You never know exactly how you will react to these horrible words “I’m sorry you have cancer”. It never crosses your mind. Beginning at 40, I regularly had my annual mammograms. Yet on February 19, 2001, following a breast biopsy that my surgeon assured me was nothing to worry about, he called and said “The pathology report indicates that you have infiltrating ductal carcinoma.” Stunned, my response was “Does that carcinoma part mean that I have cancer?” to which he responded “I’m sorry, you have breast cancer.” That specific moment will remain etched in my memory forever, because that was the day I became a cancer survivor.
Following those horrible words, I was flooded with so many thoughts: Am I going to die? How is this possible, I am only 44 years old and have no family history? What will happen to my 15 year old son Billy? At this point, I entered the cancer “twilight zone,” with its new vocabulary, including lumpectomy and radiation vs. mastectomy, reconstruction, chemotherapy, lymph nodes and margins. After careful consideration, I opted for a mastectomy with reconstruction. (the tummy tuck was the bonus!)
It was then time to talk with my 15 year-old son. Billy was a 6 foot tall teenager with a learner’s permit and an attitude. I told him about my diagnosis and treatment plans and assured him that I would be back to “normal” in a year. His reaction took me by surprise. He said “Mom, promise me you won’t die.” I promised him right then and there that I would do everything possible to be here for him for years to come.
Following surgery, the pathology report held good news and bad news. The lymph nodes were clear, but due to the large size of the tumor, I had to undergo chemotherapy. If only I had been doing my monthly breast self-exams, I might have found the tumor when it was smaller and not needed chemo. Was chemo my “fault”? I remember obsessing about losing my hair; then I would feel so guilty because I knew that chemo would save my life and yet I was being so vain. No one prepares you for the psychological and emotional impacts of cancer. One night I was having trouble sleeping and trying to figure out when my hair should be grown back. Wanting to fall back asleep, I reached for my grandmother’s Bible on my bedside table. A yellowed newspaper article from the 1980’s fell out titled “The Station,” by Robert J. Hastings. Slowly I got the message: we spend too much time thinking about arriving at the “station” and not enjoying the ride. My grandmother was telling me to quit worrying about my hair growing back, pay attention to my cancer journey and do something with it.
Following chemo, I had to undergo 37 radiation treatments and then 5 years of Tamoxifen. Remembering the lesson from my grandmother, I began volunteering with many organizations, giving back and helping survivors through their cancer journey.
In 2005, I had a wonderful opportunity to leave my 17 ½ year information technology career at BellSouth and start a new non-profit career. It is a privilege to come to work every day at Georgia CORE where I work on statewide programs focused on cancer survivorship and to advocate for the 410,740 cancer survivors living in Georgia. It is such a blessing to work on programs like the Cancer Survivorship Connectionto provide online resources for survivors, caregivers and healthcare professionals about survivorship and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) Survivorship Care project where survivors are not research “subjects” but are the leaders in developing research.
As science continues to advance, to detect cancers earlier and develop more targeted therapies and personalized medicine, the number of cancer survivors will continue to grow, which is so exciting. However, as the survivor population continues to grow, it is important to focus on the survivors’ physical, emotional, practical and economic issues, from diagnosis until the end of life. The focus on survivors must include issues related to the ability to get health care and follow up treatment, late effects of treatment, second cancers, and quality of life for those who are post-treatment.
Cancer does not define me. But I must say that cancer has blessed and enriched me, and most importantly given me a “new and better normal” ride of my life. I am truly blessed to be one of the 15.5 million cancer survivors in the United States.
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