Wednesday, December 7, 2022
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Rebecca’s Story (Breast Cancer)

Rebecca's Story (Breast Cancer) LRTo commemorate reaching the 5 year cancer free milestone (woohoo!!) I thought I’d chronicle my journey as a way to thank those that were beside me every step of the way (couldn’t have done it without you), to inspire those that are fighting this battle right now, and to honor those that have lost their fight.

The Journey of a not so brave warrior…

Sometime in late March 2007, it hit me…40 years old…seriously, I’m going to be 40 year’s old!!?? How did that happen? I feel 25 tops, strong, invincible, and at the top of my game. Friends have told me how liberating your 40′s are, so I was determined to hike up my big girl panties and glide into the big 4-0 with style and grace.

Since opening the gym, Harmony Zone Fitness, the year before (10/1/2006), I believed in being proactive about my health. Eat well, take your vitamins, exercise, exercise, exercise, drink lots of fresh water, sleep 7-9 hours a night, and be diligent about seeing your doctor for regular checkups. So, about a week before my big 4-0 I went in for my annual exam. No, I didn’t skip off to his office merrily looking forward to the visit…come on, I had to undress and put on that flattering paper gown, lay back on a cold crinkly table, bare my lower half, put my feet up in stirrups and submit myself to…well, ladies, you know, all kinds of unpleasantries. But, it had to be done. The visit went well except for the fact that my doctor felt it his duty to mention a few thousand times that I was about to turn 40. No kidding, you think I somehow missed that detail? Do you think even if I was that clueless, my friends, sisters and husband wouldn’t feel it their duty to make sure I knew? I’m serious, if he mentioned it one more time, I was going to show him how strong I was getting from working out 13 to 17 hours a week. One of his final mentions of my upcoming birthday was in conjunction with scheduling my first mammogram. I knew that was magic age. I’d heard horror stories from friends of squeezing & squishing, a cold machine, and rough handling of ‘the girls’. There was no family history of breast cancer in my family, really no cancer at all. Was it really necessary? He was insistent. He had his nurse set the appointment up for me right there and then she called over to the radiology department, made the appointment and handed me a card. I thanked her, stuck it in my purse and went on with my day. It wasn’t until the 12th, a couple weeks away I had a trip to San Francisco and a big birthday before then to celebrate. I almost immediately forgot all about it.

A few days later, my husband Tim and I flew off for the most fabulous trip to San Francisco to visit family. We partied, I was treated to a big birthday trip to Lululemon (my all time favorite workout clothes store) and a little intimate birthday celebration with two of my incredible sister-in-laws and their families. This is a family I have been so fortunate to marry into; a wild, loud, hysterical, loving, cackling, talented, beautiful family. The whole lot of them. Kids, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, they sweep you into this huge hug and it continues the entire time you are together. I remember going for a walk with my sister-in-law in this gorgeous park near their home just outside of San Francisco. The subject of someone she knew just having a breast cancer scare came up. It quickly reminded me that I had a mammogram appointment coming up and, ‘I guess I should keep the appointment’ ran through my head. I mentioned having the appointment soon but then again quickly forgot about it as we started laughing and talking about something all together different.

I actually turned 40 as we flew home on 4/1/2007. On the flight, I thought of a few other monumental things I’d like to accomplish, but at this time, I was just entering into an entirely new decade of my life with my husband snoring loudly beside me. Life was good.

The mammogram day came. It wasn’t until 8:30 am, which gave me enough time to open the gym at 4:30 am, teach a class at 5:15 am, work the desk for about an hour after that, then head home and get my children’s days started. With a morning like that, there really wasn’t a lot of time to worry about what was happening later, but I did have time to be annoyed that I had to rearrange my morning for this appointment.

The woman that took me into the little room to conduct the mammogram was super pleasant. We got started. She talked me through everything, she was very patient and gentle. She took all the ‘pictures’ of the girls (seriously seeing your breast squished out and flat, stretching a foot out from your body is unreal). She explained she would just step out a minute to make sure the radiologist was happy with the quality of the ‘pictures’ and then we’d be done.

