Cancer, Before and After: from 'Beyond Frightened' to 'Exhilarated'

FIRST PERSON | I was not surprised. Because of my family history, I have lived with the dread of breast cancer for 20 years. But what rocked me to my core was that three tumors would be found, two in my right breast and one in my left.

In August 2011, a few days after my annual mammogram, I received a "come back" call from my radiologist (dense breasts can make reading the film very difficult). I was grateful for the call, and because I'd rather be safe than sorry, and even though making the drive from my home in Sonora, Calif., to the imaging center in Sacramento took two and a half hours, I scheduled a new exam.

The new results confirmed a dark mass and I was immediately sent out for a biopsy. It came back positive. I was diagnosed with infiltrating ductal carcinoma at the age of 47.

A few days later in the surgeon's office, I underwent another ultrasound and another lump was found, leading to another biopsy and another positive result. My options? Triple lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, double mastectomy and ugly reconstructive surgery. (If I had the same surgery option as Angelina Jolie, I would have done that instead of a triple lumpectomy.)

I was beyond frightened, so I insisted on an MRI, wanting to catch as many tumors as possible. The surgeon argued that the chance of finding a tumor in the opposite breast was less than 1 percent.

But my gut insisted: Get an MRI.

My insurance would only approve the right breast. Unbeknownst to me, the Radiological Associates of Sacramento's MRI machine accommodates both breasts, so my left breast was also imaged. After my MRI, the film of the left breast was "accidentally" evaluated: another lump, another biopsy, another positive result.

The seven months from August 2011 through February 2012 were an ugly time in my life. There was my breast cancer, of course. But consider, too, I was struggling through a nasty divorce, including a judge who, at the 11th hour, capriciously awarded my home to the ex-husband, "graciously" gave me 90 days to move, and ordered me to drive the ex's 20-year-old broken down car instead of our newer, reliable car. And, finally, I had the unshakeable feeling I would lose my job.

In November that year, I started radiation treatments -- 36 in total, five days a week. The radiation robbed me of my energy, made me sick and burned my flesh, thereby prolonging the treatments to give my skin a break. In December, I was fired from my job as a paralegal/legal secretary the Friday before Christmas for taking a medical leave of absence, even though this was ordered by two doctors. I finished my radiation treatments at the end of January, which left me about one week to move out of my house.

I don't remember much of 2012. August was when things started looking up.

I was invited to a Women's Equine Empowerment Retreat from Aug. 24 to 26 in Burson, Calif. At the retreat, one of the empowerment exercises had each of us spend time with a horse that had extreme trust issues. This horse -- Beemer was his name -- and I connected; out of all the participants, Beemer and I spent the longest time together, touching him while I sobbed uncontrollably.

But it was the evening exercises that left me feeling alive. I broke two one-inch boards with my bare hands. Then, I broke an arrow clean in half with my throat. The last morning we got up and walked across 300 feet of broken glass. I was out in the middle of nowhere in triple-digit heat -- dirty, sweaty, sticky, exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. I felt like I had been slapped upside the head. It was a wake-up call, and I knew it.

When I got home, I realized Aug. 24 was the one-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. What a coincidence!

In October, more amazing things happened: I was cast in my very first live theater role, as Blanche Morton in "Brighton Beach Memoirs." The time frame? My one-year anniversary of being cancer-free. Another coincidence? Later in the month, I was a featured speaker on a radio blog show discussing the effects that breast cancer has on feeling sexy. My final act for the year? On New Year's Eve I celebrated by walking on fire!

My second anniversary of being cancer-free was Oct. 13. I have three and a half years, of five, left of Tamoxifen treatments. At the end of this month, I will be rehearsing for my first lead role as Mary Bailey in "It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play." (I was cast in this play on Aug. 23 -- and it'll be my fourth play ever.)

I recently turned 50. I know that the only thing that can stop me is me.