Life has a way of hitting hard and changing the direction of a person’s path. Such was the case in 2014 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had just reentered college after a 30 year hiatus due to a mental health issue that needed resolving, at least partly, before I could move on with my life. At the age of 55, I threw my hat into the ring to earn my associate in arts degree from a nearby junior college. My grades were doing well, and I was enjoying the experience of working toward my goal of earning a Ph.D. when I had my yearly mammogram.
I wasn’t worried as I had many mammograms before and they were always negative. However, that November was different as within 24 hours I received a phone call from my doctor who wanted me to come in for a new mammogram. I still wasn’t concerned. I had forgotten and put on deodorant the morning of the first one, and although I had washed afterward, there was still the chance I had missed some.
Yes, I reasoned that is what happened.
I had the second mammogram without incident and returned home. Six hours later my doctor called again to tell me I needed a sonogram of my right breast. She reassured me this was routine, and I felt better. After the sonogram I received yet another phone call, this time my doctor ordered a biopsy.
Since it was December and Christmas was right around the corner, the biopsy was scheduled for early January. I didn’t enjoy that Christmas due to worry and to make matters seem worse, I received three new bras that year as presents. How ironic.
In early January 2015, I had a biopsy performed and this time my doctor wanted to see me right away and asked me to bring a relative or friend. I knew right then what she was going to tell me. I did indeed have a cancerous tumor in my right breast and she was referring me to a surgeon.
In early February 2015, I had my right breast removed with several lymph nodes and thus began my life beyond cancer. I was fortunate, the cancer was exceedingly small and had not spread beyond the duct in which it had grown. However, I learned that I had triple-negative breast cancer which meant my chances of survival long-term were less than with other types of breast cancer. I was told that because the cancer had been small and had not spread, chemotherapy and radiotherapy were not needed and would only increase my survival rate by two percent so I opted out.
After the surgery, I struggled with feelings of betrayal. My body had attacked me and tried to kill me was all I could think about for months. Also, I had to undergo a second surgery because the incision had opened and became a smelly, nasty mess. With the ordeal of another surgery, the feelings of betrayal deepened. My mind reeled with questions, “How could this happen to me? Did God hate me? Why did my body do this to me? Why?”
I hated looking in the mirror because my scar is huge running from the center of my chest and terminating under my arm. It didn’t lie flat like pictures I had seen of other women because the surgeon had to sew the incision closed with over 127 stitches on the outside, instead of using a special glue from the inside. Even though I knew it was so ugly because of the second surgery, its ugliness filled me with revulsion. I couldn’t help thinking how no man would want a woman as scarred and ugly as I am, I wouldn’t. I know that is shallow, but that’s how I felt.
I grieved and wept over the loss of what beauty I had because I felt less of a woman. Fortunately, I was seeing a therapist at the time of the surgeries. Naturally, I took my emotional turmoil to her office where she patiently listened to me complain and grieve for several weeks. Finally, she determined it was time for me to climb out of the pit I had fallen into.
I went to her office on a spring day several months after my surgery still feeling betrayed and bewildered by the ordeal I had gone through. My therapist sat patiently for a few minutes listening as I talked about betrayal. Finally, after I had quieted, she spoke words of wisdom that continue to help me to this day.
Below I shall paraphrase what she said:
“Shirley, life isn’t fair or easy for anyone. Do you think you are special and will never have hard times? It’s OK to be human, Shirley, and it’s OK to be like everyone else. Shirley, people are born and die every day. People get sick with
cancer, often too, and many have a harder time than you did. You aren’t so
special my dear, that you will not experience hard times now or in the future. It’s OK, it really is OK. A breast does not make you a woman anymore than a foot makes you a leg. It’s OK to grieve, but you must give it up and move on.”
I needed those words of reality and kindness. I needed to know that, although I am unique, I’m not special. It helped me to realize that many other men and
women faced, are facing and will face in the future, the turmoil of becoming critically ill and losing one or both breasts to cancer.
I still do not like to look in the mirror, but it is reality that I see. There in the mirror, I see my body as it is today with one breast and a huge scar. However, my disfigurement doesn’t make me less of a woman; instead, it brings into sharper focus the fact that being a woman is deeper than outside physical attributes.
The experiences I had with breast cancer have taught me so many things, and although it was hard and continues to be, I am grateful for not having breast
cancer, but the person I found hiding behind the facade of femininity.
Despite breast cancer, I did graduate with my Associate Degree and have gone on to enter a four-year university to work toward my Ph.D. In my life after cancer, I have a new understanding of the preciousness of life and try to enjoy every day as though it were my last.
If I had one word of wisdom to those who have breast cancer, it is this — never, ever give up and remember that there is light on the other side of the tunnel of despair and self-hatred you may be feeling right now. When the clouds part, my friend, the sun will shine again. I promise.