She stepped back in the room just a few minutes later and said the doctor wanted another picture of my right breast. Thinking, shoot did I move during that one? I stepped back up to the machine…squish, squoosh, squash…and she left again. Quite a few minutes later she came back in, but this time not alone. Never having experienced this before I was too naive to be scared. That didn’t last long! The doctor (a very nice woman who’s name I have blocked) explained that she was seeing a couple of clusters in my right breast that were concerning and would like me to proceed immediately to ultrasound. Ummm, okay. I’m still thinking this is a precaution and there was a history of fibrous breast tissue in my family, I’m sure that’s all it is. Breast cancer was not even on my radar. Really, what’s on my radar is the fact that I’ve been up 5 hours now, taught a class and all I’ve eaten is a banana and coffee. I needed food soon. I get to ultrasound and again was greeted by a fabulous lady who ran the gooey wand over the top and bottom of my right breast. Shortly, the same doctor comes in once again and does it herself to make sure what she’s seeing. She explains there are two masses that are concerning and what she’d like to do is biopsy both of them right there. Again, my thought was, ummmm, okay. How exactly do you do that? I remained on the same table, they tilted it head down slightly and brought out this needle aspiration tool that looked like something out of a Star Wars movie. They told me they would numb the area up a bit but I would still feel a slight pinch and tug. Slight?! Ouch!! They were sure to explain I would be bruised and have small opening for a few days that I couldn’t expose to bacteria like swimming pools etc. Then it hit me…whoa, wait a minute, back the truck up. Tim and I were taking the kids to the Wisconsin Dells this weekend for some much needed family fun, this was not what I had in mind!!

The doctor told me she would rush the biopsy results and call me tomorrow. I started to shake. Maybe it was the lack of food in my system. Maybe it was a little shock. Maybe it was that this was all hitting me…could I possibly have breast cancer??? The technician was concerned at my visible shaking. She tilted the table further so I was more head down and went in search of crackers. Lucky for me, she came back with stale graham crackers she found in the nurse’s lounge. To this day, I still associate the taste of graham crackers with that hellish morning. The doctor then explained she wanted me to see a surgeon right that day – right then to discuss options so I could start formulating plans as soon as they had the results. What!! Wait, a surgeon, what!!

I was directed to get dressed and head to another waiting area(and now it’s a little after noon). I am lead into an exam room where I met a surgeon who’s name I have purposefully blocked. This man, this completely insensitive, ignorant, terrible man that didn’t possess an ounce of human feeling in his entire body, put my films up on a light box and circled the two tumors or masses or clusters that were the cause of this crazy morning. He said he’d seen it many times before and that he would stake his career on these just being fibrous masses and nothing more. Then he said, ‘If they are more than that, we will simply remove your right breast and move forward from there.’ Ummmm, what?!?!? During this entire time I think I was in shock, it was as if I was having an out of body experience and just watching this nightmare unfold. I do remember thinking ‘Okay doctor, how about at the same time, we remove one of your testicles and you can just move on from there?’. That is if you have any!

I was then pushed out the door, told goodbye and to just relax and wait for the biopsy results tomorrow. Sure, relax, no problem…what??!!

I called Tim as I headed back home, it is mid-afternoon now. I told him in a shaky voice that I was just now leaving the clinic…yes, just now…yes, 6 hours later. I told him he wouldn’t believe what happened and I would fill him in later that evening. I stopped at the gym to see what was going on and mentioned what had happened to one of my employees. She was shocked too and did her best to reassure me that it would all turn out fine. I got home a few hours later and my mother, who took care of my 3 year old during the day and retrieved my 10 year old from school, had everything under control as usual. Dinner was started the boys were happy to see me, and my mom headed home. I didn’t say anything to her about the nightmare because, well, that would somehow give reality to it all. It was best I didn’t say anything until I knew what was going on. Tim came home as quickly as he could and I just kept brushing him away. ‘It’s nothing. Stop it. It’s nothing. Because if I admit to you that it could be something I will lose it. I will freak out. I may have to admit I’m not invincible. I will actually have to let some feelings in. It’s nothing. Stop it. It’s nothing.’

