(This story was first published in The Dallas Morning News on July 27, 2003.)
With a mother and sister who had breast cancer, the odds for the same thing happening in my lifetime have always been high; one medical study has shown my risk to be five times greater than other women my age. I never liked those odds. But since that’s the way it was, I began having yearly mammograms in my early 30s.
For five years, nothing out of the ordinary was detected. This year that all changed.
My mammogram showed a suspicious mass in my right breast. Within a week, I had a needle biopsy. I was heavily sedated from that procedure; so when my husband took me home, I went straight to bed.
He woke me later that evening and walked with me out to our front porch where my parents and my sister Jana were waiting. I knew something was wrong as I sat down in a chair next to Mom and she reached over to cup my hands in hers.
My husband’s voice quivered as he spoke the words he had hoped to never have to say: “The doctor thinks your biopsy shows signs of cancer.”
Disbelievingly, I stared off into the dark, cloudy sky, so wanting the curtain to rise and the lights to come up. The scene continued anyway; the voices of my family blending together like somber background music, “We’re here for you. You’ll get through this. Everything will be OK.”
My head was spinning as I thought, “Not now. Not with four children between 18 months and 14 years old to take care of. I’m only 39.” Mom and Jana both had lost their right breasts to cancer, endured months of chemotherapy treatments and today are cancer-free. Still, they had been in a fight to for their lives that I was not ready to undertake.
My doctor called me at my office four days later to confirm the initial findings. Mom was waiting for me in my kitchen when I got home. As a child, I loved coming home to Mom at the end of the day because she always listened eagerly to my day’s activities. On this day, I didn’t utter a word. She just opened her arms and drew me in, whispering, “I love you. I understand how you feel. And you can beat this.”
Jana came right over. She hugged me and asked if it would be all right for her to go to my appointments with me. Of course, it would be all right. It would be all wrong if she didn’t. She became my breast-cancer-medical-term interpreter.
The next few weeks went by in a whirl and in slow motion all at once. At first, I tried to be fearless the way I felt Mom and Jana had been. The sister with whom I grew up sharing a room and a thousand secrets saw right through my charade. “Cry. Get angry. It’s OK,” Jana told me.
When my husband and I told our kids about my illness, we reminded them that their Granna and aunt had been sick with this. Seeing how healthy and active they are, our kids could only believe I would come out of this just fine, too.
Mom’s and Jana’s experiences also helped me to calmly think through the decisions I faced, such as whether to have a small piece of my breast cut out (a lumpectomy) or the whole thing (a mastectomy). Based on my pathology reports, the surgeon recommended the latter. Mom and Jana agreed.
My husband and Mom drove me to the hospital for my surgery: a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. Jana and Dad met us in the pre-op room. My other sister, Cheryl, showed up with her teenage daughter, Katie. My younger brother, Stephen, had driven from Detroit to be with me. Everyone held hands around my bed. Our minister prayed. The anesthesiologist said something about a long nap…
My husband was in my hospital room when I woke up. He stayed with me through the night. The next morning, Mom and Jana came to relieve him awhile.
I knew they would come and packed a camera for the occasion. I motioned Mom and Jana to my sides and asked my husband to take our picture. The three of us smiled the way we did at our weddings or at the birth of one of our children. Though not happy to be at this particular place in our lives, we were glad to have one another along for the journey.
The rest of that morning we had a little breast cancer talk – comparing tales of surgical drains, loopy side effects of pain medicine, C-cup sized breast implants and the irony that we all had cancer in our right breasts.
We actually laughed quite a bit. The dark curtain was lifting and the lights were finally coming up. The major operation I had and the reason behind it became less threatening to me.
More than 40,000 women die of breast cancer each year, but four times that many survive it; among them, my mom and sister. If I have breast cancer because they had it, then I believe I should be able to beat it because they beat it. Those odds I think I can live with.