On the evening of November 11, 2010, my youngest son probably saved my life. He was stoically recovering from a painful procedure to correct a malformed rib cage. While probing his ribs he asked me what normal ribs felt like. I started to feel my upper ribs. To my surprise, which quickly turned to horror, I found a large mass at the top of my left breast. I had not had a mammogram in almost three years. Not only was it time-consuming and uncomfortable, I arrogantly believed I was immune to cancer. I had been a vegetarian for years, a daily exercise addict, and had no family history of cancer. I was quickly and profoundly humbled the next day when my doctors confirmed my fears.
In my initial stages of fear, panic, and confusion, I could not think. I needed help figuring out my next steps. I needed to know that my family would be okay, even if I died. I was 51, a veterinarian, a mother of three, one of whom was born severely disabled, and in a long-term, committed marriage. I wanted to blame someone (me) or something (environmental toxins/hormones/radiation). I wanted knowledgeable guidance and relief from uncertainty. Gratefully, I embraced the wonderful doctors and nurses who initially worked with me. I followed their lead, like a deer in headlights, and scheduled a radical double mastectomy and reconstruction with the first plastic surgeon I consulted.
But this storm was bigger than my cancer. My father-in-law passed away the day I had a diagnostic biopsy, then my mother broke her hip just days before my surgery. As awful as it sounds, their timing was divine. It forced me to step out of my drama and really look at these life and death events to gain clarity about what really mattered.
For most of my life, I ignored a feeling inside me that there was a better way. I always just plowed through and got things done, pushing away pesky feelings of dis-ease, insisting on struggling through life. But something was different about NOW. I started to understand that all I could really do well was to be fully present and surrender to what was at hand from an emotional place of forgiveness, compassion, and acceptance. I forgave my father-in law for dying when I needed my husband's attention. I forgave my husband's unavailability and felt compassion for his loss. I forgave my mother for trumping me when I was in crisis, and compassionately accepted her need for my help. I accepted my cancer and forgave myself for being its victim. I felt better, more centered, but it was not easy. I still wanted the cancer out of me NOW and did not want to waste precious time.
So I stopped. I stopped to cry, to breathe, and then to look at this "divine intervention" as a sign to find another plan, a plan where I could manage my family dramas while more fully focusing on all of my treatment options. At first, I did not have much support. My husband had to deal with his loss and help his mother. A few close friends lovingly gave me comfort, but this was really my journey. I kept the cancer secret from my kids for weeks until I had a plan. I tried to be normal for them. I also started to pay more attention to my emotions, my divine guidance.
Soon thereafter, I consulted with oncologists. They told me "It's not the tumor in your breast that will kill you; it's the cells that get away that will." That hit me hard, because Elizabeth Edwards was in the news then as she succumbed to metastatic breast cancer. So I decided to go with chemotherapy prior to surgery to shrink the tumor and kill any escaped cancer cells.
In December 2010, I took a leave of absence from my veterinary career to devote myself to my new job: my survival.
Over the next several months, I trusted myself to participate in my healing, whatever that meant. I gratefully received my chemo treatments, envisioning them killing the cancer. I endured the initial chemo-related fevers, muscle aches and bone pain. I celebrated my hair falling out in clumps with a short-lived pixie hair cut and beautiful scarves. I lost my body hair, my fingernails, and my memory got fuzzy. My fingers and toes went numb, my eyes constantly teared, and I lost my appetite. Eating became a tasteless chore. I kept up my daily exercise routines with the support of my boot camp buddies but allowed myself to use the "tumor excuse" when I simply lacked the strength. My spirits remained high during my treatments and I firmly believe that staying physically active was an important part of my healing and positive attitude. Gratitude, however, played the biggest role as I gratefully accepted the loving support of generous friends and neighbors who brought meals for my family, held my hand during treatments, and delivered get-well cards, gifts and flowers. Gratitude is a powerful healer.
During those three months of treatments, I assisted my brother with my mother's care while I thoroughly explored my surgical options, interviewing five surgeons and three hospitals. I decided to have a new type of tissue-sparing mastectomy at a world-renowned teaching hospital by a gifted surgeon. Although it was cutting-edge surgery, it was definitely not a warm, supportive experience. With my medical knowledge, I had intelligent questions, but I felt that I was given minimal information and left in confusion. My emotions precipitously eroded to feelings of insignificance and distrust. I wanted my surgeon and his nurse to slow down, to see me, not just my cancer.