Next day, Friday, April 13th, yes fricken Friday the 13th, and I’m waiting for some of the biggest test results of my life. My wall was up, I was super mom, I laughed, smiled, went about my morning at the gym with my invincibility cloak wrapped tightly around me, no one had any idea anything was up. Nothing could touch me. If I keep moving and acting strong nothing is wrong. The gym went into it’s usual quiet mode after the morning rush and I was working the desk. No, I hadn’t completely forgotten that I was expecting a call, far from it. I just kept pretending. I’m so good at pretending.

The call came from the really nice radiologist. The news, it wasn’t good. She started talking about options and choices and diagnosis and procedures and appointments and being assigned to a liaison, a cancer liaison? I wanted to scream ‘STOP! Stop it! Shut up!!’ But I didn’t; I did what was expected of me. I was polite. I thanked her. Who thanks someone for telling them they have something inside their body that wants to kill them? As I hang up the phone I look down and see all these notes, I must have written during the call. That’s good. I literally remembered only two words from that phone call…’It’s cancer’.

I need to go home. I need to hold my babies. I need my husband. I need to run! But, I don’t. I do what’s expected of  me, I finish my shift. I wait for that same employee to come in to relieve me. She sees something on my face and knows. I confirm her suspicions. She hugs me and cries. I think, why is she so upset? It’s all going to be fine. It’s fine. It’s nothing. Stop it! It’s nothing!

Home, the sweet escape of home. My mom is there with my boys. All is normal. Good. Normal. I then start doing things I will always regret. I handled things so terribly. I’ve come a long way in my life and don’t believe in regret, except these actions, I do regret. I can never take them back. I didn’t say a thing to my mom. I played with my kids. Tim came home. My mom was still there. I can’t bring it up until she leaves. Why won’t she leave? Tim and I are sitting at the kitchen table, my 3 year old on my lap, my mom in the adjoining living room. He casually asks me if I heard anything. I’m sure he asks me that casually right then because he has no idea how things are going to turn upside down for us. I whisper, yes, I have cancer. Done. Point blank. Couldn’t I be brave enough to soften that blow? I will always regret saying it in those words, giving him an awful smirk and walking away from the table. I wonder if he remembers that moment the same way?

That’s just the start of the crappy job I did of handling things. I then proceeded to tell my best friend Cathy that I have breast cancer in a voice mail  Who the hell does that??? Then there’s my sisters, I didn’t tell them at all. As if I say it too many times, then it might actually be true. I did tell my mom a few days later. Telling her was the only time I did it right. Her reaction was unexpected, wait, not unexpected but, but this isn’t about that. She then told my sisters, I think. In my family, if you tell one of my 4 sisters it spreads fast. Who knows how that progressed. Who cares. I wasn’t caring enough to tell them myself.

We did go to the Dells for the weekend. Tim, the boys and I packed up and headed off. I was sore and bruised. I knew I wasn’t getting in the water, hot tub, or pool. I knew we had to have a huge discussion with my boys, my precious, little boys. We decided to do it right away. Just get it done so there wasn’t a ton of questions about why I wasn’t swimming and why I was moving slowly and why I wasn’t my self. We got it over with, right in our room at the Kalahari Resort, we sat our boys down on the sofa. My 10 year old was next to me. The 3 year old on my lap. This I think I handled well. I had to be brave for these two. I told them mommy had breast cancer. We caught it early. The doctors would fix it and make me all better. My older son was very still next to me absorbing the cancer word. He asked, ‘could you die?’ then he said, ‘I don’t want you to die’. Any parent reading this that has looked into the terrified eyes of their child and heard them say these words will know how profoundly that grabs hold of your gut and twists, then reaches up for what’s left of your heart and yanks it right out. I immediately put on my super power shield and said, ‘No sweetie. I am not going to die. I promise you’. What a stupid thing to say.

We went on with our weekend. It was fun. It was sad. We spent a lot of time all snuggled together. Both boys and I got air brush tattoos that weekend. A symbol for ‘long life’. There is an amazing photo out there of the three of us flexing our muscles showing off our tattoos. It gave me courage and determination. It still does.

