My Cancer Journey
My life was just rolling on along. I was living in sunny Florida, working full-time at a local Ophthalmic/Surgical practice and making bath and body products part-time for friends and family. I soon realized that everyone who tried my products loved them and soon was in the planning stage to start my business.
One morning while showering I was doing my monthly self-breast exam and noticed a lump on the side of my right breast. I wasn’t alarmed because I had previously had cysts that were taken care of with a simple needle procedure. I called my OB and made an appointment to have her check it out. She wanted me to get a biopsy. That made my eyebrows rise a bit because in my past experiences the word biopsy was never mentioned, but I still wasn’t alarmed.
Less than a month later I found myself in a chair and the doctor was explaining the biopsy procedure. First they would put a marker in the area (this is to be able to find the area later if needed and to also show up on an ultrasound that the area had been checked), then they would insert another needle to take a small portion of the mass to check. At this point I was starting to get a bit nervous because again, in the past fluid would just come out of the area, but this time it didn’t.
I put it out of my mind thinking they would just call in a few days and tell me everything was ok. Well, the next afternoon while I was at work, I received the call from my OB, “I’m so sorry to tell you but your biopsy came back as cancer.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Most of the rest of the conversation I truly don’t remember. She was so kind and concerned. She said she would get everything set up for me and I would get calls for my next steps. I hung up the phone and just sat there for a moment. I couldn’t believe it. Why me? Why didn’t I notice it before? How long has it been there? What’s going to happen to me? What about my kids and grandkids?
I ran out of my office, told my Administrator I had to leave for a few minutes and drove across the street to McDonalds, called my boyfriend and lost it. I’ll never forget that crushing blow. I went back to work, explained to my Administrator what was going on and went home for the day. At the beginning, it is a scary and unknown place. I had a few cousins who had breast cancer but I wasn’t around them at the time to witness what they went through so I felt totally unprepared for this. Cancer is an emotional rollercoaster-anger, upset, grief, confusion, overwhelm-sometimes all at the same time. The reality is the “how’s” and “why’s” didn’t matter, I couldn’t change the diagnosis; I just needed to move forward.
Next came the phone calls to my family. That evening I called my parents and told them, the next evening I called my oldest son and broke the news to him and my daughter-in-law. My youngest son and his girlfriend were to be coming from Ohio to Florida for vacation in a few days so I opted to wait and tell them in person. I stayed strong with each conversation even though inside I was an emotional wreck.
I didn’t tell everyone what I was going through, at the time only a few people knew. I didn’t want people feeling sorry for me. At the beginning I was very, very private. The train was moving whether I liked it or not, if I was prepared or not, or if I was scared or not. As time went on, more people found out. I was so blessed by the outpouring of support from family, friends and co-workers. The phone calls, text messages, meals and happy notes mailed to me (thank you Lisa) lifted my spirits. No one fights alone.
Next came the barrage or phone calls setting up MRI’s, bone density tests, ultrasounds, doctor consultations, surgeon consultations, meetings with nurses on the procedures, etc. The week my son and his girlfriend were in town I didn’t have any appointments. My parents, who also lived in Florida about 2 hours away from me, came and stayed at my house to visit with us all. The last day the kids were there, my mother fell on the concrete floor of my lanai and fractured her leg. The next weeks were spent working, taking care of Mom and going to appointments. I have to say, that with all the chaos, I didn’t have much time to waller in my own self pity.
My appointments were pushed through and 4 weeks from being diagnosed I was getting my port put in with chemo the very next day. I was to have 6 chemo treatments every 3 weeks, and took around 4-5 hours each time. My sessions were scheduled for Wednesdays so my Dad and Aunt would drive to my house on Tuesday evening, take me to chemo on Wednesday, stay with me on Thursday then go back home on Friday.
I thought I was prepared for the side effects, everyone talked about nausea and hair loss, but nothing about what I was about to experience. Right from the start the side effects were something like I had never experienced before. As long as I took my medicine, I didn’t have trouble with nausea but wow, my legs were like concrete, they ached and just didn’t seem to want to move. Every step I took I was out of breath, immediately exhausted, and had to sit down to rest my legs. This new feeling was like my legs were there but just wouldn’t work. I would have to park as close to the grocery store door as I could and hope that there was a motorized cart immediately available.
Since I knew about the hair loss, I also knew that I wanted to try to keep some resemblance of the “old me” so I went to a wig store and tried on several colors and looks. When I picked one, I went to my beautician and had her cut my hair into a similar style. My hair fell out in clumps within days. I finally brushed as much out as I could then cut it all down to my head. I couldn’t bring myself to shave it. I’ve never thought of myself as a vain female but I truly struggled with my hair loss. It was like I wasn’t a girl anymore, like it took my whole identity away. For me, the wig was just like none of that took place and I was somewhat like myself again, or at least my hair was.
