Christmas of 2014, I’d walked passed the mirror in the room of the house we are renting outside of D.C., and paused. There was a dip, similar to the shape you get when you cup your hand. Shallow and wide and menacing. Some might say I was primed for this moment, having lost my mother to breast cancer when I was seven, but the reality is I was rocked to the core. I’d always watched, always managed my self-exams, even being tested in 2008 for the BRCA 1 & 2 gene.
I had been negative. LOL! Jokes on me. So even having lost my mom, that negative had played a dirty trick on me. It had made me complacent and had given me a false sense of security. And I didn’t have time for any of it.
The holidays were here, my favorite time of the year. If I’m not on a beach, I want it to be Christmas. I love the music and the atmosphere. Yes, I see all of the commercialization around us, but I also truly believe that every moment, every memory of your life is what you make of it. Sometimes, they are still bad, no matter what we do, but often they can be as beautiful as you want them to be. And I love making Christmas beautiful.
So, you see, with my seven-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter on Christmas break, the tree and decorations up, the big day looming like the most beautiful summer sun, there was no way I was doing anything about it until after Christmas. But I knew I needed to act fast. I made the call, or tried to anyway. My husband had just taken early retirement from the Airforce, and it surprised me how many doctor’s offices surrounding our capitol didn’t take military benefits. By the fourth phone call, I broke down crying. In that moment I had a strong feeling something was very wrong, it wasn’t my imagination, and I needed to be seen. Thank God, this office could help me.
Let me pause to tell you Christmas was as beautiful as I’d hoped it would be. We made memories my children will take into their adulthood—which is my mission for our lives. Making memories with our family that warm my kiddos when the world is cold and doesn’t seem so friendly. I went in to my gynecology appointment hoping I was wrong. At first, in the glaring light of the examining room, the doctor couldn’t see anything, so she felt for it. Again nothing. I explained that I personally found it easier to feel when I was lying down. Because, believe me, I had felt for that thing over and over again in the past couple of weeks, hoping each time it would be gone.
Eureka! She could feel something!
So, “just in case, let’s send you to imaging,” she’d said. Yes, let’s. I went for a mammogram. Over twenty-five films later, they couldn’t see a thing. My breast tissue was so dense with fibrous tissue, that nothing showed but a mass of white cobwebbing. Had I not been persistent about the lump I felt, they would have sent me home with a clean bill of health. Not because they were incompetent, or didn’t care, but because the films showed what they’d always shown on me. Nothing. But, I knew there was something there, and I pushed, so they sent me for an ultra sound. And there it was, as if I’d asked a toddler to draw a cloud on a rainy day. A round, bumpy, cloud like image, with undefined edges. I hope the radiologist wasn’t a poker player, because if he was, he was losing all of his money. “I’ve seen worse that turned out to be nothing, but just in case, let’s send you for a biopsy.” Yes, let’s.
Now a year and a half later, I write this with incredible gratitude for the lifesaving lesson my mother had taught me, for the amazing doctors that have worked with me, for my own determination to double and triple check, and for my family. They stood strong, holding my hand, through each and every leg of this journey. No matter how scary or confusing it sometimes could be. My cancer was hormone positive, invasive ductal carcinoma but hadn’t yet spread to the lymph nodes. I went through a double mastectomy within the month, then two additional surgeries for the reconstruction throughout the following year, and faced a stranger in the mirror daily. I also have to take tamoxifen for ten years because of my history.
But, I can handle this. It isn’t always easy. Tamoxifen comes with side effects that are, frankly, a pain in the ass. But little by little, and through sheer determination, I’m figuring each one out. I truly feel like one of the lucky ones because I didn’t have to do chemo or radiation. And I make sure to pour forth all my love and gratitude each and every day. I feel more and more like myself again. And that is a really huge deal.
But most important of all, in the end…
Living and loving and thriving.