Back home. Back to reality. Time to face some tough decisions. Time to figure this nightmare out. The doctors weren’t wasting any time. The breast specialists wanted quick decisions and I started a whirlwind of appointments and fact finding missions. I met surgeons and prosthetic breast/mastectomy bra specialists. I met oncologists and a plastic surgeon. I was given possibilities and outcomes and so much to think about. It was decided I needed a complete mastectomy of my right breast. Did I want to remove my chances of recurrence by having both breasts removed? What??? Did I want to use a special bra and prosthetic breast to look ‘normal’ going forward? Did I want an implant to replace what I was losing? Did I want reconstructive surgery? Did I want to just run away? That answer was definitely yes. I asked questions. I got more questions as answers. My husband was just as lost as I was. Thankfully, after running out of the prosthetic breast/mastectomy bra place crying, I knew that wasn’t a path I needed to explore any further.

I met Dr. Beckman, she was the surgeon that was going to remove my breast and the first doctor that understood the gravity of this as a woman. She helped me feel brave in my decision. I met Dr. Salyapongse, he was my reconstructive surgeon. On the day I met him, if you had told me he was going to be the one doctor that I credit with the success of this entire thing, I would have laughed. My first opinion, he was cocky, he was cold, he was to the point. As he walked in the room he brought his male nurse with him. Okay, two against one. He explained Mark was there to make sure that he was nice to me. Chuckle, chuckle. He then proceeded to explain the reconstruction possibilities. After the removal of the breast, he would create a new one with tissue from another part of my body. He first went to my back, my lats and determined there wasn’t enough fat tissue there to retrieve. Thanks, things are looking up. He determined that a buttocks or thigh retrieval would look awkward in yoga pants every day, or was that my decision? He then proceeded to squeeze my belly pouch and size up the breast area he needed to replace. He stated, ‘you have plenty of belly fat and we aren’t filling that big of an area’. Thanks cocky bastard, you’re saying I have a fat belly and small boobs, those are the exact words I thought right then. I turned to Mark and said, ‘I thought you were making sure he was being nice to me?’ I don’t think they got it. Despite this less than stellar start, I trusted him. In most reconstructive/tram flap surgeries abdominal muscles are compromised. I made it clear this wasn’t an option. I cannot do what I do (fitness instructor, yoga instructor, personal trainer) day in and day out with compromised core strength. I wasn’t making it easy for him. He hung in there. He mentioned another surgery that was possible but there was a 10% chance it was possible, maybe less. Instead of folding up an abdominal muscle, it removed tissue from the belly along with the superficial inferior epigastric artery to supply blood to the transplanted tissue. I again believe he said only 10% of the population has this artery present and adequate enough for this type of surgery to work. I had two c-sections prior to this. There was even further chance they had been damaged during one of these surgeries. I was willing to take my chances! He wanted to know what my second option was if this type of surgery wasn’t possible…I had no second option. I put all my faith in him and God to make this happen.

Okay, that settled, simultaneous surgeries, two surgeons working on me. One removing my breast, one recreating it…Now what? I will be down for a long time. I have a family. I have a business. I have clients. I have to wake up from this nightmare soon, before any of this becomes a reality!!

So much of this was handled for me. My amazing support circle, I truly believe all of this was meant to happen when it did. The gym had supplied me with a support circle that made all of this somehow bearable. My staff, my clients, my friends, my family! Armies of support were put into action without my knowledge. Schedules figured out. Classes planned. Groups of friends made freezer meals. My kids were supported. Tim’s co-workers organized more meals. Everyone was on board, everyone made sure everything was ready, everyone but ME. Why is this all happening so damn fast?? Why do all these people know exactly what I need when I have no freakin clue? Would anyone even notice if I stepped out and didn’t come back? Of course they would. These amazing people, these giving, selfless people. They were all here for me. That is humbling…that is amazing.

My mother and sisters rallied to the aid of my children & husband. Everything was in place. I was ever so thankful and so scared. I was scared out of my mind! Was I going to die? Did I lie to my child? I don’t want to die! I don’t want to leave my husband and kids.

