JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. –
When I was younger, my mother and aunt told me horror stories about mammograms and breast cancer. “Don’t have a mammogram, they’re painful,” my mom said. “They’ll hang you from your breasts,” my aunt said. “If you feel a lump in your breast, stop, don’t touch it; touching it makes it spread.” They were not at all encouraging of self-exams and being aware. So, when it was time for me to have an exam, I said, “No, I’m not doing that. I don’t want to get hurt. I don’t want to get bruises.”
A few months after my 40th birthday, I couldn’t sleep one night, so I turned on the TV and saw a show about breast health. It showed real pictures of real people with breast cancer. Prior to watching this show, I had never been told different types of breast cancer would change the look and shape of your breasts. I didn’t know you could look in a mirror and look for signs. Nobody had ever told me your breasts might swell or turn red or you might be able to see a change in breast shape if you raise your arm up. The TV show featured a 17-year-old woman, who, when she raised her arm up, the shape of her breast changed. It pulled in and had an indentation. When she put her arm down, her breast went back to its normal shape.
Luckily for me, the show came along with the education I needed when I needed it. I turned 41 that September and the following March 3rd, I looked in the mirror and there it was – what I had seen on the TV show. It was scary. I put my arm up and the shape changed. I put my arm down and it was back to normal. Arm up, the shape changed. Arm down, back to normal. I did this for several minutes. Arm up. Arm down. Arm up. Arm down. Both arms. One arm. Only one side changed. It pulled up and it pulled in and down. I remembered the TV show. I knew what I was looking at.
Later that day, I called my doctor’s office and made an appointment. I was embarrassed to say the words breast or mammogram, so I told the receptionist my appointment was about my allergies. While in his office, the doctor and I talked and talked about the wrong subject, my allergies. Just as he was leaving and standing in the doorway with the door open, he asked, “Is there anything else?” I said, “Yes, sir, there’s one more thing. I need to get a mammogram.” He shut the door and asked, “Is it just your routine mammogram for your age?” I said, “No, sir, I found something.” He got a female provider and they both observed the shape change in my breast as I lifted my arm. The look on my doctor’s face also changed. It was not a reassuring look. My doctor said he could tell just by looking at my breast I had cancer. He immediately scheduled me for a mammogram.
The mammogram revealed I had a big, hard mass. Once I was aware of where it was, I could feel it; the lower half was as hard as a rock. I could lay down flat on my bed and feel the whole thing. My oncologist informed me, because of the type and the size of the mass, I had been carrying it for at least seven years. If I had had a mammogram the year before, it would have been found. If I had done a self-exam any time within the last six years, from age 34 forward, it would have been found. But I had never done a self-exam because I had been told if you find a lump you’ll make it worse. I had been told mammograms were painful. I wasn’t volunteering to have one. I wasn’t in any pain. I didn’t feel anything. Breast cancer doesn’t hurt.
The whole experience, from that day forward changed who I was and became. I was no longer going to be nervous and scared and too shy. I was afraid, but I thought, I have to fight for my life. I’m not going to die.
I went through the whole range of treatments. I had a part of the mass removed and was told it was the size of a baseball. The doctor had to go back in and take out more. I went through a skin-sparing lumpectomy, during which, most of my breast was removed from the middle down. I went through months of chemotherapy, radiation treatments and hormone therapy.
My command was very supportive as I decided to keep working throughout my treatments. I got immunizations and took measures to protect myself from infection. When I had chemo, I would miss a week, then work a week, but I got used to it and got down to missing only three days at a time. I did radiation therapy during my lunch breaks. I worked even when I was totally bald. I had decided I was going to be the one in control, not my disease.
If I could offer any advice to anyone battling breast cancer, I’d say be very meticulous about what you eat by cleaning it well and cooking it when you can; stay active, even if it’s only walking; journal about your feelings, your pain, your energy levels, your highs and lows; and join a support group in which you and other patients can share stories, survival tips and camaraderie.
Some days you’re going to feel terrible. Take breaks when you need to. Understand no one knows your condition better than you do. Take control of your body. A lot of people are living with breast cancer. They get their treatment and they keep going. Cancer changes who you are; vow to change for the better. I decided when I was sick I was in control, I was the boss. I wasn’t going to let my disease control my life.
A customer came into the clinic one day and showed me an old driver’s license. She was bald in the photo. She said, “This is what I looked like, kinda like you.” Then she pulled out her new driver’s license and in the photo, her hair had grown back. She said, “Here I am now. I’m fine. You can do it. It’s temporary.” That’s my motto now, “It’s temporary. Everything is temporary.”
I’ve been a breast cancer survivor for eleven years. If cancer didn’t kill me, nothing’s going to hurt me. If I have an issue, it’s going to be temporary. Remember, everything is temporary.