There are four hurdles I’ve had to face in overcoming breast cancer: Chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and the emotional recovery to sew myself back together.
“You’ve gone through months of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy without even blinking an eye,” my plastic surgeon said to me 10 days after my surgery.
I looked in the mirror for the first time and saw two 5-inch scars staring back at me. My nipples and areolae were gone, all sacrifices in this fight to seek out and destroy any present and future risk from my invasive ductal carcinoma.
And what does invasive ductal carcinoma mean? Well, for me, I never found a lump or defined mass that we’re taught to look for on self-examination. I referred to my breasts as “lumpy bumpy.” They constantly changed with the ebb and flow of monthly hormones.
In fact, during my annual examinations, my doctors agreed with my self-diagnosis. So, they missed it during my annual physical and my annual gynecologist appointment. Even my annual mammogram came back as “dense tissue,” but no masses were detected, so they said to come back in a year. Brilliant, I thought. Who doesn’t like it when you pass an exam?
But really, when they say dense tissue, they mean reading the mammogram is like looking for a rock on a really foggy day. Things are visible when the weather is clear, but add fog, and the only way you’ll find the rock is if you trip over it.
When I developed some swelling only a month after the mammogram results, I went back for a recheck and some further tests. The first test was an ultrasound, which revealed there was a 1-centimeter (cm) anomaly, followed by a biopsy.
I’ll always remember this surreal moment. I was in my basement working on a backdrop for an upcoming party I was planning when my phone rang. It was the surgeon who said the biopsy was cancerous. I still have the notes from the conversation written on the scrap of paper I used for my backdrop measurements.
I had to write it down because I was 54 years old with no family history or predisposition to breast cancer, and like the unexpected twist in a movie, I couldn’t believe what she was saying. And 6 months later, the same doctor would call and tell me that they had successfully removed all the cancer during my double mastectomy. It still feels surreal.
Since it seemed my cancer had evaded the usual tests, the question of what other secrets my breasts might be concealing needed to be answered. So, next up was a bilateral MRI. I had the MRI in the morning and then met my husband in the oncology department in the late afternoon for my treatment planning session where we were joined by my team: A surgeon, a radiologist, and an oncologist.
A huge part of sewing myself back together has been my soul journey and becoming empowered to live differently.
Based on the ultrasound report, we were expecting a two-hurdle approach: first, a lumpectomy, and then radiation to finish it off.
It was during that meeting that the MRI results came in. I stood there in my hospital gown and all five of us looked at the screen. The atmosphere palpably changed as the details unfolded. It was not a 1-cm mass: The MRI lit up with more than 10 cm of cancerous tissue. It looked like luminous spaghetti engorging the outer half of my left breast. Worse yet, there was also a halo of light around a suspicious lymph node under my left arm and something in my right breast.
Being a nurse, I knew that the lymph nodes were the on-ramps to the superhighways for the rest of my body. Make it to the superhighway and you can travel anywhere — liver, bones, lungs, brain. Name the destination, and it’ll take you there.
So, then the plan changed to a three-hurdle attack. First intravenous chemotherapy, followed by surgery, and finally radiation. The plan was to shrink the tumor, then remove it, and then zap it with radiation. The plan would take about a year.
As of the time I’m writing this, it has been 7 months since I started chemotherapy. I’ve begun to prepare for my third hurdle, radiation treatment.
The first step was a CAT scan to map and calculate where the radiation beams would go. I now have three tiny freckle-sized tattoos, one beside each breast and one in the middle, and these help the radiation machine line up to the same place for each of my 28 treatments.
It’s kind of like how you have to make sure the glass plate in the microwave sits neatly on the plastic stand, otherwise, it’s a disaster, and food (or in my case, radiation) can spill anywhere. And you don’t have to be a nurse to know that any amount of spillage on your heart or lungs wouldn’t be good.
Moving into my seventh month of treatment and still on short-term disability after surgery, I’ve begun to realize that there are actually four hurdles in overcoming breast cancer: Chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and emotional recovery to sew myself back together.
As a nurse, my identity is wrapped around giving, and in contrast, cancer is all about receiving.
