Just a little over eight years ago in 2009, I returned from a springtime trip to Boston, one of my favorite cities, with summer break on my mind. You see, I am a licensed social worker and I get to enjoy the perks of working for my local school system. And, well, I was also kind of dreading my upcoming 40th birthday. How could I be 40 already? That’s so old, right?
The normalcy of my life and daily routines set in again until one night in May. I never realized that May, that great month that meant summer vacation was right around the corner, would be forever known as “the month that I found it”. The month that my life changed. Forever.
I had been pretty good about checking my girls once a month or so and had never noticed anything different. On that May night, I was performing a self-exam while lying in bed and felt something different on the right side. I quickly checked the left. Nothing in that spot. I proceeded to use both hands to check them both and there was an obvious difference. It wasn’t anything huge. It wasn’t like a pea. I had no other lumps or bumps. My mind started racing like crazy! What the hell? How could this be? This can’t be. Not me. I’m only 39 years old. I don’t smoke, drink too much, or eat too bad. Why me?
The next morning, I scheduled an appointment with the nurse practitioner at my gynecologist’s office. I was freaking out inside because I just knew. I don’t know how or why, but I did. She performed the exam and the eternal rush hour began. I was scheduled for a mammogram and an ultrasound the next day. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to wait to know. It was overwhelming. The mammogram, which was my first, was painful. But it wasn’t physical pain. The anxiety was almost unbearable. The ultrasound was immediately after. As I laid on the table, I could barely contain my emotions. I was doing my best to sneak peaks at the screen. I didn’t know what I was looking for, of course. When the technician started clicking and measuring a black spot, I knew she saw something. The clicking was so loud and I just wanted it to stop. She left the room to consult with the radiologist. The few minutes they were reviewing my scans felt like an eternity. They came into the room to tell me that the spot was ‘suspicious’ and they were scheduling me for a biopsy that afternoon. Wow, that was quick. The surgeon pulled out a tiny piece of tissue, which looked like cauliflower, and I was wondering if it was supposed to look like that or was that what cancer looked like. Could cancer really look like a vegetable?
I waited three days for the results. It felt like three thousand. It was a Friday afternoon in May and the surgeon was held up in surgery. I wasn’t leaving without my results. I waited three extra hours because I needed to know. I sat up on the exam table and waited for him to come in with the words that would change my life. How would they change my life? Would it be that I was being tested to see if I could survive extreme anxiety and the rat race of hospital procedures? Or, would it be the other test? The test of strength, perseverance, will, and love.
“You have cancer.” I knew that’s what he would say. I knew it and I was still in shock. If you haven’t had those words said to you, about you, it is impossible to know the feeling and it is impossible for me to describe it. There are many words that sort of describe the feelings, like shock, awe, disbelief, anger, sadness, and so on. But, in reality, my first thought was “I am going to die”. My next thought was “Get this thing out of me”. We talked about options, but I just wanted it out. We scheduled the surgery for June 5th. Because my tumor was about 2 cm, I was a candidate for a nipple and skin sparing mastectomy with reconstruction at the same time. The date was set. My perfect pair was about to be cut down to one. I was comfortable with my decision and knew that I could live with it.
Surgery went very well and I was pleased with the results. My lymph nodes were clear and the tissue was sent off for further testing. Now, the bigger battle was beginning. Oncology. That word invokes fear. No way around it. I met with the oncologist and he recommended four rounds (every three weeks) of the ‘red devil’ (Adriamycin) and Cytoxan and possibly twelve weeks of Taxol. I had so many questions at this point. Do I have cancer anywhere else? Are we treating the right cancer in the right way? I asked for a full-body PET scan so we would know for sure. It was clear. Thank God. Ok, I was ready. Let’s do this! I got my port and began chemo the next day. How long would it take for my hair to fall out? Everyone knows that breast cancer patients lose their hair. Right? They said it would be about nine days and, yep, nine days into the first treatment, there it went! I decided to give myself that buzz cut I saw Demi Moore sport in GI Jane but would never have had the nerve to do, otherwise. I didn’t want to wait it out and pick up hair off my pillow or pull it out of the drain every day until it was all gone. The buzz cut was so cool, until that fell out, too. I lost all of my hair. All of it. The only strands that remained on my body in the fourth month were on my eyebrows and a few eyelashes. Getting ready was so darn easy, y’all! I wasn’t a fan of wigs and only wore those on special outings. I embraced my inner biker and sported a variety of do-rags. Oh, and let me tell you that when just about a quarter inch of my hair was growing back in, I felt like Cher. I was thrilled and left the do-rags at home.
