My roots are from the south. Being called, ‘Pumpkin’ or Punkin’ is common, and it’s an endearing term from ones we love. Not that my blog has anything to do with that, but there are other connotations about the word pumpkin…which IS what my blog is about this week.
“It’s October, ya’ll!
BREAST AWARENESS MONTH
Time to take those pumpkins to get a mammogram!”
All kidding aside, I’d like to take a moment to be authentic and share my feelings regarding breast cancer and survival, as well as pay tribute to those beautiful women who were and are and will be fatally victimized by its brutal, cellular clutch.
I share my story, as a survivor, because I hope that I may uplift, or enlighten at least one person or one family to realize that breast cancer is real. Learning to live with it, prevent it and remove it from our society is a huge challenge for individuals and communities.
My blog is longer than usual, but something keeps telling me I must share it. I hope that it’ll be of interest.
Breast Cancer is deadly, and it respects no one: Woman or Man.
Cancer patients, and certainly breast cancer survivors, are strong, vibrant, resilient warriors, and they are fighting against huge corporate odds, thus victimized by chemical additives in foods, homes, environment and more.
The fight for cancer prevention continues.
Please take care of yourself. Educate. Prevent. Inform.
Here’s my story. I know you have a story, too. Please feel free to share and inform us.
I felt a small lump in my breast. It hurt. I was concerned, but I didn’t have insurance, so I simply put it aside and carried on about my business. Then, I turned 62, was able to take early retirement; and was, also, fortunate enough to have Medicare at 65. I went to get a mammogram as soon as possible. Sure, I know there are free clinics and organizations where you can pay by sliding scale; but my hubby and I were going through some financial issues, so I simply procrastinated. Just that simple. Just that hard.
At any rate, insurance was finally acquired, I finally went to the Women’s Clinic, got the Mammo and waited for results. You can imagine how happy I was to learn that it was just a mass, and no cancer was found. Whew! I took a deep breath, and again, carried on about life and business as usual.
For me, ‘as usual’ meant Divorce. Death. Family complexities. Long working hours. Financial crisis. Change of lifestyle. Several moves. Fear. Elation. Failure. Goals met. Expectations unmet. New experiences…and well, you get the picture. There were a couple of years where my life’s journey blended calm and chaos, and I was just spinning. The metaphor that comes to mind is a visual of stirring powdered creamer into a cup of coffee and watching it slowly dissolve and blend into the spinning vortex of creamy delight. It appears that it’s blended, but then that one tiny lump of creamer doesn’t dissolve and sinks to the bottom. You don’t see it until you take a big sip. Then, there it is, stuck to the back of of your tongue, and you either just swallow it or slowly let it dissolve. Well, those years I gulped it. Savored it. Felt its energy.
After all, it was just a lump of life.
I woke up one morning totally exhausted, completely wiped out, dragging. For a multitude of reasons, and with hesitation, I decided to close my business. Complications ensued. Nothing seemed to be going as planned, and yet many opportunities were being presented as positive changes. I was treading to stay above the chaos and flailing about the waves of self respect, approvals, disapprovals, judgements. I realized that I needed to get a grip, stay steady and wait out the storm.
First, I sold my cute little Mercedes pony. Then, I bought a car with fewer complications and less expensive upkeep. I found a teaching job in Austin in an area that I felt was accessible to my needs. I knew I would want to move back to Austin asap. In addition and to help out with closing the business, I was asked to participate in a small antique venue in Austin where I could close-out my current stock. As suspected, traveling back and forth soon proved to be too much; so I found an apartment within a mile of my work. By Christmas, I was settled into 625 square feet of apartment. Though tiny, it was home. I was in transitional shock, relationship shock, family worries. You name it, I think I was in the middle of it. Craziness for sure. Yet, the plan was unfolding with intent, with God’s grace, and with the help of good friends and family. The lump in my breast traveled with me, too.
With many boxes still to be unpacked and surrounded by fears, faith, and a good foundation, I woke up one morning, ready for the day’s schedule; and as most of us, I headed for the bathroom first thing. As I flushed, I saw blood in the toilet. What the heck?
I hadn’t had a physical for several years. Obviously, it was time.
With appointment made, and Medicare in hand, I headed to one of the local 24-hour clinics and got the usual blood work and all the pokes and prods. I was happy to have good insurance: Complete Medicare and Plan G that would pick up the remainder of costs. The $300 + monthly costs were worth it. The doctor then said, “I see it’s time for a breast checkup.”
