Rewind back to August 2005 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My son’s doctor called after a follow-up to a routine mammogram, he was very uncomfortable but was one of the practice doctors and mine was out. To be honest, I wasn’t as surprised as you might think, odds are 1-in-8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer and I had just lost one of my closest girlfriends the month before.
Growing up, my parents taught me a lot of life lessons; the first one was to face death as inevitable. My father was a Miami policeman and he prepared us for the eventuality of his death. We talked about it as a family, even made jokes about how we’d spend the insurance money. Then my father retired and a few years later, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer at the young age of 45. She was a non-smoker and the onset was rapid and there was no stopping this disease from taking her from us. But my mother did not let that stop her from keeping up appearances. See, she was from the Jackie O generation and always looked amazing. She never let on that she knew she was going to die, because it would not solve anything. She wanted us to embrace living and the moments we had together.
One of the things I did to embrace my fate with breast cancer was to include my son. My awesome doctors (who treated Lance Armstrong) felt it was important for me to have 2 different types of chemo, both were equally awful but bearable. With the type of chemo administered to most breast cancer patients, losing your hair is a given. I was prepared for this.
Ever want to be G.I. Jane?
Well, after the first round your hair starts to fall out. So, I decided to donate my hair to “Locks of Love” and bring my son along to photograph the experience. He had fun teasing me and at the end when my new hairstyle was a buzz cut, he looked at me and said I looked like one of those “hedgehog foot-scrapers” – ah, such love. Unfortunately, it blew my vision of being reborn as Demi Moore’s character because every time I looked in the mirror I saw a hedgehog.
As a single parent, I was concerned about leaving my son without his mother, but I didn’t let it consume me, it would do more harm than good. I looked at the six months of chemo and radiation treatment after my surgery as more of a pain-in-the-ass than something to get me down. I won’t tell you that it was bearable because for a few days after each dose of chemo it was pretty crappy. It was only 16 days of crap actually, the rest of the days weren’t bad out of the six months, and even the radiation was a breeze after chemo. But I will tell you that I didn’t let it stop me. I embraced my baldhead (and no shaving legs and other areas for all those months were awesome!).
Be the person everyone wants to be around and not shy away from.
The hospital I got treatment at was pretty depressing, so many different people being treated with different and horrific types of cancer. I would show up with my laptop ready to work while they pumped poison into my body, look around and smile and try to send out a ray of hope to those who sat around me, some not making it to the next treatment.
How do you get through it? You have a good support system… even if it is yourself. My BFF called me every morning and kicked my ass. She never let me feel bad and she always made sure I had something constructive going on for that day – we lived 1000 miles apart but we had that 5 minute phone call every morning.
You could say that I turned lemons into lemonade; so much so, that the nurses and doctors that treated me didn’t look away from me like I saw them do with so many other patients who they knew wouldn’t make it. They actually looked forward to me coming in and wanted to be the one who administered my chemo because it helped them get through the day. I was not draining but more of comic relief, in fact, one of the nurses even played a practical joke on me at one session, my doctor didn’t think it was funny, but we all got a good laugh.
What advice do I have about being a survivor? I’m not a breast cancer survivor. I am a survivor. Period. It’s now coming on my eight-year anniversary of being a breast cancer survivor. Outside of a few scars, I rarely think or even talk about it. (Unless I feel the need to). Life has many challenges and it is not about how many, or how awful, it is about how you get through it and remembering that you can survive anything, it’s when we are tested that we find out how much we can truly overcome.