Saturday, February 7, 2015

Six Months Gone

It was six months ago today that I got the phone call.

I had spent most of the month of July telling myself everything was all right. I went into my annual mammogram in early July with a vague, uneasy feeling. There was no explanation for it. Then I was told to come back in for more imaging. Then an ultrasound. I was still telling myself everything was all right, even when the radiologist said there was an area that needed to be biopsied. In mid-July, I spent a week of mornings having fun with children at our church's vacation Bible school, and the afternoons having more tests. All the while I kept telling myself everything would be all right.

On August 7, my ob-gyn called to tell me things were not all right. I had breast cancer. Additional tests revealed a second area in my right breast. I made the very difficult decision to have a bi-lateral mastectomy. It turned out to be a good one - pre-cancerous cells were picked up in my left "unaffected" breast.

The surgery went very well, but recovery was extremely challenging. Just lifting a coffee cup to my lips was difficult. Brushing my hair seemed an insurmountable task. There was pain and pain medication. There was nausea. There was looking at incisions and scars where there were once beautiful breasts. Shoulders, arms, chest, and back were all affected, but physical therapy has given me back full range of motion.

An Oncotype DX test revealed that chemotherapy and radiation were not recommended for me. The risks far outweighed the benefits. I'm on a five-year course of tamoxifen to increase my chances of long-term survival. I am currently undergoing reconstruction of both my breasts. While it's not the same, I am very pleased so far.

Here are a few things I have learned.

  • Life got simpler. Previously I often felt pulled in many directions in life, as a mother, wife, daughter, teacher, friend, colleague. I am now moving in one direction - toward health and life. Everything else will fall into place.
  • I look better. I thought it was my imagination, and I have no explanation for it, but my skin is glowing, my hair looks smoother, I have lost some weight. I have a lot of energy. I look at pictures from just a year ago, and I see puffy, chalky skin and dry hair. Maybe my body had been sick for a while. Maybe the lifting of the burden of worrying about my health has paid off.
  • I only worry about what's in front of me now. When I first received my diagnosis, I began to worry about chemotherapy. I worried about the pain, I worried about the sickness, and I worried about being unavailable to life. Guess what? No chemotherapy. All that worry for nothing. Lesson learned.
  • I can't live in fear. I know my odds for getting cancer again. They might be better than yours. I can't worry about it. I can only do what I can to maintain my health. I get up at 4:30 most weekday mornings to exercise. I don't eat meat, and I try to consume lots of healthy fruits and vegetables. I manage stress.
I don't want to be defined by my experience with breast cancer, but I don't want to forget either. I lost a lot, but gained just as much.

 And everything is all right.