So, I did and also saw a GYN. I had a 3-D mammogram which is much cleaner and more precise than a regular mammogram. The dreaded call came; I needed to return and discuss the findings. I went by myself. I felt immortal and unworried; but there was a concerned look on the technician’s face when I arrived. She said, “I see something here that is questionable. (Another consultation). “Yes. We believe a Lumpectomy is in order to test for cancer.”
No problem. It’s just a little outpatient thing. I once again ventured by myself. Unfortunately when I checked in, they had records and appointments confused. I waited for nearly two hours. I think they gave me a sedative. Finally, the doctor who would do the outpatient surgery apologetically arrived. I can’t remember what the complication was during the procedure, but she kept apologizing about it; I could see the probing of the needle in my breast as she moved it around. (It’s amazing technology). For a moment my anxiety overwhelmed me, but I slowly calmed down. I was numb. Numb at heart. Numb from life. Just numb. And scared.
Cut to a few days later, May 8th. according to my journal. I’m driving back from lunch to work, pulling into a parking space, when my cellphone rings. “Hello. (I can barely understand her as she speaks). This is Dr. ___ from the ___ Clinic. (The doctor that I originally saw for the physical). I am sorry to give you this news, but your tests reveal that you have cancer. I suggest you find a cancer consultant as soon as possible. I am so sorry. Call if I can help with anything.” Click.
I sat there dumbfounded trying to process what she had just said. Truly, I NEVER thought I’d fall victim to cancer. That was always someone else…someone I didn’t know, or someone who smoked, drank, or lived an unkept life. Me? No. Then, I immediately recalled that my Mama had just survived a mastectomy a couple of years prior. A flash of pain shot through me as I visualized the anguish she endured and the physical changes that her body had suffered.
My body began trembling, but I didn’t know what to do. I still had an afternoon class to teach. I vaguely remember opening the car door and walking inside the courtyard of our early childhood facility. One of my fellow teachers was walking toward me. “Lane, are you ok?” Obviously, I wasn’t, and the tears and anxiety flooded out without warning. She embraced me. We sat down. I now recall some of that trauma, but not all. It’s blurry in my mind. The sun was shining. It was late spring. Mostly I remember the warmth of her embrace and the tears we shed together. That scenario is very clear to me to this day.
I left that afternoon without a clue as to what would be happening. I called a friend. “M…Can you come over?” That’s all I recall of that conversation. She brought a bottle of wine, and we sat outside on the patio. My apartment neighbors gathered. They consoled, and then the journey began. Sleep was not an option. Ignorance was bliss, for sure.
Readers, here I take a break…
WHO GETS A CALL ON THE PHONE TO TELL YOU THAT YOU HAVE CANCER? I hope that this doesn’t happen to all patients. I’m in hopes that communities are currently working toward better communication and ways to support patients.
Back to story:
Soon, the reality check hit me, and I began educating myself about prerequisite needs and the sequential steps to deal with the lumpy cancer. I learned about the different types of breast cancer, the possibility of recurrence, and statistics of what proved to be the best recourse. I make a surplus of calls, trying to talk to anyone and everyone who had experienced breast cancer. I reached out to local organizations who could provide support and enlightenment.
I interject here that the first major step after the reality check is to find the ‘right’ cancer specialist. I went to Texas Oncology. (Dr. Fain is absolutely the best and kindest doctor on this planet. I love him). He said upon our first visit, “I’m going to be your best friend over the next five years.” The Seton Hospital and Clinic staff are super nice. I now see that God had guided me in my decision to close the store and to move back to Austin, because my hospital, cancer care, and therapy center are only minutes from my apartment. It had been wise to fold the store and to move to my new digs. I continue to say, “Thank you, Lord. Thank you angels.”
With great deliberation, I found a surgeon who is a cancer specialist referred by friends and neighbors. “She’s the best!” I was told. My mama and my sister, Scottie, escorted me to the hospital for that first initial prognosis and consultation. It took about 30 minutes to conclude the conversation with her. Not much discussion; I was her last patient for the day. Here are your options…Gotta move on.
