JAG’s Battle With Cancer: We Are Going to Fight This Together

I went to work that morning, believing that everything would be alright.

Based on the research I had done on two reputable sites (http://ww5.komen.org/IWasDiagnosed/IveBeenDiagnosedwithBreastCancer.html?itc=emoentpnt:1 and www.cancer.org), I knew that 80% of biopsies are negative for cancer.

Since I am in pretty good shape for a 50-year old; I eat right, I exercise, my weight is good, and I have no family history for breast cancer, surely I would be in that 80% group.

I was surprised by the number of women I talked with in a short period of time who had either had lumpectomies that were negative or knew of relatives or friends who had one that was negative. These were good signs.

The outpatient surgery went well. I even came to campus on Tuesday morning to teach my sign language class (after all, I didn’t want the students in my two classes to suffer because of some stupid lump).

I left campus after class and returned to work full-time on Wednesday. I was sore, but felt pretty good.

My life is divided between BC and AC. September 6 and before are Before Cancer (BC) and September 7 and afterwards are After Cancer (AC). I taught my classes on the morning of Sep. 7 and then my husband and I went to visit with Dr. Fritz.

She checked her surgical handiwork, told me I was healing nicely, and then dropped the bomb that has changed my life.

For the record, I have infiltrating, moderately differentiated, ductal carcinoma in association with ductal carcinoma in situ. (In layperson’s terms, that means that the cancer spread beyond my milk ducts and into the surrounding breast tissue.)

She talked at us for what I think was about 20 or 25 minutes. I was so numb, I couldn’t even cry (which is totally unlike me!).

I remember sending an e-mail to colleagues in Res. Life and the Dean’s office letting them know that the news was not what I wanted to hear; that I did, in fact, have cancer and I was not coming back to work that afternoon.

I remember telling my brothers (who were uncharacteristically shocked into silence) and my sisters-in-law (who took the news with lots of questions). I remember telling my 85-year old father that afternoon and hearing him cry softly on the phone.

I remember calling my stepsons in Wisconsin and North Carolina and telling my third stepson when he came home from his first day of classes at CSM.

I called other friends and family and started to get comfortable with the phrase, “I have breast cancer.” I was still thinking however, “OH MY GOD!!! THIS CANNOT BE HAPPENING!!!”

Fast forward to September 8. I decided to go to work because the world does not stop simply because another woman has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
I needed to get out of the house and keep my mind busy.

I gave details to the Res. Life staff and my boss, and then started telling colleagues and friends. I believe in the power of positive thinking, so I shared the bad news and the good news. The good news is that I AM GOING TO BE A SURVIVOR!

I needed those around me to believe this as much as I did. And they came through for me.

The messages of support that I received from students, faculty, and staff on campus, and from family, friends, and colleagues from the around the world have given me tremendous strength and hope. I truly believe that my cancer is not only treatable, it is BEATABLE!

In the last two weeks, I have gone through a bone scan, a PET scan, and an MRI (which all show that the cancer has not spread to my bones or major organs). I have had contrasting dye and radioactive material injected into me. I have had blood work done.

I had a second surgery on Sep. 24 to remove some additional tissue (in order to get a “clear margin” which means a cancer-free area around where the original tumor was located) and to check my lymph nodes (so far, there is no cancer in my lymph nodes).

Because I opted for breast-saving surgery (the lumpectomy) rather than a mastectomy, I have to have radiation.

I will also need to take hormonal therapy (medication) for five to 10 years to help reduce the likelihood of recurrence.

My medical team now includes a surgeon, a medical oncologist, and a radiation oncologist.

I’m meeting with the radiation oncologist on Sep. 29 and hope to find out when I can start my treatment, which will consist of radiation Mondays through Fridays for six weeks.

The surgeon will remove the staples under my arm (from the removal of a lymph node) on Oct. 1. I’ll meet with the medical oncologist on Oct. 11 and will hopefully be told at that time whether or not I will have to go through chemotherapy.

I hope I don’t have to get chemo, but if I do, I’m going to get some outstanding wigs! My life is a whirlwind of medical appointments. Thank goodness I have lots of sick leave.

I remember when Leon and I were alone in the surgeon’s office after being told the news. He told me that there must be some reason why someone as healthy as I am could have gotten cancer.

He said that somewhere, in the cosmos, someone really wanted and needed an outspoken person to educate our campus community on cancer and taking care of yourself, and who better than a feisty, New Yorker like me?

I am in good company. As noted by Lillie Shockney in the book, “Navigating Breast Cancer” (2007), I am joining over 2 million women in the US who have survived breast cancer. “Seventy percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no known risk factors for getting the disease and approximately 12% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of the disease.”

Generally speaking, a tumor that has grown to 1 cm has likely been there for several years. Are you aware that you cannot “catch” cancer from touching or hugging someone (so don’t be afraid to hug me on my right side!)?

Did you know that men can and do get breast cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society Web site (http://www.cancer.org), while women are 100 times more likely to get breast cancer, 1,970 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. The lifetime risk for men to get breast cancer is 1 in 1000.

Many people get radiation and chemo confused. According to “Your Guide to Breast Cancer Treatment” (www.breastcancer.org), radiation does not typically cause a person to lose their hair, feel nauseous, or be at a higher risk for breast cancer in the other breast.

Some of the side effects of radiation include feeling tired, skin irritation, and soreness and swelling in the breast and chest area.

These side effects typically go away weeks or months after treatment ends. “Radiation is done in case some of the cancer cells are still there after surgery.”

Chemo is a systemic treatment rather than a local treatment (radiation is a local treatment). “Chemotherapy attacks all the cells in your body that are fast-growing. Cancer cells tend to grow fast.”

Some of the side effects of chemo include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, mouth sores, tiredness, hair loss, taste and smell changes, aches and discomforts, and higher risk of infection.

However, thanks to research and development, medication is available to take away or reduce many of the side effects (www.breastcancer.org).

I am participating in the BSU/Bon Appétit Breast Cancer Awareness Day on October 29 (as part of Breast Awareness Month) and in our campus Relay for Life on February 26, 2011. I believe it is important to pay it forward.

People before me donated time and money to help make it possible for me to fight this disease and have a better chance of surviving, so I will do the same so that perhaps others yet to come can have an even easier time fighting it or maybe they won’t have to fight it at all! I hope you will join me!

I am being very open about what is happening to me because I want to help others.

This in turn, is helping me. Part of my initial fear was of the unknown. Knowledge is power and sharing knowledge is education.

At the heart of it, I am an educator and I want to help all members of our community to be comfortable with their bodies. Get to know and listen to your body. Be an active participant with your doctors. If something does not feel or look right, get it checked!

If you smoke, please try to quit. Exercise and eating right are important to your long-term health. Staying positive, having a good sense of humor, and a strong support system of family, friends, and colleagues really help in times of crisis.

For anyone facing the fear of cancer, please know that I am here to provide you with assistance.

I cannot begin to thank my family, friends, and the students, faculty, and staff at SMCM for being part of my support system.

While I wish I didn’t have cancer, I am truly amazed and deeply humbled by the outpouring of love and good will that I am getting.
As my husband told me, “The cancer is inside of you, but this is a ‘we’ effort. We are going to fight this together.”

I am expanding the “we” to include many of you. You are truly making a difference in my life and I will be forever grateful to you.

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