Breast cancer was not my biggest problem in life, but it became the biggest and best teacher in my life.
The diagnosisOn June 29, 2007, I found out that the pathology reports from my lumpectomy came back positive for breast cancer. The double-whammy was that I had been fired from my job less than two weeks earlier for "no longer being a good fit."
I sat in the doctor's office in disbelief. Unemployed, and now with cancer. I had to find work, but who was going to hire me?
The cancer was caught in the earliest stage possible (thanks to my routine mammogram)—Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), stage zero, no micro-invasion. Though they removed the lesion, they could not get clear enough margins, so he recommended six weeks of radiation, followed by several years of taking the drug, Tamoxifen. I did not need to go through chemo.
I suppose hearing that should have made me feel better at that moment, but I was more concerned to get all of this behind me and get back to work!
Facing cancer head onThe idea of going in daily for a dose of radiation with all of its potential damage simply did not make sense to me at all. So, I went into "kick butt" mode.
I looked my doctor and said, "At 51-years-old, these (pointing to my breasts) are ornamental. The ornaments are hanging on the lowest boughs of the tree and aren't so shiny anymore!" A mastectomy is what made sense to me.
Three months to decideThe next three months were tough ones for me.
Thankfully, I was able to find work for three months at a temp agency in their office as support to the recruiters. I asked for all the busy work, so I didn't have to think too much. The other women in the office were happy to have my help and I was happy to not have to make decision-making responsibility in the job.
Those three months also gave me a chance to explore all the options available to me. I met with radiologists, plastic surgeons, surgical oncologists, and my original surgeon to get several different views. I read as much as I could. And I talked to other breast cancer survivors.
The decision to go under the knife...several timesBy September, I decided to have a skin-sparing mastectomy of my right breast. My surgical team prepped me for a series of procedures and surgeries using the Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforator (DIEP) Flap procedure for reconstruction.
Because the cancer had not progressed, having the mastectomy meant that radiation and Tamoxifen would not be required. I had my mastectomy in October.
For the next 13 months I spent more time with medical professionals getting fills, pokes and prods, and other assorted prep work; three more surgeries and many more procedures for dealing with complications; and, all the other checks and adjustments necessary for the process.
My sense of humor kept me going (and I hope the staff, too) as I joked that "the upside to getting cancer was also getting a tummy tuck and a boob job out of the deal!"
Maintaining my sanityMaking connections to others was important to my sanity and my recovery.
I found a part-time job working one day a week for a woman who has since become a good friend. She hired me when no one else would have done so, scheduling me between surgeries, and giving me more hours where she could.
My husband and I had been separated for 12 years, but he was always there to take me to appointments and to help out when I needed. Though still separated, we have now become friends.
Making deeper connectionsMy greatest sounding board and hero was my friend, Kim. We met in the spring of 2006 at a training walk for the Breast Cancer 3-Day. She had been diagnosed in the fall of 2005 at the age of 37 with an aggressive form of breast cancer.
Kim was always willing to listen and share and we spent many hours on the phone getting to know one another. We kept each other laughing and we had the most unpretentious friendship I have ever had with anyone.
One day, when I was going through a particularly tough time dealing with all the medical procedures, I called Kim. She was dealing with metastasized cancer, more chemo and radiation, and I felt guilty for dumping on her, not to mention feeling like I had anything to complain about compared to her. I apologized for it.
Kim asked, "So, what I'm hearing you say is that you feel guilty for not getting cancer as good as I did?"
I replied, "Yeah, I guess that's what I was saying."
She responded, "Well, that's gotta be the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say!"
We were both laughing hysterically before the end of the conversation. She reminded me that it did not matter that my cancer was caught earlier, because I had a right to feel any emotion I needed to feel. It was as simple as that.
The past two yearsThe last time I saw my medical team was in November 2008, when they released me from their care. I felt a period of let-down, as they had become my social network.
In January 2009, I went through a period of self-appraisal where work was concerned, and declared, "My mission in life is to inspire others to see beyond the challenges they face."
Three months later I was hired part-time at a job that I love--facilitating workshops to those in career transitioning. I have also picked up a few projects helping others learn to communicate more effectively.
I am becoming better at building close friendships, as I'm willing to share my feelings. But it has been a bittersweet lesson, as I promised Kim that I would not retreat when the emotions got tough.
My dear friend passed away after her four and a half year battle with cancer on May 26, 2010, just three days before her 42nd birthday.
I kept my promise to her and did not run away from the pain of losing a friend. I spent several hours on several days with her during the last two weeks of her life. Her last words to me were, "Thanks for hanging out with me," and I promised her I would always tell our story.
Lessons learnedOften times, I still wonder why I was so lucky to have been diagnosed so early. But I believe that the lessons we get in life are exactly as they are to be learned.
I will not always be a good fit in everything...in jobs, with family and friends, or in other situations I encounter along the way. But rather than shut down, I try to speak the truth, as I know it, cloaked in kindness.
Cancer made me vulnerable physically, and I had to rely on the medical professionals to help me. But cancer also allowed me to learn how to be vulnerable emotionally.
I am more genuine in my emotions, and allow others to either accept me for them or not, even though I still struggle with the pain of rejection.
Yes...everything I needed to know about life, I learned when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Other cancer-related stories written by Coral Levang