In 2016, eight months after my annual mammogram, I requested another one. I hadn’t detected a lump or experienced any physical symptoms. But what I did have was my intuition and a family history of breast cancer.
The finding was Stage 2 breast cancer. Listening to my inner voice is just one of the four important lessons I learned in my journey with breast cancer.
Earlier that year, my sister was diagnosed with Stage 0 cancer in both breasts. As the weeks passed and she recovered from a double mastectomy, I became convinced I should be retested. It was like my guardian angel was guiding me, and I’d be a fool not to listen.
I met with my doctor and explained my family history, working to get him onboard with my plan. Because it was too soon for insurance to cover another mammogram, and because I was requesting the more advanced 3-D imaging technology, my insurer told me I’d be responsible for the out-of-pocket $75 cost. I was happy to cover it. I thought to myself, “Are you kidding? I’d spend more than that on a blouse.”
Relying on Specialists
For this mammogram, I went to a center for breast imaging rather than the general radiology facility I’d gone to previously, and that’s the second lesson I learned: have your mammograms done at breast centers. The technicians are more attuned to what to look for.
There was no surprise when I received the call with my results. I remember thinking, “Let’s just get this over with.” I was more concerned about sharing the news with my daughter, whom I raised as a single mom for most of her life. My daughter had a newborn baby, and I didn’t want her to worry. But we had an understanding: Good or bad news, we share.
The weeks that followed are kind of a blur. I know they involved multiple doctor visits, a sonogram and then a biopsy followed by a lumpectomy. When tissue samples showed lymph node involvement, I had a second surgery.
Giving Up Control
Enter lesson three: I can’t control everything. I was at a local street fair, wearing a big, baggy top so the incision drains wouldn’t show, when I received the call from my doctor with the results of my second surgery. Over the noisy crowd, I heard him say the next steps would be 16 weeks of chemotherapy followed by several months of radiation.
My mind began to wander as I thanked him. How much care would I need? How do I explain this to my 87-year-old mom? How sick would I get? Could I still work? A thousand thoughts ran through my mind in a split second.
I started chemo with the mindset that I might not lose my hair. Just in case, I spent a small fortune on a wig. I wanted something that would help me look like the old me before cancer. I even bought faux eyelashes and brows. As it turns out, I never wore any of it. Ordinarily, I’m not a baseball cap kind of girl, but that’s what suited me: A baseball cap and some fabulous earrings, and I was good to go.
Along the way, I experienced many kindnesses. When I explained my situation to a new client who I’d be meeting for the first time, expressing concern that her team might feel uncomfortable with the bald me, she said without hesitation, “Carolann, we all look forward to meeting you.”
On my return flight home from the meeting, the TSA agent took a second and third look at my driver’s license. I laughed and told him it was still me and that I just looked a little different. “You’re still beautiful,” he said. “Have a good day.”
Blend Independence with Support
My family and friends often tell me I’m fiercely independent, and I wasn’t going to let cancer change that. Through the months of treatment, I learned to adjust to how my body responded to chemo treatments. I scheduled grocery shopping and laundry for the day of or the day after treatment while the steroids in the chemo cocktail were still making me feel like Wonder Woman.
Which leads me to lesson four: It’s OK to ask for help. For a couple of weeks, I was too sick to continue my chemo treatments, and though I hated to admit it, too sick to care for myself. I called the one person who knows me the best, my daughter. She has a young family and works full-time in Manhattan. But my girl was there for me.
My cancer was never something I was afraid of. It taught me the importance of listening to my inner self, and that at times, it’s OK for me to give up control (just a little).
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