I won’t lie, though. It was hard. My energy level was nil and worsened with each treatment. I would feel really bad that first week. I ate toast and soup and drank sprite. You know, the ‘sick’ foods. Thank goodness for the Emend to curb the nausea. By the third week, when I was finally eating again and had some energy, I was in for the next round. It was a trying time, but throughout it all, I considered myself lucky and blessed. How, you ask? I did not have lymph node involvement, my PET was clear, I wasn’t too sick from the chemo, and I was back to work by the end of July. It wasn’t easy waking up to go to work, but I needed my work family, too.
Going to my schools with my do-rags on was an emotional challenge on so many levels, but I had to. I couldn’t stay home, which was weird because I was always the one to take a ‘mental health’ day before all of this happened. By the second or third treatment, I had a new oncologist and the results of the tumor testing were in. It was stage 2 and was hormone fed. He did not think that the twelve weeks of Taxol would make a difference, percentage-wise, with recurrence, so we decided that the fourth round would be my last. I was beyond thrilled! Hope, that I would feel better, even sooner, was creeping in and just in time for that last chemo. The last one. I was exhausted like I had never been in my life, but I knew I could do it. I went to the final chemo with fear and happiness, all at once. Fear was from not knowing what this fourth chemo had in store for me and from knowing I wouldn’t have a fifth or sixth. Did it kill any and all lurking cancer cells? Happiness was because I knew that I would recover and be able to get back to my normal life. A different normal, of course. And hopefully one with hair!
The hardest part was over in my mind. It was, but moving forward with life after cancer and all the pains and worries that go along with it, is challenging at times. It is a daily battle to fight the negative thoughts about getting sick again. Every little ache and pain causes worry. Is it cancer again? Is it back? That’s the reality of life after cancer. No one wants to hear it, but it’s true. We try to deny the thoughts, but they are there. I’ve been told, it is common to feel this way and that you have to fight those thoughts off. I do all that I can now to not only minimize the negative thoughts, but to live a lifestyle that will not allow cancer to grow in my body again. I have spent countless hours educating myself on the science behind cancer and how nutrition plays a pivotal role in cancer growth. I now follow a whole food, plant based diet with minimal sugar and oils. I never received any nutrition recommendations during or after my treatment. I was actually told not to take supplements, like Vitamin C. Knowing what I know now, the lack of attention to nutrition infuriates me. All I can say is, do your own research. You cannot fight cancer cells without an immune system, which cannot thrive without the right nutrition. I also have transitioned to chemical-free personal care and household products. Educate yourself, because I would have done things differently if I had known what I know now.
I want to thank my family and friends for all of their support during my journey. I also can’t say enough about the staff at TRMC, especially all the lovely folks in radiology and my surgeons. My wife, Tammy, is so patient with me and I love her for putting up with my worries and for calming my fears. She is my daily reality check.
I still consider myself lucky and blessed to have gotten through all of it with minimal pain and side effects. I consider myself cancer free at this point, but those pesky thoughts are always there when a new, weird pain happens. I am still learning to cope with that and figure it is just part of my new normal. And, as for that 40th birthday, I welcomed it with open arms. If I had to give advice to someone newly diagnosed, I would encourage you to ask a million questions, be assertive about your treatment choices, get second opinions if you want them, and do your research on beating cancer with nutrition and lifestyle choices!! For those that had it and beat it, worship your body by eating clean and living clean. It’s the only body we get and, goodness knows, it’s been through enough.
Gretchen P. Bourgeois