Then came more and more side effects. The tingling and numbness in my hands and feet (peripheral neuropathy), my skin turned into tissue paper, my fingernails broke all the way back and started to pull away from my skin underneath, I couldn’t focus on anything, I couldn’t remember things (yes, chemo brain really does exist), I had no energy, no appetite, no taste buds, digestive issues, my skin color was turning grey, and each time I would get a chemo treatment my hands would turn red and burn like a really bad sunburn. I was a hot mess to say the least.
I did continue to work full-time but that was about all I had the energy to do. I lived on chicken noodle soup, homemade vegetable soup and tomato soup. I slept a lot, sat down on a stool to cook my food and wash my dishes. What I once did was not an option anymore; I thankfully was able to find ways to be able to do some things for myself. It’s not that I didn’t want the help, I am a very independent person and I knew that for me, the more I was able to do for myself the better I would feel emotionally and physically. Maybe at times I should have accepted more help, I’m sure I pushed myself too much.
I tried to be “normal” but eventually I had to accept the fact that things were different and out of my control. I wanted to surround myself with faith, positivity, and laughter. I was determined to kick Cancer’s butt. I learned that it was ok to not be ok. I wasn’t going to let cancer define me.
Now it was time for surgery. At first there was a major possibility that I would need a mastectomy. I had already made the decision that if that was the route I needed to take, I would get a double mastectomy. I didn’t want one at half mast and one at attention (ladies, I’m sure you know what I mean!). I am so blessed that the poison pushed through my veins every treatment session blew the hell out of my tumor. When it came time for the “surgery talk” instead of a complete mastectomy a lumpectomy was all that would be needed. By this time I needed some good news! The surgery went well and only the first layer of lymph nodes was taken as a precaution. My prayers had truly been answered.
Radiation, for me, went well. I had been told that the radiation could severely burn my skin but because I had a lot of time to research the benefits of some oils due to previously creating bath and body products, I was able to create a lotion that I applied twice a day. I don’t know if that was my reason, but I only had skin burns that I would say were like a sunburn for a day or two afterwards. The area turned brown like it tanned out. I was never uncomfortable.
Since then my port was removed and the six more months of hormone blocker infusions are over. Other than the ongoing Anastrozole pill every day and ongoing care every six months, I am over the worst.
Cancer doesn’t end when the treatment does. Now I have to pull a life together since I have survived. Hoda Kotb once said “Cancer survivors are blessed with two lives. There is your life before cancer and your life after”. The effects of having cancer are long lasting. Following diagnosis and when your treatment is over, things can get harder. In a way it is way harder to survive cancer than to have it. You now have to deal with survivor’s guilt and the fear of recurrence. During treatment you’re in crisis mode and focusing on getting through it. Once treatment is over, that’s when it hits you—Oh my God, I had cancer!
Having cancer and going through treatment has been the most traumatic experience in my life. A cancer diagnosis is shocking on so many levels. It is a disease with so many unknowns with no two alike. I chose to tackle the challenges of cancer one at a time. I have elected to turn fear and paralysis and replace them with hope, faith and action.
This chapter in my life has made me realize that family is my number one importance. I have recently moved back to Ohio from Florida to be with my kids and grandkids. It has made me focus on myself and my own needs. I have left my full-time job and am focusing on my business. I am de-stressing my life. I am taking the time to heal, both physically and mentally. I am learning to be patient with myself and understand it’s ok to take it slow.
I have been inspired to create. With each new side effect I developed soaps, lotions, butters, lip balms, and bath soaks that soothe my skin and soothe my soul. During each step of my journey I was able to use myself as a guinea pig. The goal of my business is to help those going through treatment by nourishing your skin and nourishing yourself.
Yes I am cancer free, but my body has forever been changed. I am recovering from the side effects. My hair is slowly growing even though it is baby fine and a totally different color. My fingernails are still very brittle and I know to keep them cut back. My legs have recovered but I’m sluggish and not as strong as I was before. I get winded easily and have learned that naps are a good thing. I can taste most things but spicy foods are still like fire in my mouth. I can eat most things but still cannot digest fast food or beef. My mind is not like it used to be, chemo brain is a continuing struggle. My emotions are still messed up, I find myself crying at a heart pulling TV advertisement and I find myself laughing at myself for that.
I am so blessed to be here, I am a different person but very much alive. We all wear many hats throughout our lives. While each of us has our own journey, having had cancer will always be a part of it. Cancer may not define you but it does change you, your continued life and your priorities.
To those caretakers I urge you to take direction from your loved one; they will let you know when they need help. As supporters, take a moment to give them a call, text, drop off a meal or simply send them a loving note before each treatment.
I hope I have inspired you with my cancer journey to take control of your own journey and always know you are not alone.