Two weeks before Christmas 2016, I found what I like to call, my “tiny invader”. As a nurse, I understood the importance of doing a breast self-exam and I can honestly say that I did this regularly. So imagine my surprise when I felt a lump that I claim appeared overnight. I told my husband and no one else. Why ruin Christmas for anyone when I am sure that its nothing but a cyst? December 29th 2016, after a reassuring visit with my Gynecologist who also agreed that I had a cyst, I received my first mammogram at 37 years old. As I sat alone, waiting for the doctor to view my images I felt very relaxed and peaceful because again, this was just rule out testing. The doctor came out to speak to me in the waiting room and explained that I had extremely dense breasts and it was almost impossible for a mammogram to show anything. He then suggested I receive an ultrasound which would better identify my lump. I was ushered into the next room where my life saving ultrasound was performed. I call it life-saving because it was cancer. The doctor knew immediately. The ultrasound showed a black, spikey looking oval. Everyone was quiet. I was alone.
I was not prepared for what was to come. I was a neonatal intensive care nurse. I loved my job and was proud to take care of the tiniest of patients. I was supposed to be a hero, but I suddenly felt that I couldn’t even save myself. I felt so helpless and absolutely terrified. How was I supposed to tell my four daughters that I have cancer? How can I look into their eyes, lie, and say everything is going to be fine? I repeatedly told myself that I can handle this and at least it is me and not one of my daughters. I will never forget the face of my mother as she sat we me during my first oncology appointment. I never saw her look that way before. It was the anguish in her face. I was stuck in this limbo of medical biopsies, staging, surgical discussions, and the fear of the unknown. I was so thankful it was me and not my daughters but I realized at that moment that this is my mother’s worst nightmare. Her child was sick.
My story happens all of the time. Luckily, I was very thin with small breasts and was able to palpate my lump. What would have happened if I couldn’t feel my lump? I would have waited three more years for a baseline mammogram that wouldn’t have been able to penetrate my dense breast tissue and my stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma would have probably been something much more. I had a very aggressive grade 3 tumor. I had a single mastectomy with bilateral reconstruction, four rounds of chemotherapy, and now on Tamoxifen for 10 years. I smiled through every round, I documented and shared every step, and I even found myself comforting others who were “having a hard time” dealing with my diagnosis. Inside, I was a ball of anger and rage. I couldn’t work anymore, everyone in my household was beyond stressed and it was all because of me. I sometimes felt that I wasn’t being strong enough. I hated looking into the mirror and see a shockingly different version of my old self. I was prepared for the physical pain but not at all prepared for the emotional pain.
I was lucky to reconnect online with a young woman that I attended some college classes with years ago and was the only breast cancer survivor I knew. Reaching out to her was the best decision that I could have made. She understood everything. She directed me to join the support group in Pittsburgh that she belonged to and that’s when the emotional healing began. I am so fortunate to have the support from my family, best friends that rallied around me, and the new survivors that I have met in support groups. These women are not super heroes. They struggle, fall, get angry, cry, and carry the emotional and physical scars for life. They showed me that breast cancer is not pretty pink ribbons for one month out of the year. I am so grateful that they have provided a life line to me when I needed it the most.