Days after the mastectomy. I developed a serious post-surgical infection. The infection threatened to unravel any hope of a successful reconstruction. Fear and distrust were my painful, unhealthy companions. I was distraught by the poor communication with my surgeon and simply did not trust the conflicting information I was getting. Healing at my best was not possible in my current state of mind. I knew I could not change how my surgeon interacted with me, nor could I change the culture of the hospital, so I seriously considered switching surgeons and hospitals.
Over the next several weeks of aggressive antibiotic therapy, I took responsibility for my healing. Switching surgeons midstream would come with its own complications and no guarantee for a better outcome. The only change I could control was to create change in me: how I chose to show up and feel. With the wisdom and guidance of Caroline Myss, and her book Defy Gravity, I meditated and focused on reinventing my relationship with my surgeon (and my life). I surrendered to the situation, embracing all of it, and actively flipped my state of mind from fear and anger to love and trust. This was not easy. It required constant reminding at first, but the benefits were powerful and freeing.
My surrendered state of love, trust, and gratitude had a momentum and staying power of its own. Simply put, I made a choice to TRUST it all and to fully accept my surgeon as a person. I consciously re-thought of him as a loving human who dedicated his life to curing and repairing desperate and often dying patients. This courageous man worked tireless hours as a surgeon, researcher, and teacher. I genuinely fell in love with him when I stepped out of my story (ego) to view him through the lens of appreciation. I softened and relaxed in my follow-up visits and gifted him with sincere appreciation, humorous cards, his favorite scotch, and my charm. He was confused at first, but then he slowed down. He got to know and care about me as a person. This amazing gift - being a person that mattered rather than one of many patients - was critical to my "survival." I subsequently healed and had successful reconstructive surgery three months later.
I have been a scrapper throughout my life, trying hard, often too hard. I usually got the result I wanted, but I rarely got the feeling I expected. And it was the feeling I was seeking, not the goal. Honestly, I did not know who or what I was meant to BE or even where I belonged. I had been defining my successes by the benchmarks and opinions of others, and I never felt good enough. I had been tolerating my life rather than living it fully. And I had been taking care of everyone and everything but myself. Facing my mortality led me to really look at my life and what was truly important to me. Once I stopped resisting what was happening with my cancer management (my metaphor for my life) and completely surrendered to each moment, I became flooded with feelings of gratitude, trust, and acceptance. That choice felt like freedom. Each day became a new adventure to embrace. Each day became a gift.
What surprised me most in this entire journey was how easy it was once I completely surrendered; that it was there all the time, this appreciation, sense of gratitude, love, focus, and grace. By deciding to bring healing consciousness to my experience, I was able to move through with more ease and peace than if I'd stayed stuck in the feelings of fear, denial, and overwhelm that are often the emotional response to cancer. Facing my inevitable mortality finally woke me up to this precious gift we call life, to finally BE in the Flow of the NOW, and to experience it ALL (the pain as well as the joy). We are all going to die. When we grasp the profoundness of our mortality, we see our significance in a new light. We see the significance of everyone and everything. Death becomes a mysterious destination we will all experience when our work here is complete.
When most of my treatment was finished, I hired a life coach who works with cancer survivors and caregivers. I knew I wanted to remain in the veterinary field, but I did not want to simply return to general practice. The insightful questions and confidence my coach had in me were inspiring and effective. I recognized the power of her coaching skills and knew then that I had to learn this skill set and bring it into my profession. As a veterinarian, I worked with clients who were seeking their best solution to emotional and difficult situations. Often the best medical advice is not the best holistic advice, frequently provoking feelings of guilt, uncertainty, and regret. People usually know what their best answers are but fail to access them because they are stuck in the paralyzing emotional mindset of fear. So, on November 11, 2011, exactly one year after I discovered my cancer, I started my training and certification as a professional coach in order to help people navigate the emotional challenges associated with their pets and allow them to identify more clearly what they actually want to experience and feel so they can achieve it.
As I look back on my life, I feel blessed to say I am a breast cancer survivor and a different person. The experience of facing my mortality brought me clarity about what really matters in life. I gained a new dimension of emotional awareness and gratitude. Now, by living my life with authenticity, grace, and faith, I am able to give back and serve through the enriching emotional connections we share with each other and with our pets.
Back to Survivors' Voices