I sat down a day or two before the surgery and wrote good bye letters to my kids and husband. That was hard. How do you sum up in a letter how someone has changed your life? How you love them with every ounce of your being? How you know such amazing things are in store for them and you hope to God you don’t have to miss a second of it? I decided at that point, if I was lucky enough to come out of this I would never take a second for granted again. Have I stayed true to that decision? I still have the letters. I will let them read them some day.

The night before the surgery I lay in bed wrapped in Tim’s arms crying until I was sure I would dissolve. He was the only one that knew how scared I was. He was my rock. No sleep for either one of us that night, but that was okay.

The morning came. We had to be there early. I don’t remember much about saying goodbye to my kids or my mom. We started out in Dr.S’s office. He used a purple sharpie, and  he listened to the arteries, and  he was hopeful. He said to me, with tears in his eyes, ‘We are going to beat this’. He was quickly becoming a pillar of strength for me. I remember the long interminable wait at the hospital; hospital gowns, waiting, kind nurses, preparations. Our parish nurse came to pray with us, that was comforting. My sister, Betsy, showed up because I begged her to sit with my husband during the 9 hour surgery, ‘Don’t let him be alone. I don’t want him to be alone if someone comes out with bad news’. They both accompanied me to a procedure to have dye injected in my nipple for the Sentinel Node Biopsy. The dye would travel the path of my lymphatic system to give them the first Lymph Node that could be affected. I was lying on a cold table, my sister and husband to my left. The nurse said the injection would feel like a bee sting. I remember the searing pain and asking her, ‘What the heck kind of bee have you been stung by?’ Swelling, red, hot, pain. That is a pain I won’t forget. Maybe the worst I experienced through the entire experience.

Soon I was wheeled toward the prep area and I had to say goodbye to Tim and Betsy. The Melissa Etheridge song, ‘This is not Goodbye’ sums up that feeling, as you say goodbye to head someplace you have to go alone. If you don’t know that song, look it up, powerful lyrics. You are wheeled in a different direction as you leave your family before surgery. Your support network’s cut off, heading somewhere unknown, somewhere that you will return from completely different, damaged, incomplete, but better somehow?

I was confused waking up, I was bandaged, sore, and felt like I was dying. What did Dr. S end up doing to me? I kept wondering, was the SIEA flap procedure successful. I know I asked this several times, because my recovery room nurse lost her patience with me. I wake up again, now in a hospital room, there’s an angel above me, or my nurse, one in the same at that point. A wonderfully nice woman who’s name I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember. She walked this very path before me, she understood. She said she’d stay with me because in this post surgical floor the others wouldn’t know what to do with me. She did, she stayed past the time her shift ended. One of many angels sent to help me through this.

Another angel, resident doctor, to my reconstructive surgeon, Dr. Murphy (I hope I’m remembering her name right – she deserves recognition) knew exactly how to arrange the pillows so my dragging arm wouldn’t cause pressure on my chest. Many others tried to re-create the comfort, no one managed.

Soon my doctor came in to show others how to check the temperature and listen to the pulse of my newly attached tissue. Then,  something went wrong. There was massive swelling, loss of blood flow, and had to go back to surgery in the middle of the night. I couldn’t breath; there was so much pressure. I was scared, I remember telling my doctor to just remove the new breast, he responded that he wasn’t ready to give up yet. I told the anesthesiologist I was dying, thank goodness he didn’t believe me either. Luckily, these doctors didn’t give up so easily. Dr. Salyapongse made a personal call to Tim, who was home sleeping, to let him know what was going on. For someone who first struck me as arrogant definitely turned out to be an amazing doctor.

I settled back into my room. Nurse after nurse, resident after resident came in to check my flap…my what?!? I went from a woman with two not so bad breasts to a pathetic ‘being’  with a flap? Why couldn’t they understand I didn’t want to see it, and I definitely wanted them to stop referring to it as a flap! If I have one thing to communicate to this group of health care professionals, that would be it. Leave me some dignity. Treat me like a whole woman, not someone damaged, and certainly not someone with a flap!

