Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Cancer Diary

I'd like to share a bit about my cancer experience in the hope that it will help someone else. I think that the reason I came through this as well as I did is due to the help of the Lord and of friends. The surgeon's skill is important in removing the cancer, and the oncologist is important in treating it, but I think the way you approach this emotionally is a big factor in how well you do. And I am grateful to God and my loved ones for giving me the strength to stay calm and to face this head on.
I had my yearly mammogram February17 last year. Five days later the hospital called and said I had to have a more detailed mammogram - a magnification, they called it. I was surprised that it was the left breast that was questionable. Several years ago I had a core needle biopsy on the right side which indicated a benign mass. I was a bit concerned at this point, but I didn't panic, having been through this before. After the second mammogram, on the 24th, the hospital scheduled a visit with a surgeon on the 2nd of March. At this point I still thought the mass might turn out to be benign, like the one on my right side; but somehow I didn't really believe that.
On the day of my appointment with the doctor, my husband and I went to church as we usually do on Thursday mornings. The psalm of the day was th 23rd Psalm. I cried; this was the perfect thing for me to hear - and to pray - at this time. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me." And I was comforted. I felt calm and at peace and strong. As I lay on the table in the surgeon's office waiting for her to do a surgical biopsy, I kept repeating the psalm to myself. The biopsy didn't show a malignancy. Nonetheless, based on the mamogram and the feel of the lump, the doctor felt it was cancer. Fortunately, she ordered a stereotactic core needle biopsy - done with the aid of mammography - which I had on March 13. Two days later, the surgeon called with the news that it was cancer.
Cancer is a word that no one can hear without reacting with some degree of fear or dread. It's not like pneumonia or something like that, which, however serious, can generally be cured with an antibiotic. I was concerned, but I was determined to fight. And I wasn't alone. During this time, our friends at church prayed for me and encouraged me, and my close friend Debbie was with me every step of the way. Her support was priceless. She came to the doctor with us, had us to dinner, brought food to our house, and was with me the day of the surgery. Her son and mine went to elementary school together,a nd enlisted in the Marine Corps together. The day after I got the diagnosis of cancer, Debbie drove us to the hospital to see the surgeon and to get pre-surgery tests done. She and her husband had us for dinner. When we got home, there was a car in our driveway, which I thought was odd at that time of night. My son had taken time off from work and driven up from New Jersey. He brought with him a bottle of cabernet sauvignon and a bottle of pinot grigio and a very pretty large green plant. Next day he took us to Ponderosa and gave us some money to help with the gas for the frequent trips to the hospital 26 miles away.
My daughter was concerned and sympathetic, and came down from Vermont with her little girls after the surgery. At this point, I hadn't told my youngest child, Tommy, the Marine, anything yet. He had served in Iraq the previous year, and was then in the Pacific doing training exercises. I didn't want to tell him until we were sure. When he called on the 20th, I told him the news. He was pretty shaken. About an hour and a half later, he called back; his lieutnant was trying to get him emergency leave - from Okinawa! The unit was about to leave to sail for Korea. I was pretty amazed; this was the kid who didn't bother getting an address on base, never got around to mailing me his papers that I needed as power of attorney when he deployed to Iraq - you get the idea. Yet now he had - in an hour and a half - requested leave! The lieutenant worked through the night and got the leave. He left the laundry he was doing before sailing to work on it. Next time Tommy called he said I had Marines praying for me.
Surgery was scheduled for the 29th. Tommy would be home the 27th. During the week before surgery, I was busy at the hospital with tests. And friends were wonderful. Our friends down the road brought food, gave me a notebook to organize all my papers and appointments and the like, and drove us to the airport - 75 miles away - to get Tommy. His presence with me meant so much. He gave not only moral support, but he helped take care of me, having been trained as a combat aidsman (sort of an assistant to the corpsmen, I think).
I was so at peace before the surgery. I felt the love of my family and friends around me, and I kept thinking of the 23rd Psalm.I opted for a mastectomy. I felt that it was better to take the whole breast. The main goal, as I saw it, was to get rid of the cancer and keep it form coming back. LADIES, REMEMBER: Your breast is not you. Your breast doesn't give you your identity. It is a part of your body. It does not make you a woman. AND: If your husband or significant other has a problem with this, he isn't worth keeping. If he values your boob more than your life, tell him to find another boob. If he loves you, he won't care if you have two breasts, one breast, or no breasts; it will be more important for him to have you alive and well. Whether you have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy is up to you and your doctor, but do remember to keep things in perspective and don't be influenced by fear of losing your man. I say again, if he would leave you because you've lost a breat - or two - he isn't worth having. That may be a hard thing to face, but dying is hard too.
I was lucky; I had Stage I cancer that hadn't spread to the lymph nodes or elsewhere. My oncologist left the decision about whether to have chemo up to me. He gave me lots of material to read, and explained the options thoroughly. I opted not to have chemo - not because I feared losing my hair, because your hair isn't you, either, and it grows back - but because I thought the side effects outweighed the benefits with my type of cancer. I opted for hormone therapy, and I'll take a pill a day for 5 years. This pill, Arimidex, stops my body from producing estrogen, which feeds some types of breast cancer. (My cancer was estrogen-receptive.)
I recently had a scare when spots showed up on my spine and liver on a CT scan I had for something else. I was concerned, but it turned out to be nothing to worry about.
My advice to cancer patients:
1. Stay calm, and determine to fight this.
2. Pray. I don't think God will necessarily take away whatever it is that's wrong in your life, but I do think he will always give you the strength you need.
3. Get your priorities straight. The cancer may change your body, but it can't sestroy the part of you that really makes you you - unless you let it. Make sure you stay close to family and friends and let them know you love them.
4. Hope, and then if you have to, accept - with grace and dignity and strength.
5. Live one day at a time, and be grateful for every day you have. Enjoy the little things, the big things, and everything in between!