Breast Cancer Survivors Share Stories of Strength and Courage

It is estimated that 232,340 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. Fighting the disease is a complex physical and emotional battle that, according to the National Cancer Institute, will affect one in eight women in a lifetime who will have to make difficult, life-defining decisions—taking medications with unbearable side effects; enduring the fear of loss of identity, recurrence and even death; and finding the strength and courage to overcome the illness. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we asked Shine readers who have bravely won their battle against breast cancer to share their stories. Here are excerpts from their tales of struggle and triumphant victories over cancer:

"A common complaint women have about themselves involves their breasts. Now think with me a minute: What if those small, large, or saggy breasts were no longer a part of your body? What if you woke up one day, and it hit you like a brick wall that those breasts that were anything but perfect were now in a medical waste deposit somewhere? Wouldn't you miss them? Yes, there are reconstructive options, but I am here to tell you something: Those perfect breasts, those implants, are not all what they are cracked up to be. As a survivor, I can say that, yes, I now have the breasts I wished I had before cancer. And, I am also here to tell you that they are not all I had imagined. Visually, yes. Emotionally, no. I now realize that there is more to me than having the perfect breasts." – Michelle Stacy

"'Do you stuff your bra?' Fifth graders at my school in 1988 were ruthless with that taunt. My breasts began growing at age 8. Soon after, the cells inside them went haywire. At age 11, I underwent my first lumpectomy (removal of breast lumps) to clarify if I had cysts or malignant tumors. I had five lumpectomies before I was 30, and I finally learned, in 2007, I had a genetic condition called Cowden Syndrome. Cowden Syndrome causes fibrocystic breast disease. Many times, this disease progresses into cancer, so I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy in February 2008. The pathology report following my mastectomy validated my decision. After the mastectomy, it was shown that I had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). The scars may not be attractive, but scarring implies healing. It is believed that my DCIS is gone, but my fear of it will never go away." – Andrea Rowe

"I stared at the Caller ID and picked up the phone on the fourth ring. I had been anxiously anticipating the call from the Baptist Breast Care Center for two days, but when I saw the name on the screen, I had to force myself to pick up the phone. I listened as Dr. Fuhrman said something about coming to his office on Wednesday for a consultation, but his voice sounded miles away. I felt my heart trying to pound its way out of my chest, and I felt a warm sensation in my neck rise up, flushing my face. When the doctor paused, waiting for me to speak, I asked him what the biopsy had revealed. I knew I couldn't wait until Wednesday. He paused for a moment, and then quietly told me what I already knew... 'You have cancer.'" – Jayne Stewart

"Before my friend moved out of state in 2011, we went together to get her first tattoo and my second. I think of that tattoo as my lifesaver. That tattoo is the reason I found a lump in my breast. A little known fact of breast exams is that there are tumors that cannot be found while you are standing in the shower, or looking at your breasts in the mirror. Furthermore, sometimes your doctor might miss a tumor while s/he examines you, just based on where that tumor is. I had a large mass in my left breast, and the start of one amazing battle ahead of me." – Caroline A. Slee

"My best friend Cindy said if I wanted to go drown my sorrows, she'd drive. But that would solve nothing. As a martial artist, I knew it was time to fight. Was I scared? Yes, I was fighting for my life. My first surgery was for the lumpectomy, another to remove the lymph nodes from under my left arm, and another to put in a port-a-cath to administer the IV chemotherapy. From the diagnosis through the treatment—eight sessions of chemotherapy,  33 for radiation—everything was a blur. My husband Steve was in Iraq during most of this time, which worried him sick. Our daughter Dawn was my greatest help. She took me to and from the clinic, helped clean the house, and made sure I'd eaten. I'm 60 now and have been cancer-free for eight years. I survived." – Mellie Miller

"My husband Don found the lump. We were snuggling in a sleeping bag on a cold night in Hungry Mother State Park, Virginia. 'What's this?' he asked. I would soon learn how losing a breast would change my life. Suddenly, I was missing a breast, and 40 years ago, reconstruction wasn't common. I wondered, would Don be able to love a lop-sided wife? Would he be able to ignore the deformity? Would I? One day when I came out of the shower, Don caught sight of me and cried, 'My God! What have they done to you!' When he suddenly saw me, it caught him by surprise, and his shout cut me deeply: I knew he'd been concealing his real feelings. I was fitted for a prosthesis, but for years, I wore baggy blouses to conceal what I imagined were glaring inequities between the two breasts." – Elaine O. Masters

"Six weeks before my wedding, I was diagnosed with Stage III Invasive Breast Cancer. In the surgeon's office, as I sat in a paper gown, he said, 'You should postpone your wedding.' I couldn't breathe. Postpone my wedding? My fiancé Matt seemed to agree. He made a case for it, arguing that we could get married later when I was well. The prospect of postponing my wedding felt worse than the cancer diagnosis, but how could I argue that postponing my wedding would be worse than cancer? Becky, my gynecologist, helped me with the answer. She said, 'A positive attitude is important in fighting cancer, and postponing your wedding would be devastating. Have your wedding. Take your honeymoon. Come back ready to fight.'" – Keri De Deo

"I was nursing my baby when I found a lump in my breast. I told my doctor that I felt achy and tired all the time, and he said it was because I just had a baby and chased after a toddler all day. He thought my breast lump was a clogged milk duct and gave me a mammogram. Nothing strange showed up in the mammogram, but the lump didn't go away.

'Something is wrong,' I told my doctor when I returned with my two children with me. 'Give me a needle biopsy,' I requested. Jonathan started crying in my arms and Jessica was running around the examining room.

'Just come back in six months,' the impatient doctor responded. 'You are young, and it's probably nothing.'

'No, do it now,' I demanded. That action saved my life. Two days later, my doctor told me I had cancer. Thus began my battle with a rare tumor that sometimes appears in women's breasts: non-Hodgkin lymphoma." –
Lonna Lisa Williams

"This is embarrassing to admit, but I've always had a bit of a breast obsession. It all started around puberty when the other girls began filling out while I remained flat-chested. It's not that there wasn't anything there, but what was there was barely enough to warrant wearing a bra. I even had a guy tell me he'd seen bigger lumps in a bowl of oatmeal. And he announced it in front of a cafeteria full of students. Ouch! That one stung. Moments like that had me believing I didn't measure up. So, I kept waiting for something to happen all through high school and right on into college, but nothing. Small breasts are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, I know, but it was a problem that really bothered me then. So it felt just a bit ironic when, at age 28, of all the cancers to possibly plague a person, I ended up getting breast cancer." – Rachel Brooks

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