Margaret Wagner-Dahl: FIND PROFESSIONALS YOU TRUST FOR TREATMENT; KIND, LOVING SUPPORTERS FOR RECOVERY
In 2003, at age 45, I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). I’d been asked to come back for a repeat mammogram and my colleague said, “don’t worry about it, I have to go back often; it will be fine.” I embraced that! The appointment was a few hours before I was taking my daughter to the airport for a flight to Seattle to visit her grandparents by herself.
I remember waiting for the radiologist and getting concerned that it was taking too long. I needed to get on the road to the airport! When I expressed concern the (wonderful) radiologist came in and told me she was 99% certain I had breast cancer and she could schedule a stereotactic biopsy immediately. I was shocked. She left, and the nurse asked if I was okay, that I had just absorbed some pretty difficult information. She asked me what I was thinking. I told her I kept thinking my Texas girlfriends who would say this is an AFGO – “another frigging growth opportunity. “ We both had a big laugh; but I was so scared.
And then I had to drive my 12-year-old to the airport and pretend everything was just fine. Only after I got her safely on the flight did I call my husband. He was so calm and strong - it helped me drive home to Athens. My only thought was fighting this for my girls (I also had a 7 year-old) and my husband. That was all that mattered. But it was so scary: I had never required any kind of medical attention other than at childbirth, and there was no history of breast cancer in my family.
At the time, treatment for DCIS was either lumpectomy or mastectomy depending on the extent of the calcium deposits, with possible need for radiation/chemo. I knew I was incredibly lucky to be diagnosed so early because the prognosis was very good. The biggest hurdle was finding the right surgical/medical team. I had troubling initial experiences with medical professionals who were not convincing that this was their area of expertise. They told me I likely needed a lumpectomy with radiation. But when I met with a different surgeon, she assumed I knew I needed a mastectomy. When she saw my husband and me staring at her wide- eyed saying “what?” – she realized there was a problem. She carefully explained the distribution of the calcium deposits was extensive in the left breast and there was no doubt mastectomy was the only safe option. We knew instantly that she was “the one;” and trusted her implicitly.
That was not the only upsetting experience. My own family physician second-guessed this pathway, because it wasn’t his referral. So, I called the radiologist to explain and asked, “What would you suggest?” When she said, “you are doing absolutely what I would do,” it was the validation that gave us permission to trust. So, I could now prepare for battle. I was becoming a warrior.
I was also fortunate that my boss and colleagues were so supportive. After three weeks, they would allow me to return to work part-time, working Mon Wed Fri knowing I had Tues and Thurs to rest. The college student who took care of our girls after school was also wonderful; she had personal experience with her mother going through very difficult cancer treatment. I will never forget the night before I went into to the hospital. I prepared the girls that they weren’t going to be able to hug me because my chest and abdominal area were going to be really sore and bandaged. When they came in to say good night, my youngest crawled on top of me in bed, hugging me. The oldest said “Miranda, you can’t do that to Mom” and her answer was “I’m getting it all in while I can.” Which just cracked us up.
Having photos of my girls (one playing baseball, the other driving a boat) on my tray table in my hospital room was huge for my mental state. I treated everything the health professionals asked me to do as my boot camp. Breathing into that tube thing to make the ball go up so they know your lungs aren’t congested? I killed it - the ball was at the top every time. Get out of bed and walk to prevent blood clots? I was off, down that hallway. Drain the drains three times a day; I had the schedule all mapped out.
My surgery was successful (I had breast reconstruction simultaneously) and I have never forgotten the day my surgeon called me and said the pathology report showed they had gotten all the margins, so I did not need radiation or chemotherapy.
But I was worried about mobility in my arm and my chest wall ached. I had gotten a kind note from a friend who was a community leader letting me know of special services at the local hospital for cancer survivors.. Through her, I found the most amazing Monday night yoga class for breast cancer survivors taught by Judy Spears at Athens Regional. That class, more than anything , was a lifeline to processing all that had happened. We were all shapes and sizes, in all different phases of recovery. I went through some guilt, because I did not have to do chemo/radiation, but learned all of our experiences are so personal and we make sense of it in our own way. The point, I learned, was to be patient, honest, and caring in whatever way is necessary; because otherwise, what is the point? We all need to be a tree of life to others.
And that is probably the most important message I would give to others having to go on this journey we certainly did not ask to go on: find that trusted group of professionals for your technical treatment, and then search for that group of warriors who are committed to continue to fight the survivorship battle with you, sharing their love, affection and kindness.
My husband and I were fortunate to find both. And our two girls? Both successfully launched as young women who know their Mom is still here and is a tree of life to them.
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