn’t arrive fast enough. I practically ran into the hospital EXCITED that today was the day it’s coming out. Dr. Hernando told me to put my hand on the lump and then walked away. I don’t know why he did that, but I told my lump, “It’s been a nice journey, now you gotta go.” When I woke from the surgery, Dr. Hernando said “I took the whole thing out. It was cancerous. You have really great margins. At this point, I consider you cancer free.”
I was on cloud nine. Yes, I was on cloud nine. As far as I’m concerned, I was diagnosed after it was gone. I knew there were going to be decision to be made, but I was prepared and I felt everything that was to follow was precautionary.
My husband and I went over the options with my doctor on April 22nd and by April 30th I had an MRI, CAT scan, bone scan, blood work, met with three plastic surgeons and one second opinion. The afternoon of the 30th, I called my breast surgeon with my decision: bilateral mastectomy. It was aggressive for the size of the tumor and the great margins, but I have dense breast tissue and the mammogram failed me. I didn’t want to rely on me to have to find my lumps.
This was a very busy time of year for me. May 2nd, 10 girls at my house for my daughter’s 8th birthday party; May 5th, her actual birthday; May 6th, as class mom for my son’s kindergarten class, we were heading to the zoo; May 8th, kindergarteners invited moms in for Muffins with Mom in honor of Mother’s Day, followed by a family party that evening for my daughter’s birthday; May 10th, Mother’s Day. I also managed to work a day or two in there and took care of Girl Scouting responsibilities for my troop.
On May 12th I emailed my friends of the process of my procedure and the reconstruction I chose. I even wrote a cute poem at the end. I did not mourn the loss of my breasts. I did not look at it that way. I knew I was not going to feel like “less of a woman.” A decision needed to be made, I made what I thought was best for me. Before hopping into the shower, I looked in the mirror at my breasts and said “It’s nothing personal.”
May 13th was my surgery; May 31st was my daughter’s 1st Holy Communion, and ten days later, June 10, I hopped a plane to California to see my cousin get married. Life had to keep moving. To cancel all these events or put them off is making the situation tragic and with two children, 6 and 8, I couldn’t do that. While out in California, my mom’s friend said that she was surprised I made the trip out. I told her it was the light at the end of everything for me. This wedding and trip kept me moving forward. With chemo coming up, I needed something new. So I signed up for a 5K to be held in September in NY called Tunnel to Towers in honor of Steven Stiler, a firefighter who ran through the Battery Tunnel on September 11 only to die later that day.
My chemo was terminated due to an allergic reaction of not being able to breath, passing out and a small seizure. I was quite happy this day, too, because my chemo was optional, not mandatory. Two weeks after this, my husband did his first Triathlon, CGI, in Mercer County Park, which is where I saw the Surviving Strong booth. My thought as I wore my headband from my already bald head “Oh, shoot, now I have to deal with this.” But I went up there anyway and I bought myself a Surviving Strong shirt because cancer is not a death sentence and it shouldn’t slow us down. For some of us very fortunate ones, it’s a moment in time in our lives. While cheering my husband on, I met Susan and learned of her strength.
I never really trained for my 5K in NY at the end of September, but I had inspired two friends to run, so how could I not!!!! So I went. I ran very, very slowly. Finished in 42 minutes and the next day I received the email from Surviving Strong about the CGI race in Rutgers. I hit yes before I could even think about it. It falls on the weekend of the anniversary of my diagnosis. What better way to celebrate than doing something out of the box of my comfort zone; something to get excited about, work towards and be proud of.
Before all this I bought a mug with a saying from Erma Bombeck which says “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would have not a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’” I hope I can say the same. There’s still much left to do.