The final day of treatment arrived. I had completed my surgeries, chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation. This was a day of victory. But, as the receptionist handed me my certificate of completion, the victory felt very lonely. Even my husband, James, who was beside me the whole time, could not fully experience the personal relief and freedom I felt as I walked away from the oncology office.
My body was finally free to heal and I looked forward to feeling strong again. I was introduced to running and I found that I really enjoyed it. My energy increased and I was no longer sleeping through the day, but taking my boys on outings and being the mom I had wanted to be all those months as I lay in bed.
My hair began to sprout and the swelling from the steroids receded. As the treatments ended, the visitors went home.
It took some years after my breast cancer diagnosis before I began to recognize myself in the mirror. The process of healing was slow.
Cancer and its treatments can extend life while simultaneously stealing hope and dreams. For many, fertility is a casualty in this battle. It was with surprise and joy that we discovered, shortly after treatment ended, we were expecting our third baby. I was amazed that my body, which was dying just two years earlier, could form a new little life.
Our two little boys joined us at the ultrasound when we learned that we would be having a girl. The pure thrill of the thought of having a little lady of my own lasted until I reached the parking lot. There I was, overrun with guilt and fear surrounding this tiny forming girl already having a Family history of breast cancer. Would her perfect body end up looking like mine?
Life moved forward, our Family continued to grow with another child, a son, and my husband and I allowed ourselves to make plans. The long, hoped for normal was mine. But, I was still reminded of the cancer every day.
I was blessed to be able to nurse my new babies with the unaffected breast. This was an amazing blessing. But, the natural result of a partial mastectomy on one side and a lactating breast on the other meant one thing — major asymmetry.
Clown. This was my self-assessment every time I dressed for the day. It was reinforced and validated by the magazines I saw in the grocery store as perfect, unscarred beauties flaunted what I didn’t have. The frustration amplified when I tried to buy clothes. Nothing fit. Being a young, 20-something with scarred, asymmetrical breasts in our society is difficult. Self-doubt and body shame are powerful emotions. Even the faithfulness of a good man could not reverse those feelings.
I went to a plastic surgeon five years after my diagnosis to discuss reconstruction options and left with the message, “The risk of capsular contracture with an implant in a radiated breast is high. Future cancer screening can be complicated by reconstruction through fat grafting. You are fortunate to have as much breast tissue as you have. You look great considering everything you’ve been through. I would suggest you do nothing.” My hopes of fixing myself physically were dashed. The cancer had control again.
Faith and connection to my God had carried me through the intensity of treatment, it didn’t make sense that I would break down after the storm had passed. But there I was, very broken inside. So, confused, I fought the inner grief with gratitude.
What I didn’t realize is the power of grief. Though usually thought of in the negative, it can be a great liberator. Time passed and I spent nine years trying to love my deformed body, while all around me breasts were flaunted and advertised, reminding me daily of my deficiency.
One night, I was at my wits end. I was tired of fighting the grief. I stood in front of a mirror and looked at myself. I allowed pity, anger, embarrassment, disappointment, shame, fear, and disgust to flow out in sobs and tears. This took some time, so much time I got bored of them. Then, after those emotions were released, I found other emotions taking their place — acceptance, ownership of my past, peace, truth, and respect for the woman standing in front of me.
I no longer needed reconstruction to fix my self-hate. I wasn’t desperate to look normal anymore. I had come to a wonderful place emotionally. In this mind set, I began to explore reconstruction again, with other doctors. I saw the insurance-covered reconstruction as a perk, rather than a necessity for happiness. Talking to these plastic surgeons gave me hope that my inner emotional healing might be reflected on the outside as well.
In the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2015, I underwent a two-phase reconstructive procedure. I opted for the fat graft in which the surgeon harvests fat from my own body and strategically places it in my body again.
Dr. Ortiz, at Womack Army Medical Center listened to me, consulted with me, and then executed his craft with skill. As the swelling went down and the bruising from this surgery receded, I not only appreciated the regained symmetry, but realized that the scar tissue from my partial mastectomy, which had restricted mobility in my right arm for a decade, was free. I could raise my right arm without the tugging and pain I had come to accept as permanent.
Because of early detection I can look forward to another 60 years of life. Next spring our Family of six will become a Family of seven. I fully appreciate that things could have easily been different for my Family. My two boys could be without their mother and my husband a widower. Instead, we are blessed with the glorious day-to-day life that I so desperately ached for during my treatments.
I am keenly aware that cancer may rear its ugly head once again in the coming decades. But I live with hope rather than fear — because I am aware of the disease. I am aware of my risk. I am aware of the beautiful and ugly truths associated with the disease. I am aware of the toll it takes on a Family. I am aware of the power and peace that comes through breast cancer education and training. Finally, I am aware that there is life during and after cancer.
Awareness is good for nothing if it doesn’t change thoughts and behaviors. At the end of this Breast Cancer Awareness Month I hope that through my story, you too have become truly aware.
This week’s breast cancer awareness points are:
The grief process is essential to healing. It should not be unnaturally forced or delayed.
Reconstruction is not just a physical pursuit.
The influence of a spouse cannot be overstated. Be patient. Be complimentary. Be selfless.
Breast self-exams are not performed to find cancer, they are performed regularly in order to know what is normal and to detect a change, should it occur.
Early detection saved my life.
Awareness is not a pink ribbon. Awareness is a verb.
(Editor’s note: Anybody interested in having MJ talk to their social/church or professional group, please contact MJ at email@example.com.)