To acknowledge Breast Cancer Awareness Month, The Conway Daily Sun is printing occasional stories related to breast cancer, including survivors’ own stories.
A lump. A mammogram. A biopsy. A diagnosis. The surgeon said it was only stage one or two. It was caught early. A simple lumpectomy followed by some radiation.
It was her practice to order an MRI before surgery. I believe that MRI saved my life. It revealed a more aggressive cancer in the other breast, which had spread to the surrounding lymph nodes.
New biopsy. New diagnosis. New treatment plan. Five months of chemotherapy. A bilateral mastectomy. Thirty-three radiation treatments.
My husband and daughter sat in the doctor’s office with me. They had tears in their eyes. I immediately began making to-do lists. That was not bravery. It was shock.
My first thought was, “If I have to have cancer, this is a good time to have it.” My home-schooled children were now healthy, happy adults. My elderly parents had recently passed away. No one needed me.
I was not the first church member to have cancer. One phone call, and the Care Team was scheduling meals and rides to chemo. I discussed my future absences with my employer. I said goodbye to my daughter. She and her husband left to live in Germany for three years. My to-do list was complete.
Chemo was the worst of times and the best of times. The night before my first infusion, I began to read about the side effects of this toxic cocktail. I stopped reading after “death and blood cancer.” The side effects were a nightmare. They called it “fatigue.” I called it “too tired to live.” My version of “courageously battling” cancer was lying on the couch for five months, sipping ginger ale, eating applesauce, reading library books and doing crossword puzzles.
I am grateful that a cancer survivor mentioned that the steroids in the chemo made her feel “as if she was going crazy.” After a few days, I was experiencing a bizarre combination of physical exhaustion and homicidal rage. That weekend, I called the doctor’s office and talked to the physician on call. I told him I wanted to eliminate the steroids. He blew me off and said that the amounts of steroids were so small it could not possibly be the problem.
I was livid! I wanted to drive over to Scarborough, shoot him, stab him, set his corpse on fire and blow up the building! Luckily for him, I was too tired to get off the couch.
One conversation with the nurse practitioner at the infusion center, and they cut the dosage of steroids in half and prescribed an anti-anxiety medication. That problem was solved.
I ate and drank very little because of painful mouth sores. This led to dehydration.
It was Monday of Columbus Day Weekend. My husband half-carried/ half-dragged me to the back seat of the car and gave me a blanket. The bumper-to-bumper traffic and the sunlight made me dizzy. I put the blanket over my head and prayed that some alert police officer wouldn’t stop my husband for transporting a dead body.
The infusion center gave me two liters of fluid, and I felt “better.” They scolded me for waiting — I should have gone to the ER on Saturday. I was never dehydrated before. How did I know? I just assumed this was what dying felt like.
They told me I had to get outside and walk around or I would develop a blood clot. I told them I had to use my mother’s walker to shuffle to the bathroom.
But they were right. Three days later I was in the ER with a blood clot from my groin to my left calf. More medication.
Some women defiantly shave their heads before they lose their hair. Not me. I was born with a head full of dark brown hair, and I intended to hold onto it for as long as I could.
After three months of shedding, I still had plenty of hair. I lost most of it in the fourth month. I wore a hat all the time and refused to look in the mirror. Losing my hair was worse than the blood clot, the dehydration and the fatigue. I guess I am just shallow.
However, chemo taught me humility. I was always the caregiver, bringing meals to sick people, giving rides to the doctor. Now people (some who I didn’t know) brought me meals. I received cards almost every day and so many flowers, my living room looked like a funeral home. The assistant librarian at the Fryeburg Library would bring me lighthearted and uplifting novels to read. My hairdresser gave me a pink hat to wear. I received monthly Hannaford and Irving cards from Jen’s Friends. One dear woman from my church came every Thursday for 10 months to clean my house. Her visits always included laughter and prayer.
Chemo taught me gratitude. I felt so blessed by the love and concern showered on me. Some ladies from a church in Madison I didn't even know gave me a prayer shawl and a card. Yes, I had cancer, but at least cancer isn’t contagious like Ebola. Yes, I was stuck on the couch, but at least I had a couch, pillows, heat, a home. I would thank God for 10 things each morning before I got out of bed. Every day is a gift from God. It was up to me how I would use that gift.
Chemo brings out the best in people. The nurses in the infusion center were outstanding. Every medical situation I experienced, they confidently and competently handled. Whether I walked in with a smile or incoherent and confused, they always had the right words, a smile and the proper care.
In spite of (or perhaps because of) their struggles, my fellow patients were kind and considerate. They were brave and optimistic. The infusion center was not a depressing place; it was a center of hope. When I finally completed chemo, part of me was sorry to leave these wonderful people.
Chemo taught me to be still. I spent hours alone. The rough draft of my fourth novel was complete. I had intentions of spending quiet hours with my laptop revising, editing and rewriting. I could not focus. That frightened me. Instead, I would close my eyes and “write” my fifth novel in my mind. I would envision each scene, each character, plan a plot and fall asleep.
Previously my self-worth had been based on my accomplishments. I now accomplished very little. I learned that my value was not based on what I did, but who I am — a much-loved child of God.
Chemo taught me the true meaning of Christmas. I was in the fourth (and worst) month of chemo in December 2014. I did not decorate a tree, send cards or buy gifts. I spent my energy thanking the Father for sending his Son to be my Savior. I thought about Christians throughout the centuries who celebrated the birth of Jesus without all the hype and consumerism. I prayed for the Christians in places like China, North Korea and Muslim countries who secretly celebrate Christmas.
In conclusion, I will simply state that my surgery was in March 2015 and radiation treatment concluded the last week of June 2015. I was officially a survivor. My mind was ready to return to my job, my commitments and my interests. My body had other ideas.
I struggled with fatigue and neuropathy. I had to learn to be patient, pace myself, listen to my body and not compare myself to other survivors.
Cancer taught me that I am neither brave nor strong but simply blessed for all the loving, compassionate people who fought this battle with me. I had cancer, but cancer never had me.
"The Fryeburg Chronicles, Book IV" was eventually published in 2016. And "Book V," which I visualized for hours by myself on the couch? It was published last week. God is good!