Five Years Ago This Week...

I was sitting in the waiting room with three other half-naked women, each of us wearing pale blue johnny robes and looking a little squirmy. The technician came out, eyeballed me and said, “Val, we need to do a couple more scans.”  A week later I had an ultrasound mammogram. A few days after that, a biopsy. The diagnosis: Stage 2 invasive breast cancer.

Your happy little world collapses when you hear the word cancer. Me???  Why? How? Shit. Damn. Oh my god.

My daughter Alex had come with me for the diagnosis. She’s a Johns Hopkins-trained nurse, a mother of two but most importantly, she’s a compassionate caretaker who, when hearing about her mother’s journey from mammo to biopsy, said, “You’re not alone, Mom. I’m with you every step of the way.”

    “With over three million women battling breast cancer today,
    everywhere you turn there is a mother, a daughter,
    a sister or friend who’s been affected by breast cancer.”

    - Betsey Johnson

Alex asked all the questions that October morning as we sat in the surgeon’s office, along with my future oncologist and radiologist, discussing Val’s “Cancer Survivorship Care Plan.” I was mute. I could only stare at the words “Stage 2” and blink back tears. As we left the Maine Center for Cancer Medicine, Alex said, “We’re going out to lunch and we’re gonna have some strong margaritas.”

The Maine Mall’s On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina was festooned with pink streamers and ribbons as we walked to our booth.  “How did they know that I have breast cancer,” I whispered to Alex. “Uh, Mom, I think it’s because it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”  Oh. We sipped several tangy margaritas and came to grips with reality.

The lumpectomy a month later was successful. No chemo, just six weeks of radiation, and life returned to normal.  Sort of.  My “girls” looked a little different — prior to the knife, I had two droopy 68-year-old boobs but the right one is positively post-op perky. I have to take a daily dose of Anastrazole (a non-steroidal aromatase-inhibiting drug for treatment of breast cancer after surgery) which, over the past five years, seems to have aggravated my arthritis. And I finally stopped crying every time a cancer ad appeared on television.  

    “Once I overcame breast cancer I wasn’t afraid of
    anything anymore.”  

    - Melissa Etheridge

Statistics don’t lie.  Since 2000, the incident rate for breast cancer has been steadily decreasing. However, one in eight women (12%) will develop invasive breast cancer in their life. Other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer. And, after five years the odds for recurrence are greatly reduced.

Five years ago this week, a friend (and survivor) left a huge vase of pink Bonica roses by my front door with a note that said, “How can I help.?” Another pal called and said, “We’re having a girls night next week and we need you there.” My brother Robert wrote a sweet letter (“You’re gonna beat this thing”) that I still have and treasure. My husband Bob gave me nonstop hugs.

In many ways I was so lucky. I’ve spent the last five years remembering the first words my oncologist told me:  “This is very curable.” But we all know someone who is battling cancer today, or suffering the ravages of their cure, and they have far tougher fights than I did.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. If you are overdue for a mammogram, make an appointment today. If you have a friend or relative who’s going through breast cancer or is a survivor, give her a hug or a call.  I can’t tell you how much it will mean.