December 2003 my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember saying that if I am ever diagnosed with breast cancer that I would have a bilateral mastectomy, which later proved to be easier said than done. In June 2010, one of my older sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer. My chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer were higher. I was classified as high risk. Because of this, I never missed a mammogram appointment.
They say that cancer doesn't hurt. That's not exactly true. Steven touched a spot on my left breast that sat me straight up in bed. Whatever he touched, hurt. He told me that I needed to call my doctor that something wasn't right. I told him that I would say something to my gynecologist at my next appointment, which happened to be right around the corner.
I went to my appointment and she did the standard breast exam. She didn't feel anything and for some reason I had no pain. I told her what had happened, and she felt around a little more. She finally felt a lump that she didn't think was cause for concern, but she ordered an ultrasound to be on the safe side. I had the ultra sound, which showed three areas of concern, which resulted in biopsies. The biopsies were done and on April 15, 2014, Steven and I heard what no one ever wants to hear, "it's cancer." The spot that Steven touched was the cancerous tumor. It was invasive ductal carcinoma. I shouldn't have been surprised, but I cried the whole way home. Steven kept reassuring me that everything would be okay. I eventually realized that crying wouldn't fix the situation, so I finally stopped. I needed to keep living my life and could not dwell on the diagnosis.
I went to work the next day and continued to maintain as much of a normal schedule as possible in between doctor's appointments and additional biopsies of my right breast. I also needed to pull it together because Steven and I were getting married in a month. As I said, I needed to continue living my life and not let the diagnosis consume me. I knew that there were a lot of decisions that would need to be made and I remember telling my LGH surgeon that I wanted to do whatever would aid in me not having to be sitting in his office in five years having a similar discussion. I opted for a bilateral mastectomy, which I questioned. Was it the right decision? During the ultra sound of my right breast the doctor came in and said that he understood that I was going to have a bilateral mastectomy and that they were checking my right breast to see if there were any areas of concern. He told me that he was glad that I had opted for the bilateral mastectomy because my breast lit up like a Christmas tree with pre-cancerous spots. It was in that moment that I stopped questioning my decision.
Everyone knows someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. In 1996 I started participating in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life through my company. At the time I had relatives affected by the disease, but no one in my immediate family until my mother's diagnosis. The relay was bittersweet the year of my diagnosis because I was scheduled to have my initial surgery on Monday June 9, 2014, at LGH- the Monday following that year's Lancaster Relay for Life, which my oldest sister and I participated in. Never did I think that I would be walking the relay for myself.
I had a total of three surgeries. Two of them were for my reconstruction. Three surgeries within a one-year timeframe, but by June of 2015 I was on the road to recovery and celebrated being one-year cancer free at the 2015 Lancaster Relay for Life event. Once again, my oldest sister participated in the event with me. We were excited that I had beat cancer and was able to move on with my life.
I considered myself blessed because I did not have to go through chemo or radiation. My tumor risk factor was 12%. At 13% I would have had to do chemo. My oncologist at Ann B. Barshinger Cancer Institute prescribed Tamoxifen for 10 years. I don't like taking medication but figured easy enough. People would say that they were sorry to hear that I had cancer. I would tell them not to feel sorry for me because I had the easy cancer. It didn't involve chemo and radiation.
I was through with surgeries and had a treatment plan that was doable, so I was ready to close this chapter of my life. I wanted to close the book on my cancer journey. I did this by participating in the Susan G Komen 3-day, 60-mile walk in Philadelphia in October 2015. It was an ugly and rainy weekend. It was exhausting and challenging, but I was determined to complete the walk, to beat cancer and to let cancer know that it wasn't going to control me.
In May of 2016 Steven and I moved from Mount Joy to Wrightsville. During the move I was experiencing pins and needles in my left hand. I figured it was carpal tunnel and ignored the symptoms for a couple of months. That was until the symptoms moved up my arm and into my shoulder. I also noticed that I was having balancing issues. After five months of testing that I thought would never end, I was officially diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in January of 2017. I was put on medication to control my symptoms, which now included stumbling, fatigue and blurred vision.
Steven and I were not thrilled with the diagnosis but were glad to finally know what was wrong. We got back to living life and thanking God for each new day. My husband loves to do special things for me and in 2017 my birthday fell on a Saturday. Because of this, he planned out the entire day which included lunch at Accomac restaurant, enjoying music after lunch at Moon Dancer Winery and then dinner at John Wright restaurant. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was looking forward to the time together.
