Breast Cancer Awareness Month: A personal perspective

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It seems as if pink ribbons are the fashion of the day and no matter where you go or what you do, you’re sure to find pink ribbons prominently displayed. In the spirit of spreading the word, social media is full of brightly colored posters promoting breast cancer awareness and education, all encouraging the reader to “Like” and “Share” the message with others. There are other posts as well – sadder posts. Posts encouraging us to never give up hope. Posts honoring “pink ribbon warriors” – those who fight and those who survived the pink ribbon battle, and those who didn’t.

I’ve always done what I considered my part during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I’ve written articles, posted on social media, encouraged friends and family to get checked, and of course, performed a self-check. This year is different. This year, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is personal. I’ve spent the last eight months fighting – and winning – the pink ribbon battle. I’m no longer an interested bystander, I’m an active warrior – and survivor.

Breast cancer has challenged me mentally, physically and spiritually, often all at the same time, and challenged my faith and core beliefs. I’ve gone through 22 weeks of chemo, lost my hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and haven’t had to shave my legs in six months (that part is actually a perk!). I had surgery to install a port, three breast biopsies, one emergency room visit for chemo induced neutropenia, and a separate hospital stay when they took my white blood count down to zero and I developed a 102 fever. I tested positive for the BRCA1 (breast cancer 1) gene mutation. As I write this, I’m recovering from a double-mastectomy and reconstruction. I still have another surgery on the horizon to remove my remaining ovary (necessary because of the BRCA1 gene mutation) and may also need 6-8 weeks of radiation. I’ll know about radiation next week. There have been nights when I was so sick from chemo that I fell asleep in the bathroom floor and my sweet husband had to get me up and put me to bed.

Breast cancer (particularly the treatment) is a hard journey but please understand that I’m not complaining or asking for sympathy. I view myself as a soldier engaged in a battle for life and this pink warrior princess chose life long ago. I share all this with you so that you understand breast cancer is hard, hard on the person with the disease and hard on those who love them. Breast cancer doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens to everyone – family, friends, co-workers, and especially the one diagnosed with this foreign invader which must be eradicated.

When I was first diagnosed, I became good friends with Dr. Google. In hindsight, that was probably a mistake. My form of cancer is fairly rare and the statistics were so poor that it scared me and caused many unnecessary tears. What Dr. Google didn’t – and couldn’t – tell me was that we’d caught my cancer early and that unlike most cases of triple negative breast cancer, mine hadn’t spread yet. Instead of a typically poor prognosis, my prognosis for a “cure” was actually positive. On July 3rd, my doctor could no longer find the tumor and pronounced me NED (No Evidence of Disease). On September 15th, my general surgeon shared with us that there was no evidence of cancer cells in the sentinel node or lymph glands and that no cancer, not even dead cancer cells, were found in the breast tissue which was removed as a part of the mastectomy. This was remarkable, outstanding news.

While there were many contributing factors to this miraculous outcome (including many prayers for which I thank God), early detection played a role. I’ve always been diligent about my woman’s annual and getting my mammograms on schedule. I didn’t neglect my checkup. My husband found my tumor three months before it was time for my annual mammogram. If he hadn’t found the tumor, if I hadn’t followed up with an early visit to my GYN, the final prognosis might have been much different from the cancer free reality of today.

As we focus this month on breast cancer, take a few minutes to focus on your own breast health. Pick a day and perform a self-check. Put a reminder on the calendar and perform a self-check on the same day every month. If you’re familiar with your own breasts, you’ll know immediately if something doesn’t feel “right.” If you have a spouse or significant other, have them check your breasts as well. I’ve read several articles indicating that most breast tumors are found by the spouse or partner. Chances are that they’re pretty familiar with what your breasts normally feel like so engage them in the process of performing a breast check. (Hmmm….that could be fun!) If you find something that doesn’t seem right, don’t wait for your annual to get it checked out. Go, pick up the phone, dial the GYN’s office, and schedule an appointment to get checked as soon as possible. Also, if your monthly self-exam is clean, don’t use it as an excuse to assume all is well and neglect your mammogram.

My prayer is that you and your family will be in the majority who are never touched directly by breast cancer. I pray that my all my girlfriends remain my sisters only and never become a pink ribbon sister. But, should breast cancer become a part of your journey, know that life is sweet and life is good despite breast cancer. Breast cancer is a journey, and a battle. But, not only can you survive the pink ribbon battle, but can – and will – thrive despite breast cancer.

©2013. Mary Kyle. All rights reserved.

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