How Following Doctor’s Orders Saved My Life: An Ode to Breast Cancer
This is not something I’ve shared with my broader community, but I am far enough away from my personal experience of Breast Cancer to say I’ve ‘graduated’ into the tribe of survivors. That is how my oncologist described it when I passed the fabled “Five-Year Mark” without any more signs. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I wanted to share with you some of my personal experience with this dis-ease.
The Blessing of a Mammogram
In 2010—just three months after losing my husband to Stage 4 Cancer—I was diagnosed with an early stage of Breast Cancer. I was fortunate to catch it at an early stage only because I had the good sense to have a mammogram.
Not that I wanted to have that important mammogram. No, I did not!
After spending three intense months holding my husband’s hand through biopsies, chemo, radiation, two trips to the emergency room, then hospice care and our final, poignant good-byes, the last thing I wanted to do was go near any kind of medical facility. No way I could bear the cold, impersonal and tinny smells of an exam room.
But within a week of my husband’s Memorial Service, I came down with an infection and visited my family doctor who mercifully wrote me a prescription for antibiotics. She knew I was a newly minted widow. Her dark brown eyes were compassionate yet firm. I was several months overdue for my annual pap exam and mammogram. She told me, “Linda, you must not ignore your own health.”
Despite the urgency of her full waiting room, she took the time right then and there to perform the pap exam. Then, she urged me to make the overdue appointment for the mammogram at another nearby facility.
She could not have been more clear. She practically commanded me: “Don’t even think about it, Linda. Just make the appointment and then go. Pronto.”
That is what I did. I knew she was right.
A Far Too Familiar Process
Two weeks later I found myself in the far too familiar waiting room of my breast health screening clinic. Over the course of my husband’s brief illness I’d lost 20 pounds. I could feel my sits bones and spine press against the chair as I waited and watched the other women—one reading People magazine as another sat knitting. My brain was mush. I did not possess the will or capacity to do either.
I just sat, holding back tears, proud that I had followed “doctor’s orders.” But make no mistake, I really didn’t want to be there as it triggered painful memories of my all too recent escapades into the facility just down the road where my husband had received his unsuccessful treatments. I was also just two blocks from the hospital emergency room we’d visited two times in the wee hours of the morning.
Every woman reading this knows the gritty unpleasantness of getting a mammogram: stripping from the waist up, then systematically having each breast squeezed between highly technical devices designed to take the image.
The female technician was mercifully swift and kind and soon I was back in the waiting room where I expected someone to emerge after reading my films and give me the “high-five.” I expected to hear, “All good. See you next year!”
That’s not what happened.
Some Kind of Cruel Joke?
To my utter shock and dismay, I was taken back into a different room, filled with daylight and flowers, where I was told that I had early stage cancer in my right breast.
“How can this be?” I felt dizzy and I was certain there was a mistake. I didn’t feel sick. I had not yet processed the reality of my husband’s mortality.
Now, I was faced with my own!
I thought, “Sure. He could die… had died. But me?!? Am I also mortal?”
I called my friend, Liza, incredulous, sobbing. Over the next twelve months only a handful of very close friends were aware of my cancer diagnosis and those friends gathered around and held my hand through an untold number of visits to the surgeon, then the oncologist, then radiation treatments, etc.
Whether I liked it or not, during those appointments I found myself frequently repeating my date of birth and describing my pain on a scale of 1-10.
It felt like some kind of cruel joke.
Good News and a Lesson
On the other hand, there was good news and a lesson: Having that mammogram likely saved me a lot of additional trouble and probably even my life!
Early detection meant I was spared chemotherapy. My doctors prescribed a lumpectomy followed by six weeks of radiation treatments, and that is what I choose to do (along with a complement of eastern modalities).
It wasn’t easy or pleasant.
But with the help of my community and heaps of Grace, I got through it. I lost 10 more pounds which created a fun reason to go shopping for skinny jeans. I felt exposed and vulnerable and angry that my partner wasn’t there to hold my hand through my illness.
I saw a grief counselor every week. I hung out with my cats and binged watched Mad Men. I took long walks in the woods near my home. I also laughed and danced and discovered just how loved and cared for I was by the special people in my life.
I ate guilt-free cheeseburgers and fries to feel tethered to the earth by the weight of the beef in my belly. My next-door neighbor, Lee, brought me morning whole milk lattes to go with peanut butter toast. My acupuncturist made a house call to eliminate some troublesome post-surgery pain. My friend, Tracy, came over and changed my sheets. A Chicago friend sent texts reminding me to eat.
Everything felt upside-down.
Life Looks Different Now
I’m now 8 ½ years past that diagnosis. I’m healthy, strong and happy. I’ve “graduated” into the Cancer Survivor Club. And make no mistake, I get my mammograms like clockwork.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d continued to put off that one important mammogram. Who would have blamed a seemingly healthy grieving widow if she skipped one year’s medical exams? But I am so grateful to my doctor and to myself for taking action, for just doing the work of dealing with my life. More than likely, I spared myself the added complication of chemotherapy. I probably even saved my life.
The grace of all of this astounds me. To be alive is one of the greatest privileges we have. It’s precious and grand and sometimes a huge pain in the ass, but it’s here and now and vivid and vital and worth fighting for.
“Don’t Even Think About It”
If you are reading this and find yourself in the all too common place of procrastinating or avoiding any or all of the recommended tests for your gender and stage of life, please get on it. Don’t dilly-dally.
Take advantage of the grace and hard work of the hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, doctors, volunteer patients, researchers, healers and alchemists throughout time that have paved the way for you and me to be thriving and healthy human-beings.
Yes, our medical system is expensive and imperfect. Please don’t allow whatever resistance you might feel to stop you. Put feet to your prayers and make the call.
Don’t even think about it. Just make the appointment and then go. Pronto.
I’m so glad I did.
Thank you to Sarah Cervantes for use of her photography (via Unsplash).