Although I have implants, I was still doing self-breast exams around the implants. The morning of my birthday and 3 years and 26 days of being cancer free, I felt a lump next to my left implant. I knew immediately that my cancer was back. I told Steven but knew that since it was Saturday that there was nothing that we could do until Monday. He told me that everything would be okay, and we went on to enjoy the day by making some wonderful memories.
I honestly didn't know whom to call on Monday. I eventually called my gynecologist and got there first available appointment for that Thursday, July 20, 2017. The appointment was not with my regular doctor, which concerned me a little. I went to the appointment and filled the doctor in on my history. She immediately ordered an ultra sound, which led to a biopsy because I was told during the ultra sound that the lump had all the characteristics of a cancerous tumor. On August 15, 2017, Steven and I were told that my cancer was back.
On September 22, 2017 I had a lumpectomy and partial hysterectomy at LGH. The hysterectomy was done because I was at a higher risk for ovarian cancer and my oncologist needed to change my oral cancer treatment medication from Tamoxifen to Amidrex because the Tamoxifen had in their eyes "failed." The only issue was that I wasn't through menopause, so they had to do the hysterectomy.
I remember seeing my surgeon prior to the surgery in September. Steven and I were sitting in the room and he came in shaking his head. He said that my cancer shouldn't have come back. I told him that we had a deal when I was initially diagnosed and weighing my options. I had told him then that I did not want to be sitting in his office 5 years later having the same conversation. We only made it three years.
This time around I had to go through 30 rounds of radiation. I remember walking out of my first radiation appointment and into the waiting room where Steven was sitting. I had purple lines everywhere marking the areas to be treated. Steven said that it looked like a 3-year-old was drawing on me. The purple lines were eventually replaced with permanent purple tattooed dots. I remember talking with the radiation doctor about potentially removing my implants prior to the treatments due to the chance of the left implant becoming encapsulated, which happens to 1 in 5 women. The decision was made to leave the implants in to avoid a potentially unnecessary surgery, which I was okay with. I ended my radiation treatments on December 28, 2017 and we were working on getting back to some sense of normalcy.
About mid-2018, I noticed that my implants did not look even. I thought that the right one might be leaking because it appeared smaller than the left one. I was also starting to have pain in the left implant, so I made an appointment with my Plastic Surgeon. Unfortunately, I was the one out of five and my left implant had become encapsulated. On December 21, 2018, I had Latissimus Dorsi Flap reconstruction at LGH to fix the problem. For those who do not know what this is, they removed what damaged tissue and muscle I had and brought new tissue and muscle around from my back to provide good tissue and muscle to my chest area.
In four and a half years I have had a total of six surgeries with the possibility of one more reconstructive surgery. All the surgeries were due to breast cancer. However, I am blessed in so many ways. My motto during my first diagnosis was, "even and perky." This is what I had said to the Plastic Surgeon when we were discussing my options for reconstruction and what I wanted. My motto the second time around has been, "it is what it is." I couldn't change the diagnosis.
I am thankful for my faith in God and knowing that this is all part of my story. There is a reason why I have gone through what I have. Last year prior to my second diagnosis, a dear friend of mine gave me a ring with Jerimiah 29:11 inscribed on it. "For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." I read the inscription whenever I needed to be reminded that I would be okay- just as my husband kept telling me.
I am grateful to those who kept us in their prayers, made us meals and sent cards and flowers to lift my spirits. I am blessed to have a family that helped with getting me to and from my radiation treatments and doctor's appointments. I am not one to ask others for help, but in times like this, you need to realize that you cannot do it alone. My husband is not only my angel because he found the initial lump, but also my rock. There were hard days, but he helped to keep me focused on my faith and helped me to keep a positive attitude. He did whatever he could to make life as normal as possible because he knew that all I wanted was a sense of normalcy. He stayed strong for the both of us.
I am thankful for all the professionals that were responsible for helping me to get through this journey. Going through this journey has opened my eyes to these individuals. I am thankful for their compassion and understanding, and for them treating me like a person and not just a number. My most recent surgery required me to be admitted to the hospital for a few days. I have a better appreciation for the jobs that these professionals do and believe that it takes a special kind of person to do their line of work.
Although I had cancer twice, I will continue to say that I am blessed because there are individuals out there fighting a tougher battle. I believe that my faith, positive attitude, Steven, family and friends are what got me through this journey, and I pray that someday our world is free of cancer.
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