I was also getting tired of large groups of residents coming in to look at all my abdominal and chest incisions by lifting up the gown repeatedly to reveal my completely naked body. I soon told Tim he needed to figure out how to get panties on me or I was going to start charging for the show. My doctor came in after that to have a look. He chuckled when he saw that I managed to get panties on, and chuckled even  more when I told him I was tired of giving a free show.

Days went by – lots of discomfort. Visits from family, my babies, my best friend Cathy. Tim was by my side,  and my sister patiently rubbing/scratching my sweaty itching legs under the pressure socks. A bright spot came a few days late, the results were in and my lymph node was clear. Yay!! I argued until the hospital staff let me get up and walk. Apparently that got me an ‘ independent’ label on my chart. Hmmm….

As fast as I could, I begged to go home, I think I may have worn them down, so off I went. Four drainage bags hanging from my body. I couldn’t stand up straight from the scar that ran from around back of one side to around the other. I may have been in a freak magic show mishap, sawed in half by accident? My belly button was also relocated, so that was posing issues. Did I already say the word freak?

The first day home the pain and discomfort was almost unbearable. I couldn’t believe what I just let happen to me. I couldn’t roll over. I couldn’t move. My kids were afraid to get near me. Why was I in such a hurry to leave the care of the hospital, because it proved I was brave and strong and not weak. Yeah, right! The drainage bags had to be emptied a few times a day, the incisions had to be treated and bandaged, I developed an allergic reaction to the surgical tape on my abdominal incision, huge painful blood blisters developed. How could I have Tim take care of all this, without having it change the way he looked at my body? Luckily, my mom was willing to come over several times a day and take care of it. Thank you, Mom!

I wanted to be recovered. Three weeks later I was back at the gym. Yep, three weeks. I was supposed to be down for 8 – 12 weeks. I was only just supposed to start to get out of bed at three. You might think this sounds amazing, a testament to health and strength but honestly, I can now admit it was cowardice. I was afraid to sit too long in case I thought about things. I was afraid people would think I was weak if I didn’t get back in there. I was afraid to appear anything but amazing. All I did was cheat myself. I cheated myself out of much needed recovery time. I cheated myself out of a time for my soul to heal. I cheated myself out of the me time I deserved. See, not so brave.

I walked the 5K Race for the Cure 25 days after my surgery. 25 days, 3.12 miles with Tim, my older son and Cathy by my side. The pictures of me are horrendous. I’m swollen, and pale. But, I walked it, I made it, the energy there gave me so much courage and strength.

Next up treatments, medication, more surgeries.

With clear lymph nodes I was happy to say no to chemo. If you know me, you know I don’t put preservatives or chemicals in my body so I was certainly not going to put poison in it either. I researched and decided I would focus on eating complete nutritious foods, I would exercise regularly and I would handle this my way. I turned down Tamoxifen which is a drug breast cancer patients take for 5 years after a breast cancer diagnosis to help lessen chances of recurrence. However, because I was pre-menopausal and just 40 the studies showed the drug’s effectiveness was much lower than if I was post-menopausal and late 50′s. It was my choice and my body. I knew the chances those decisions could bite me in the ass later down the road existed, but they were my choices. I continue to stand by them today. I strongly believe we have to advocate for our bodies, for what we feel and believe is right. Blindly accepting the drugs and treatments that are pushed on us by the medical/pharmaceutical communities is a mistake. I was fortunate to have a doctor (Dr. S) that listened and offered alternative pain killing options to heavy narcotics out of respect of these wishes. Thanks Dr. S!

Over the next year I had an implant inserted in my left breast so the sides matched…think a 40 year old breast and a 20 year old breast side by side, nope, didn’t match. When you are in form fitting yoga tops every day this doesn’t go unnoticed. Unfortunately the implant insertion rendered my last remaining nipple without feeling. Imagine being a woman and having no nipple on one side (think Barbie’s chest) and one without feeling on the other? Bummer hardly describes this. It was one of those things that only happens about 10% of the time. I’m a not so lucky member of that 10% club as well.

