When you have cancer, you can’t do it alone. It’s a long road, so it’s nice to have a few traveling companions. They help you in ways you never thought you needed. Sometimes you need to borrow a little of their strength, hope, and time. Other times, you just need a warm embrace and the promise it will all be OK. I am fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful family and friends. They traveled down the road and back again. I now count Kaiser Permanente as my family. Below is an essay I wrote for Kaiser Permanente about my experience and the incredible difference they made in my life.
I’ll have a grande caramel macchiato and an appointment with an oncologist, please. I was in the Starbucks drive-through when I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma – breast cancer, my invitation to a life of pink ribbons and Tamoxifen. I never once asked why me? I asked why this? I was so arrogant to think that I would never have breast cancer. Sure, some sort of chronic illness to add to the others on my list, but not this.
My husband has worked for Kaiser Permanente for 27 years, 19 years in the radiology department. We never thought that his work life and our personal lives would collide in such a spectacular way. This wasn’t an afterhours get together with the gang. This was the most vulnerable, frightening moment in our lives and his co-workers did what they do best. Their jobs.
People say that I inspire them with my story. I did the easy part. I followed my treatment plan. These are the people who inspire me, who literally saved my life:
- The imaging assistant who repeatedly called to remind me to schedule my mammogram. I did a pretty good job of dodging her calls for quite some time – three years to be exact. Who really needs a mammogram every year? I feel fine. Plus, no one in my family has a history of breast cancer. Turns out, I needed one and so does every woman because it can happen to anyone. Screening mammograms save lives.
- The mammography technician who took her time and a few extra shots, knowing that even though it meant one more awkward repositioning, it would be worth it.
- The ultrasound technician who patiently described every detail of the procedure so I wouldn’t be scared.
- The radiologist who had to face his co-worker and his wife and say, “I’m very sorry. I’m worried about this.” He and the ultrasound technician worked together seamlessly to remove a part of me for the biopsy.
- The surgeon who explained all my options. He let me know if I decided to have a mastectomy or a lumpectomy, it was the right decision for me. So, I stood in front of my mirror at home and tried to imagine what it would look like. No matter what I chose, nothing would ever be the same.
- The surgical nurse who offered me warm blankets to make me comfortable because she knew what was ahead.
- The surgeon who expertly removed my lump and a couple of lymph nodes, with an assist from the radiologist.
- The oncologists who walked me through radiation treatments and Tamoxifen.
- My husband who waded through uncertainty with me and never left my side. There will always be a sliver of fear that hides in the back of his mind that his wife will die of breast cancer one day.
- My daughters who will always have to answer yes when asked if anyone in their family has had breast cancer. “Yes, my mom. What does that mean for me?” They will begin having mammograms five years early.
- My friends who didn’t know what to say or do, but were there anyway with a basket of gifts like it was my birthday. And, perhaps it was because I was reborn stronger and more grateful having survived breast cancer.
Honestly, the most difficult part of having breast cancer was the wait – waiting for the biopsy results, genetic testing, my Oncotype DX score, and whether I would need to endure chemotherapy. I was lucky. No chemo, just surgery, radiation, and years of Tamoxifen. The tests showed a low risk of reoccurrence. I feel like I won the lottery, but I will always worry.
I’ve been squished, poked, sliced, tattooed, drawn on, photographed, radiated, and burned. And I am thankful because it was all done to save my life. I don’t say I’m a breast cancer survivor. I’m a survivor, period. It started the moment I was born almost three months early and had to fight for my life. I survived childhood trauma and crippling depression and anxiety. And I will survive this, too, with a little help from my Kaiser family.