Departing from the clinic, the three of us walked out, looked at each other, stopped and then repeated, “What just happened?” It was all a blur. I reread the reports. I reread the prognosis. I had several options to rectify the small, but growing metastasized cancer in my left breast. I looked at my mom. Memories flooded back again; and with certainty, I made a quiet decision. I did not want to be 86 and suffering from the removal of both breasts. Neither did I want to destroy my body through chemo (although if my cancer were at a higher, progressive stage, I might have made a different decision). If I needed radiation, so be it. I went home. Called the kids. My daughter, Shani, said “Mom, we support you in any decision you make, or don’t make. It’s your life. It’s your body. We love you.”
Quickly, I realized that I could not work and proceed with all of the details regarding the hows, whys, whens, and wheres. I was at the mercy of each organization’s schedule, and rarely were they open on the weekend. Not everyone took Medicare either; or if so, there was limited care. I called numerous people to get advice. If I didn’t work, I had no income. How would I survive? Who will take care of me during recuperation? There was literally too much work in the beginning process to feel sorry for myself. I had to remain focused. I was definitely NOT a victim, and the battle began.
ON THE LIST: A will. Hospital admittance and approval applications. A head-to-toe MRI that lasted what seemed like forever without sedation. (It’s best to be accompanied and be sedated for a full scan as they weed out any other types of possible cancer). Insurance papers. You will nest like crazy before the surgery, and that’s OK. I felt like I needed to know where everything was when I returned home from surgery, and I wanted organization…it was the only control I had, or so it felt.
FINANCES AND CANCER:
Fortunately, my SS check covered my rent, car, and insurance. I had been wise in setting that budget up when I moved. However, with no income, I didn’t know how I would pay my bills, utilities, debt, etc. Believe me, it took 8-hour days of constant phone calls and inquiries to learn how to meet my needs: Financial help, home healthcare after surgery, recuperation down time…the list was endless. But it was up to me to make it happen.
Today, my advice is to find, within each organization, the person who will navigate you through the process. Stick with that person and always find a center’s social worker, his/her hours, and specifics (PAPERWORK) you need before talking to them. Create a folder. Buy a binder. Keep phone numbers, account numbers within reach.
I am sure that all cancer patients experience similar feelings and situations even though we are all at different levels of income, etc. But when one is single, it’s notably harder. For this reason, my heart truly goes to all widows, divorced or single women who must endure the ramifications of cancer or any health issue. It’s just hard, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Kudos to all of the women who have endured this trauma with children and while being single. I cannot imagine. One must be prepared for the onslaught of schedules, recuperation, emotional support, and specialized care that is needed. By the way, the nights while lying in bed and thinking about the ‘what ifs’ are very long.
I’m ready to meet the monster. Everything is prepared. My daughter, Shani, arrived from NYC, and literally sanitized every piece of furniture, accessory, and inch of floor that she could reach. She knew the industry and knew that I had not had time to complete the tasks. She removed rugs so I wouldn’t trip, (she knows me too well). She rallied me as we purchased specialized clothing to meet the needs of the surgery recuperation. She seemed anxious, but caring. I couldn’t thank her enough.
We arrived at the hospital. Family and friends were allowed to be present for pre-surgery, I was scared and thankful but smiling and optimistic…and crying inside. To myself, I was thinking, “I’m losing parts of my body that have suckled babies, given me confidence to look womanly, given to me as ‘my body’.” I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like without them. “Yes, they are just parts. They aren’t ‘me’. ” I faced the harsh reality that there was no turning back. My mind wandered into a thousand questions. Will another man love me? Will I look deformed? How badly will it hurt? Can I return to work immediately or very soon?
CANCER COMMUNITIES AND HELP FOR THE PATIENT:
The good news is that there are many communities who are helping cancer patients and survivors. Cancer Care Community is excellent in providing personal advocates and financial help for cancer patients. I also found a reputable home care provider that weekly visited me and provided post-physical therapy and made sure that my needs were being met. Just having someone to sort medications or heat up a bowl of Campbells is a wonderful act!
To find these caring supporters, one must seek and find, search and request. In addition, one must provide an endless amount of paperwork, proof of needs. It’s almost character assassination, at times, when a patient must prove that their needs are worthy of help and assistance. It can be degrading. It can be exhausting, but it is worth it when one reaches the other side of recovery and normalcy, if that ever happens:) I’ll talk about that later. After all, when you lose two breasts…well…
I don’t handle medications well. I don’t need much before I’m overmedicated and seeing things on the wall. My family finds humor in my medicated antics, and laughed about what was to come from me as I returned from surgery. Soon it was time to say farewell to all my well-wishers, and I was wheeled off. A few hours later, I was wheeled into my room, and my daughter greeted me. I was so thankful to feel her presence, her hand on mine. The only thing that I remember, besides the pain, is telling her I’d like to take her hand and go listen to techno music in another room. I could hear her distant laughter, but I was quite serious. I really was. She flew home that evening, and my son, Kyle came to stay with me. He helped me get to the restroom. My breasts were gone. Let me tell you.