It was still really hard for me to look at myself naked. In a quest to look more “normal” I then had a surgery to create a nipple during the next year…I believe Dr. S cut a clover leaf in my “new breast” and folded/twisted it up into a nipple. I had to wear a nipple cone for a bit, not a good look in a jog/yoga top! The procedure itself was amazing, but if I had to do it all over again, I’d skip this step. It still reminds me of an “outie” belly button. It didn’t truly enhance my feelings about my new body. It isn’t a nipple.

Throughout this entire ordeal Dr. S took photo after photo of my chest. I get that this was all for medical documentation, for teaching purposes, and he did promise my face wasn’t in any of them, and my name would be left off. But it still felt somewhat reminiscent of a bad line from a ‘photographer’ that wanted to do a photo shoot in his apartment. But, it was Dr. S, and he had saved my life, and given me a chance at normalcy.

The next step, approximately 3+ years out, micropigmentation to ‘color’ the new nipple. Similar to a tattoo but it involved 4 or 5 sessions as long as two hours to match the look of my ‘real’ nipple. I was fortunate enough to meet a woman that did this procedure. She is one of those people that truly leaves a mark on your heart. Caring, understanding, beautiful, fun, she patiently performed each session allowing me to keep my dignity in tact. Slowly a ‘nipple’ was blooming. Slowly and painfully…WOW!! Matching the other one, giving me a matching set. It was nice. It was comforting. Unfortunately the color has slowly disappeared, another instance of something that doesn’t happen very often but can. Yes, it can. I’m a member of that club too.

The healing process has taken a long time. I have a lot of scars, lots on the outside. Scars on the inside too, on those parts of me you can’t see. I’m not the same person I was 5 years ago. For the most part, that’s okay. I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned a lot about those around me. What has brought these amazing people into my life and by my side remains a mystery to me, but not one I take for granted.

I now feel it is my duty to give back. I raise money, I run, I walk, I donate my time, I donate my yoga teaching skills. I had the privilege of leading a breast cancer survivor fitness class in my community. I get so much more back from this than I anticipated, including a few new friends. I was fortunate enough to counsel another young patient of Dr B’s that was facing similar options that I faced. That was rewarding and I hope she is doing really well.

I’m still scared…it shakes me to the core when breast cancer rears it’s ugly head around me. A couple of years ago it took one of my friends, Aday , from this world. This bright beautiful woman that I had the good fortune to know and love when I lived in Texas lost her battle. Her smile and sense of humor was like no one else I have yet to meet. Stupid dumb cancer, I hate you! You have no idea how much I despise you! Recently I found out that someone from my survivor fitness group was battling again, she had made it past her 5 years. That’s not fair! She’s young. She has a family. She doesn’t deserve this. That scares me more than I can possibly communicate. I see woman at the walks we do that aren’t as fortunate as I. They look fragile, they look tired. I want to help them and at the same time run the other way.

I may not be as brave as I pretend, but I’m strong. I may not be as heroic as it seems, but I have the strength of a million heroes around me that lend me strength every day. I am a warrior. I am a woman. I faced cancer. I kicked it in the rear. I didn’t do it alone. I couldn’t have done it alone.

So, as I celebrate this 5 year milestone I’m celebrating you…Tim, my beautiful boys, Betsy, Mom, my other sisters, all of my kids, Cathy, my Warriors, Dr Salyapongse, Dr Beckman, my friends. I’m celebrating all of you that walked this journey with me. That carried me through it. That held me. That laughed and cried with me. That continue to support me in more ways than you even know. I know the sacrifices you have made. I know the prayers you offered up. I know the tears you have shed. I know…I am celebrating you. This is not my victory, it is ours.

I know 5 years doesn’t guarantee me a life without cancer. But, my will and mind are strong and the power this milestone gives me is immense. It adds courage to my soul. It erases a few of those internal scars. It lets me see myself as a little more beautiful on the outside. It makes me feel like a warrior. I believe the bravery will build with age, with ripe old, ancient, shriveled up age that comes with a long healthy life.

Rebecca Higgins
Submitted 5-10-2012

The informational content of this article is intended to convey a personal experience and, because every person’s experience is unique, should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional healthcare advice.

