The summer of 2007 changed my life. As I type this eleven years later, I can honestly say the change was for the better. Most of the time I cannot believe I utter those words because that was when I was told during my routine mammogram that I had breast cancer.
So, why am I sharing this with you? Well, Cheryl (fellow Baylor alum and sorority sisters for life) asked me to write something for October’s Breast Cancer Awareness month. It was a no-brainer, really. After all, Double D Ranchwear has always supported The Cause whenever I asked for silent auction donations for Pink Ribbons Project* (the non-profit that I became involved with after my diagnosis). Each and every one of these ladies has such a giving heart. Their donations directly touched the lives of women diagnosed with this disease; and, helped fund research for a breast cancer vaccine. It’s easy to see why I couldn’t refuse! Plus, I knew that I wanted to share a few pearls of wisdom that I had picked up along the way - so that others that receive this diagnosis know how to navigate their journey. And, it definitely is a journey. One where you concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other each and every day. Know this - each milestone you reach brings you closer to restoring your health.
So many pieces to the puzzle...
You will need a team of health care providers! Once I had my breast surgeon on board (I needed a mastectomy), I turned my attention to finding an oncologist. Check. Radiation oncologist? Check. Over the next 6 or 7 months, I attacked my cancer with surgery, chemo, and radiation. During this treatment marathon, I focused on the light at the end of the tunnel - a prophylactic mastectomy on my “healthy” breast and double reconstruction. Ladies, DO NOT stop short of this final procedure. Yes, it means that you must research another specialized surgeon - a reconstructive surgeon; but, it truly is what can restore your sense of self, femininity, and normalcy. Please do not throw your hands in the air and say you cannot imagine going through another surgery or procedure. If you are cleared by your physicians, you can and should. DO NOT surrender to the disease. You will thank me later.
As I look back, I know that there were a few things that got me through this “bump in the road” whose treatment and surgeries consumed over two-plus years of my life. Specifically:
Faith. Throughout this journey, I wanted to be stoic and strong. I wanted to be self-sufficient; because - if you know me - I am one strong, independent woman. However, breast cancer brought me to my knees. Literally. I spent countless hours of my alone time, repeatedly talking to God and praying He would heal me and cure my disease. Those were two very different prayer requests. To this day, I choose to believe that He did.
Girlfriends. Cannot say enough about them. You will be amazed and humbled at who steps up to the plate to help you get through your health crisis. These ladies provided meals for my family, they would drop by and spend hours talking about normal stuff with me, they sent cards and flowers of encouragement and they answered phone calls at odd hours when I was having a panic attack. I have friends today I would never have had but for my cancer diagnosis. To be honest, I cannot imagine my life without them. They were and are the silver lining to my diagnosis.
Family. Cancer is a scary word. The reason I did not put family before girlfriends is because I tried to protect my family from my mortality. A scary prospect when you have a daughter applying to colleges and the other one about to start high school. And, my husband…well, I got to see firsthand how my disease impacted his emotional wellbeing. This diagnosis was proof positive that women are the stronger sex!
Me. Women are natural caregivers. Not during your cancer journey. Nope. I give you permission to think only of yourself. I mean it. Someone else can do the grocery shopping, laundry, clean the cat litter, drive carpool, etc. Focus on your treatment, healing, and emotional wellbeing. There will come a time when everyday chores will be your norm, again. I promise. For now, it is all about you. For me, I believe that the one thing that helped me maintain my sanity was my daily trip to the gym. I know what you are thinking! Germs! Go buy some hand sanitizer and “just do it”! Please do not get the false impression that I am some kind of gym rat with a body to match! Heck no! I just felt normal there decked out with a pink camo doo rag on my head styled with either my “I Am Making Cancer My Bitch” or Rosie the Riveter “You Can Do It” t-shirt. These articles of clothing I wore were all gifts from fellow breast cancer survivors. They knew I would need attitude, grit, and determination to kick cancer’s ass - along with God’s grace. So, I outwardly manifested my feelings about this disease in my gifted apparel. And, inside, I prayed that I could believe every word of it.
As I mentioned, it has been eleven years since I heard those dreaded words. But, I am here today and believe that there is a reason for that. I now get to be the one that takes a call from a friend (or friend of a friend) that has been recently diagnosed with this disease. I listen to their fears and concerns, talk about my journey, offer hope for the future and even attend doctor appointments. In fact, my breast reconstruction surgeon still refers to prospective patients to me to help them understand what I experienced during that phase of my journey. As you can tell, I do not mind talking about any of this seemingly private aspect of my life. Nope. I do all of this because someone else did it for me back in 2007.
*Pink Ribbons Project ceased operations in May 2016 due to the economic squeeze felt in the Houston area on non-profit fundraising endeavors.