The pain was much more than I could have ever imagined. I was glad to make it back to bed and to have him near me. Next day, I made it home. Kyle and Lynn were there to help. To all those that contributed their time and efforts on my behalf that week, I’m truly thankful. Soon, I realized that going back to work wasn’t going to happen right away. That meant that my cashflow was nil.
A friend had suggested that I create a GoFundMe account. That sounded horrific! I am a better giver than receiver. Yet, what choices did I have? I needed additional monies to survive and go forward. With great humility and resistance, I did it.
I recently went back and deleted all of the GoFundMe posts that I could find on my FB page. Not because I am not grateful. That is certainly not the case. However, every time I see a post, it reminds me of the past, and I’m working hard to move toward the future. Most importantly, I want to enjoy being in the present. Without hesitation, I sincerely recall the love that I felt for every donation. Each time one red cent wascontributed, tears would fall; and I would not feel worthy of such generosity. That lesson alone gave me a testimony of the goodness of people. I keep that when the world feels oppressive today.
God only knows how grateful I am to those who aided me in my time of crisis. They earned a jewel in their crowns, and I earned a respect that I had read in the Scriptures but had never truly experienced. As biblically stated, there is no greater love than for our brothers and sisters. Through loving actions, Jesus says He will know we are truly His disciples.
AND SO, with surgery #1 out of the way, I slowly realized that this wasn’t going to be easypeazy. Call me dense. Call me whatever, but through my mind’s eye and prior to the surgery, I enthusiastically thought I was going to be jumping back into action very shortly. I was going to have two new perky breasts., (some consolation for the older ones). I was going to bounce back to normalcy quickly. That’s what blind ambition will do to you, plus an enormous amount of faith. Silly me.
Little did I know when I started the cancer journey, that it takes a solid year and at least 4 surgeries to have complete reconstruction of the breasts. Perhaps I didn’t want to know. I’m not sure, but when I realized that those were the facts, I was sad. I was scared.
Little did I know that my breasts would have permanent 6″ scars. I thought the doctor made all breasts beautiful and young. Not so, even with the best, and I feel that I had the best cosmetic doctor in Austin. (I still need one more surgery to finalize the deal).
Little did I know that I would leave the hospital with an ‘invisible stretcher’ attached to my surrounding chest muscles and under my concaved breasts. This stretcher allowed the cosmetic surgeon to inject a solution through a portal to gradually stretch the skin in increments of 3-4 months before inserting the ‘new girls’. Once the ‘falsies’ (who by the way, have their own card of identity should I ever have an accident) are inserted, then it takes some time for another surgery or two.
Here I give some due credit to a wonderful entrepreneur, Cherie Mathews. She has created a shirt that allows breast cancer patients to hide the distasteful tubes attached to the boobs, stomach, etc so that excess inflammation can drain. These tubes are awful; they confined me for at least two weeks after each breast surgery. Cheri’s cleverly designed shirts offer compartments to keep the tubes stationary and out of view.
It’s been a journey, and mine has been much easier than many. Readers must realize that each woman is different. Some feel the need to reconstruct; others do not want it and are very comfortable with or without their breasts. It’s all so very personal.
Frankly, sharing is difficult for me, even embarrassing. Perhaps it’s TMI, but it’s the facts and maybe it will uplift or inform another warrior. And I’m alive and a survivor, and for me and my family, that’s the most important fact of all. My heart grieves for those who have not lived to tell their stories. No words can express.
They say that five years is the golden date of cancer not returning. I have the type that does often return. I chose to remove my breasts so that those chances narrowed. I have also chosen to not take the medications often prescribed to delay its return. That’s just my choice. Others take it and glad that they do. Again, personal choice is unique.
Cancer kills. Let’s find ways to prevent it and inform everyone. Please support those who cannot help themselves. Let’s continue to give aid to those who need our assistance, whether financially, spiritually, or emotionally.
God Bless and Live Your Life with Spunk, Sass, and Soul.
FIGHT LIKE A GIRL! FIGHT LIKE A WARRIOR! FIGHT LIKE YOU MEAN IT!
Living life lovingly,