I am an 18-year breast cancer survivor living in suburbs of Charlotte, NC. During the month of October, breast cancer awareness month has been a big deal where I live, in large part because of the Susan G. Komen-Charlotte organization’s events. One of the largest events in Charlotte has been the 5k held on the first Saturday of October each year. It has been an impressive fund-raising event, with thousands of walkers dressed in all sorts of entertaining outfits, along with bands, celebrities, balloons, flags, and other paraphernalia. It was an early morning start time, beginning before the sun rose. The darkness provided an excellent backdrop for the buildings’ skyline of the city lit up pink. It was a fantastic celebration of survivors, thrivers, and fighters.
Each year after my diagnosis I participated in this event with family and friends. The first year I walked I was still tired from the surgeries, chemo and radiation that had ended five months prior. My hair was short and for the first time in my straight-hair-self’s life, I had curls. I carried a single balloon, symbolizing the number of survivor years. There were women carrying 40-plus balloons. With the helium, I wondered how they weren’t being carried away into the heavens. It was encouraging to see women with many balloons signifying there are numerous years of life after cancer treatments. It was emotionally empowering to hold on to that hope-filled balloon embracing the probability I would continue to remain in this world.
I was 40 when I had my first mammogram. Talked into it by a friend. I would refrain from doing the procedure again for several years. I was flat chested, and the “boobie-trap” squeeze hurt some. Plus, I was a little embarrassed of my flat chest. I am willing to bet if a man had to go through that procedure, insurance would probably pay for ultrasounds instead of having to have my small lemon sized breasts squeezed in a vice. I’m sure for women with grapefruit-sizes, it’s just as painful.
The spring of my 44th year, I was at a beach weekend retreat with some girlfriends. Somehow in the conversations, mammograms came up. A topic I scratch my head wondering why our conversations went there. But we did. And they were relentless in making sure I scheduled a mammogram. Even with my argument, Cancer doesn’t run in my family, they wanted a promise I’d make an appointment.
So, I did. My lemons were squeezed in the boobie-trap vice, and I’d done my duty for my friends. One in 15 get a call back to recheck.
I got the call.
Something wasn’t right on my lower right breast. An ultrasound took place for the follow-up visit. Something was there, but it didn’t seem to be cancerous. I would return in six months to recheck. Right about the time for the recheck, the spot became a solid lump the size of a quarter. I won’t admit to panicking, but let’s call it a very heavy concern, even though I argued to myself, it doesn’t run in my family. Ultrasound again. Not just the lump but my entire right breast. Something else up close to my armpit showed up too. The quarter size lump was biopsied, as were other places on my breast. The lump was not cancer. The spot at the entrance of my armpit, which could mean it is in the lymph nodes, was cancer. The benign lump had led my doctors to the real culprit. Some say, that was lucky. Some say, that was a God thing. Some say, that was serendipitous. I say, yes, to all three. And my breast cancer journey began. Lumpectomy, chemo, and radiation treatments dominated the next nine months of my life and took a tumultuous toll on my body.
It was a grueling journey. I would not wish the journey on anyone, but what the journey did TO me, difficult as it was, also did things FOR me. I came out on the other side a stronger, more resilient me. I treasure what insight, empathy, and enlightenment I discovered along the way.
I have been loyal to annual mammograms since my diagnosis. The last two years, I have been called back to have rechecks. Is that emotionally excruciating or what? I don’t want to go through a recurrence. I. Do. Not. With the call backs, I held my breath, and told the higher beings, I ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT DO CHEMO AGAIN. Nope. Na Da. But the reality is, if it will save my life and allow me to live to see milestones of my young adult daughter, and live a traveling retirement life with my husband, then I suppose I might change my stance on that. I hope I don’t have to make that decision any time in my future.
During this month of October that reminds us to be aware of breast cancer, remember to take care of you. You deserve to be in this world a lot longer. Make the appointment. Even if it doesn’t run in your family. And whether its lemons or grapefruits, the uncomfortable boobie-trap vice’s squeeze doesn’t last long.
For more on my personal cancer journey, my book, Matters of the Heart-A Cancer Journey is available on amazon.