Here’s a secret only a few of those closest to me know. When I visited my primary care physician right before the holidays, she gave me a firm reminder to get my annual mammogram. I obeyed, and the next thing I knew, it was day before my family’s trip to Florida…but instead of packing, I was having a biopsy done on my left breast.
Two weeks and many tests later I got my diagnosis: breast cancer. I was the proud owner of a left breast containing ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).
DCIS can be considered either stage “0” or “1” cancer (or precancer), which occurs when malignant-looking cells in the lining of the breast duct start to clone themselves and proliferate but don’t spread outside the duct to other tissue in the breast or outside the breast. Scientists now believe that DCIS could be a precursor to invasive breast cancer, and thus the medical community now treats it aggressively.
Last week I said good-bye to my left breast, losing her to a mastectomy — and now begins her reconstruction. Happily, my right breast came out relatively unscathed. She even got a little face-lift so she’ll match her new sister!
I consider myself extremely lucky, and not just because I’m ending up with two perky breasts after all. The cancer was discovered very early during a routine mammogram. The mastectomy was necessary because the DCIS was too diffuse for a lumpectomy, but I do not need chemotherapy or radiation and am now considered as cancer-free as the next girl. And, as of today, I am back to work and life as usual.
When you have to face your mortality head-on, the opportunity for new levels of emotional clarity and awareness is nothing short of life-changing. What they say about the “gift of cancer” really is true. However, I believe we can all benefit from some of the gifts or lessons, whether you have cancer or not! Here are the lessons I’ve learned so far:
1. There is no substitute for independent judgment. This is something my husband always says and boy did it ring true during this experience. I was shocked by the amount of double-mastectomy peer pressure I received! It seemed like every woman I know who has been through this, and even some of my doctors, were telling me to “just get rid of both of them.”
After all, I’ve had my children and won’t be breastfeeding again, so why take the chance? And wouldn’t it be nice to have new perky breasts? Don’t think I didn’t waver, I did. My mind was full of “what if’s” and, let’s face it, part of me was tempted by the perky breast thing. But I love my breasts and never planned on plastic surgery, nor did I want to cut off any unnecessary body parts!
After much ambivalence, talking to my doctor and doing my own research, it was clear to me that once the DCIS was removed, my chances of developing breast cancer again were only slightly higher than the average population. In my case there was no medical reason for me to have a double mastectomy, only emotional/anxiety reasons. So my right breast remains, a little perkier than before — but hey, she deserved a pick-me-up after what those girls had been through!
2. If I don’t want to do it or if I’m not inspired by it, I don’t have to do it! I am convinced that one of the greatest gifts of cancer, for anyone — but especially women — is that we are finally able to take and receive without guilt or shame. Whether it’s because I finally felt permission, or because I didn’t have a choice and couldn’t take on extra responsibilities, I said “no” proudly. And I let people help me despite how uncomfortable it was. This was the biggest lesson for me.
It suddenly became clear how often I say yes even when I am overwhelmed, and how much more comfortable I am being in the caretaker or giver mode. Don’t get me wrong; this role does give me great joy in my personal and professional life. It’s just that much of the time, I’d been saying “yes” to things I didn’t want to do and “no” to things I did just so I wouldn’t be a nuisance! Sound familiar? Cancer gave me the opportunity to reverse this crazy dynamic — and it feels so much better.
3. I can actually vote people off my cancer island (and any island). If they can't roll with it, can't support, and can't be there for me, I don't have to let them stay. This means we don’t have to allow emotional vampires too close, even when they are friends or family. It doesn't mean we don't love them or care about them, just that we care about ourselves and our health more. That’s right! Don’t feel guilty about creating boundaries to keep at bay those who harm more than help. Once I had to do it, I realized how easy it was when I did it calmly, and with love and compassion, and how good it felt.
4. I can let go of expectations. Speaking of compassion, one of the best lessons has been realizing that having expectations of others almost always leads to resentments. Ultimately, expectations are really just stories we make up about others and ourselves that are full of "shoulds" and “woulds.” For example, “He should really be here with me” or “If she cared, she would be calling more.”
As many people in crisis discover, not everyone is capable of being there for you in the way you need. So many people took amazing care of me, especially my husband and kids and my wonderful girlfriends. But as I found myself getting frustrated or hurt, feeling victimized by stories I had of how different people close to me weren’t stepping up, a close friend and life coach, Diana Chapman, reminded me to just try on having no expectations for a change.
Instead of wasting energy on resentments, then, you can try to make it your goal to regard everyone with love and compassion, and know that they are all doing the best they can. When I look at others with love in my heart, it not only feels so much better and easier than resentment, but it brings the love back to me a millionfold.
5. Get a second opinion and a third. That’s what I did. Instead of letting fear guide me, I took as much time as I could, getting as much information as possible before choosing a treatment team and plan. I was worried about hurting feelings or offending, but hey — this was my life we were talking about!
And it wasn’t as hard as I thought. I have to compliment some amazing Chicago medical professionals who were so wonderful to me and made this journey as painless and effective as I could have ever hoped. This includes my wonderful general practitioner, Dr. Vesna Skul, and diagnostic radiologist, Dr. Ahmed Farag, at Diagnostic Imaging Specialists of Chicago.
I can’t say enough about the incredible professionals who cared for me at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where I am on clinical faculty: Dr. Kevin Bethke at the Lynn Sage Breast Center, plastic surgeon Dr. Neil Fine, anesthesiologist Dr. R-Jay Marcus, and their amazing teams, especially Leondra Howard, RN, and Michelle Work, RN. And to the fabulous nurses and staff who took such great care of me as I recovered on the 14th floor. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I sprinkle my good-sex fairy dust on all of you!
Each of us has to be our own best health advocate. This means visiting your general practitioner and, ladies, getting a mammogram every year after 40. It means not sweeping those lingering health concerns under the rug just because you can’t bear to hear bad news. We women deserve the best health care, and that means we need to ask questions and get second opinions.
Most of all, we have to take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, and mentally, and make the tough choices and lifestyle changes necessary for our health. When I first heard the news I had breast cancer, I thought I was going to die. Now here I am, on the other side, and I’m healthy and have more clarity than I had before the diagnosis. It’s been quite a journey.
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