Back when I signed my consent for chemotherapy, they asked me if I wanted a prescription for a wig since the chemotherapy would cause my hair to fall out. There’s an eerie waiting period for your hair to fall out; it’s about 2 weeks after the first treatment.
In preparation, I had my lovely golden shoulder-length locks cropped short, I changed my Facebook profile picture, and people said short hair suited me. There might be hurdles in this treatment, but not all were out of my control, and losing my hair was on my terms.
You might think perhaps you’ve dodged the bullet, and maybe it won’t happen to you. But it happened to me in handfuls while driving to the hospital and combing my fingers through my hair. That night, my husband gave me a mohawk, and for a week I lived a wild punk rocker fantasy before he shaved it off completely.
We were both fragile souls that day, wearing our brave smiles and watching my hair fall to the ground like autumn leaves, branches bare with the promise of new growth in the spring. And when I say bare branches, you lose all the hair on your body, including the stuff you don’t mind, like the hairs on your big toe! And your eyelashes and eyebrows, too.
I had a beauty session with my friends where I learned how to apply makeup and use an eyebrow pencil, I bought makeup, false eyelashes, and even some eyebrow wigs (who knew they even existed?). In the end, my last two eyelashes fell out 2 weeks after my last chemo treatment, and my new eyebrows came in as a fantastic 5 o’clock shadow just as the remnants of the old ones let go. I never wore the eyebrow wigs. They are still in the box, my “break glass in an emergency” last resort and safety net.
Sewing yourself back together is easier if you don’t completely fall apart. I did that by continually taking a deep breath, tapping into bravery I didn’t even know I had, and presenting my new, raw authentic self to the world. Because then, I wasn’t hiding — from the cancer, myself, or the world. It was hard, and every time I looked in the mirror, I grieved the loss of the old me.
I haven’t been brave every day. In the midst of chemotherapy when I didn’t feel well, I didn’t even have much energy to grieve. Until my hair started growing back, I just avoided the mirror unless I was wearing a hat. The good news is I wasn’t alone — it was winter in New England, and everyone was wearing hats. We were also living through COVID. Not everyone was as immunocompromised as me, but mostly everyone was wearing a mask.
My bravery also came from the love and support of family, friends, and coworkers. As a nurse, my identity is wrapped around giving, and in contrast, cancer is all about receiving.
I’m still shocked at how much love and support I have been showered with from around the world, and I know it has made a difference in my response to treatment, my recovery, and why I didn’t fall completely apart. It turns out that being authentic, as hard as it is, can also be inspirational as we search to connect with the genuine inside of us all.
I can’t say that shopping hasn’t helped — I was searching for something to soothe my soul, and it turned out to be mostly buying lots of hats. However, perhaps the best medicine for me was journaling about my experience. It was kind of like talking to myself, easing my worries, and finding my own answers deep inside.
The biggest question you always wonder, of course, is why you get cancer in the first place. I have no answers yet; I’m still working on it.
My type of cancer loves estrogen and progesterone, so it could’ve been the birth control hormones I took for years. It could have been the environment, or the food I ate being genetically modified and processed. I’ve since done genetic testing of 85 genes, and none show a predisposition to cancer, so they call my cancer sporadic, which basically means they don’t know, and I may never know.
Even if I never find out why I got cancer, I’m determined to make sure that I haven’t gone through this for nothing. A huge part of sewing myself back together has been my soul journey and becoming empowered to live differently. It was a wake-up call to stop rushing, live more deeply, and be more vulnerable. Until you’ve been to the edge, you can’t imagine what it’s like, and for some of us, going to the edge is what it takes.
Years ago, I remember reading a quote by Christopher Logue, an English poet: “Come to the edge. We might fall. Come to the edge. It’s too high! Come to the edge! And they came, and he pushed, and they flew…”
As my treatment continues, I am weary from the journey, but I know you climb the mountain by taking one step at a time. So, each day, I only focus on today’s steps. And I don’t waste any energy on the things I cannot change because I know in my heart that I’ve already learned how to fly.
Medically reviewed on October 13, 2022
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