October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and is an "international health campaign organized by charities to increase awareness and raise funds for research into its cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure". So many people are impacted by this disease that the benefits of continued research and awareness goes far beyond our scope of understanding. Whether it be someone you love who battled and/or is battling this disease, a family member, a friend, a co-worker, or yourself, we have all been touched in some way and at some point in our lives.
Back in 2008, I noticed a large discoloration on my right breast as I was getting out of the shower. Having previously worked in Healthcare for 20 years, I knew that changes to our bodies were not just by happen chance. If we pay attention they send us messages that allow us to know whether something isn't right. I immediately called my father who worked in Healthcare for over 40 years and discussed with him my findings. Over the course of the next three weeks, he worked alongside two amazing physicians who ran every test possible to identify and diagnose this discoloration ... I had a mammogram, treatment for a massive infection, went through several biopsies, Cat Scans, and finally a Breast MRI. One particular Monday, my General Surgeon sat me down in his exam room. I sat on the edge of the examination table as he sat in front of me with the most solemn look on his face. He held my hands and informed me that I had Inflammatory Breast Cancer. I sat quietly for a moment comprehending his words, also recognizing that he shouldn't be looking so sad. I needed him to be strong. He then said "Do you understand what I'm telling you? What you have is very serious". As I quietly absorbed his words, I finally responded "I do understand. However, I also knew that one day I would get cancer because my grandmother had it twice. It was always a matter of "when" for me. You have now told me when". He had never witnessed anyone responding as I did and that made him quietly look at me in return.
For those who are not familiar with Inflammatory Breast Cancer, it is the rarest and most aggressive of all Breast Cancers. In the three weeks it took to diagnose me, I was almost a Stage 4. The reason it took so long for a diagnosis is because Inflammatory Breast Cancer is not a cancerous lump. The cells are cancerous and therefore not traceable through a Mammogram. My skin biopsies came back clear, as well as my Cat Scans. What finally diagnosed me was the Breast MRI, which was new technology back in 2008. I began chemotherapy within one week of diagnosis so I had little time to process and prepare for my journey ahead.
Initially when I was diagnosed, I found that my family, friends, and co-workers were very distraught. Every time they'd see me, they'd get teary-eyed or cry. When you care about someone, the word cancer has the word "fear" attached to it and therefore everyone was afraid that I would die. It became very important in my journey for those to know that I would live. Therefore, I chose to shield them from the side effects I would experience during those four months. I remained positive in front of others and quietly wept in the background at times. However my strength during this trying time began to witness change in others. Instead of crying when they'd see me, everyone would smile and comment how they'd never seen anyone handle this so well. That although I looked pale and wore wigs, I seemed healthy in spite of it all. What happened during that four months was that those who cared began to see that I would live and this in turn allowed me to focus on my getting well. Looking back, I'm not quite sure how I managed that much strength. But in the face of something so traumatic, oftentimes parts of yourself emerge that you previously did not know existed.
For me, my journey ended well. I had a full body PET scan once my chemo treatments ended and was deemed cancer-free. The surgeons spoke of my case at their monthly meeting because they were amazed how well my cancer responded to the chemo drugs. Over the course of the next year, I went through a series of 7 surgeries ... all from a bi-lateral mastectomy to reconstruction. I also had full body PET Scans every six months for the next five years. With Inflammatory Breast Cancer, if any cancer returns it will return elsewhere in the body. The PET Scans allowed the Doctors to see how my body was healing and offering me words of Hope during this difficult time. I was one of the fortunate ones ... I won the fight!
Looking back, it's hard to believe the road I traveled. The support of my family and friends was immeasurable. Although I knew there were moments I needed to shield from them in their efforts to heal emotionally, I always knew I was surrounded by Love every step of the way.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month only comes but once a year ... however, the battle continues year-round. The purpose of me sharing my story is to personalize the journey for others. Recognizing the faces behind the disease impacts so many. For those who have battled cancer and won, I praise and respect you for your strength and purpose. For those who lost the fight, as my Grandmother ultimately did, I remember you for the blessings you brought into my life.
So on behalf of me and my family, we thank you for your continued support in finding a cure and eventually "knocking out" cancer. Thank you!