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Maria Saporta: Lessons Learned From Living with Breast Cancer


Maria Saporta

I share my cancer journey in hopes that I can help others who may be going through a similar experience. My brush with cancer gave me an opportunity to reflect and reassess what I treasure most. I welcomed that reality check.  Too often, we don’t appreciate the love that surrounds us until we get such a wake-up call.

When I got the call that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer on October 13, 2015, my first reaction was: “I don’t have time for this. Take it back.”

After all, breast cancer wasn’t part of my life’s plan. There was no history of breast cancer in my family. And although I’ve had fibrocystic breasts for decades, countless biopsies had the same result – the cysts were always benign. I didn’t even want to go get a mammogram, because I knew it mean more biopsies and more negative results.

Lesson No. 1: Don’t ever assume you are immune to cancer.

Lesson No. 2: No one plans to have cancer or has time for the ongoing tests, doctors’ visits, surgery and treatment

Reality hits and tells you to wake up and make time for yourself and your health. I decided to embrace it as another one of life’s experiences. The good news was that my cancer was Stage 2 and slow growing. The bad news was that uncomfortable hot flashes would be in my future.

Lesson No. 3: Be willing to question medical protocol.

With the cancer in at least one lymph node, my doctor said the common assumption is that chemo would be necessary. But he suggested an Oncotype test could determine if chemo was necessary or effective. The problem was that insurance rarely pays for an Oncotype test if the cancer has been found in a lymph node.

Lesson No. 4: Be willing to challenge the status quo.

Although insurance wouldn’t pay for it, the company providing the test said it would appeal the decision, and, if not approved, give me the “in-network” rate.

On November 13, I had surgery – a lumpectomy, plus the removal of 11 lymph nodes. Cancer was in two of them. The Oncotype test results came back and chemotherapy wasn’t advised.

Lesson No 5: We are all different.   The medical profession is moving toward the individual diagnosis and treatment of different cancers based upon genes and DNA.

Lesson No. 6:  I now have a whole new family of people who have survived breast cancer.  The sisterhood welcomed me into its fold. We all have a story to tell – and fortunately, most stories are of people who have beaten breast cancer.

Lesson No. 7:  I love what I do. I love being a journalist; it’s as much a part of me as the oxygen I breathe. When I insisted on working while I was recovering from surgery, I explained to my editors that work is therapeutic. I care deeply about what’s going on in our city, state and world. I want to do whatever I can to help make Atlanta better, stronger and livelier – and the best tool I have is as a journalist.

Lesson No. 8: I need greater balance in my life.  Cancer has helped me take a deep breath – reminding me I need to enjoy life as much as I can. We all do.

So for all those lessons, I am especially thankful.

After nearly a month of radiation treatments five days a week, I completed my treatment.  I met with my oncologist and am taking a hormone blocker.

I feel as though I’ve gotten off easy. I had a small lump, my breast cancer was not that aggressive, and I didn’t require chemotherapy. Even the course of radiation was scaled back.  I had heartfelt, overwhelming, inspiring support from the community, with emails, texts, phone calls, flowers, visits and even cookies. It made the tough days easier to handle. And it was reassuring to know that if I needed help, there were so many people willing to offer.

Listening to people’s stories, I found that everyone has to make a personal decision about how to respond to their particular cancer diagnosis.  But it distressed me that several friends hid the fact that they had breast cancer, mostly for professional reasons. They didn’t want people to view them differently or think they were unable to meet their work obligations.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, a stigma does exist when someone is going through a medical challenge.  Can’t we accept that we are only human? We do get sick and it is normal to not always be normal. If we are more open and accepting, we can better support each other when the need is there.

A humbling afterthought. Since being diagnosed with breast cancer, I have gotten to know several people who have had a reoccurrence. The one that hit me the hardest was Fulton County Commissioner Joan Garner. Our paths crossed several times – including in the radiology center at Piedmont, Her last day of radiation was my first.

 

Sadly, Joan lost her battle with cancer earlier this year – a painful reminder for me that we must continue to do all we can to find a cure.

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Rebecca Palpant Shimkets is a two-time cancer survivor with an over two-decade career in mental health specializing in media depictions of mental illnesses and building programs in the U.S. and internationally. The LLL is a beautifully written, bi-weekly email that explores mental health and post-treatment cancer survivorship.

9/19/2019

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