This story is intended to convey a personal experience and, because every person’s experience is unique, should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional healthcare advice.

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  1. Veronica

    Rebecca, I am a 4 year survivor as of April 2013. I know how you feel about Friday April 13, I got my news on non other than April 1, April Fools Day! I kept thinking this is a horrible joke to be playing on me. I’m looking forward to hitting my 5 year April 2014!!

  2. Melanie Angelle-Wolfe

    My journey has been bittersweet as far as support goes. I knew of my diagnosis a little while before telling my family due to other circumstances. My husband pretended as if it wasn’t real and chose a job that would keep him AWAY from home when I needed him most. My son was working on his duties as an Airmen in the Air Force and my daughter, RN and pregnant was “hormonal” and I couldn’t tell her until the time was “right”. The time is never “right’ since cancer keeps going. I found a lovely Nurse Navigator and a support group to guide me through as I moved forward on my own.

    My “smartport” was placed on Friday, January 13 2012 and my first chemo treatment Monday January 16, 2012. I was “alone” for most of the treatments, so I slept alot. I did continue working as a hairstylist to keep my client base going and also maintained my household duties just to feel a little “normal” and productive. My first grandaughter was born on December 26, 2011 so I also wanted to be around her as much as possible eventhough I was extremely tired and sometimes disoriented. I could not let my family really know what a “struggle” all of this was. I now wish I woould have, but not sure if it would have changed anything.

    Moving forward, my last Herceptin treatment was this past Monday, May 6, 2013. I was alone and filled with emotion when the nurse asked if I was going to celebrate? my eyes filled with tears and suddenly I received a text message from my husband asking if I wanted to have a celabratory dinner later that day!!!!!! This all happened simultaneously and I was more than pleased. I rang a special bell when I was “done” and the nurse and some of the staff gave me a lot of love! I am still so overwhelmedwith emotion and grateful to be at this point though I know it is not all over.

    Many acquaintances have praised me for “looking” great and having a positive attitude….I am glad I pulled that one off! In my profession and personal life as well, negativity hasn’t been an option so “tough love” had to take over!

  3. pattye

    it was a year ago May 4th, my birthday i found out i had breast cancer. my cousin was diagnosed a couple months before me. she paved my way to which doctors i wanted to use. I had my left breast removed and implants. i was told by 3 different doctors they didnt believe it was in my lymphnodes. after my surgery i went home. my sister and my best friend, both named vicki/vickie took care of me. my sister stayed at night my bestie came during the day. i could not have survived that part of the journey with out them. 3 days after surgery i got a call it was in the nodes. tiny specs in 3 out of 39 nodes. i choose the oncologist my mother had, dr j joyce. we loved her when mom had her. i didn’t want chemo and there was no way i was doing radiation. i ended up doing the chemo. lost my beautiful blonde hair after the first treatment. for some reason chemo was harder on me than most. figures huh……
    any way my boyfriend moved in to take care of me through the chemo. we all thought he was heaven sent. we were so wrong. he snooped and got my social security number and opened 5 credit cards in my name with him as a user. for 5 months i was on heavy duty meds that made me sleep, i slept through his lies and deceit. when i finally could go back to work part time he had ran up a 20 grand total. he even put my engagement ring on one of the cards. after another 5 months and fighting with the credit card companies they all finally said yes it was fraud…duh….
    i work at a wonderful company. every one pitched in and did most of my work. i got support and love from every one there. its been almost a year and i continue to get their support and help.
    i had wonder support from my family and friends. my sister, my sister was there for me through every thing. encouragment, love, an ear when i whined. she hauled me to doctors visits, hospitals, and chemo. she held me when i cried, she cried with me. i never would have survived my journey through hell with out her. and folks it was a journey to hell. i am coming up on my one year anniversary of being cancer free. i have short black/white curly hair now. i cant wait to be blonde again. i have a few problems lingering from the chemo, nerve damage in my feet and pain in my joints. i have good days and i have bad days. i am back to work full time and i take each day as it comes. i look back over the year and wonder how i did it…..but i know one thing for sure. i would do it all again to keep my sister, my nieces, my daughter and my grand daughter from having to do it.

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