Reflections of a Breast Cancer Survivor
Recently, I was delighted to hear from an old friend. In this very mobile world, we’d lost touch after layoffs took our lives in different directions and different cities. It had been two years since we’d last talked. Going through a bad breakup, Sylvie* reached out to me as she sought to reconnect with her roots and try to find a way to rebuild the fragile threads of her life.
“I just had to see you. I’ve followed you on Facebook and you’re just doing so many wonderful and amazing things. Your life is so full and rich…so joyful – so abundant. I want your life. I want to live like that. How did you make it happen?”
For a moment, I was taken aback. You want my life? And then I realized, Sylvie didn’t know. She didn’t know that shortly after our last conversation two years ago that I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), a very rare and aggressive form of hereditary breast cancer related to the BRCA1 gene mutation. Under-researched because of its rarity, TNBC has an 80 percent mortality rate within two years of diagnosis. I was 54 years old and the diagnosis was devastating. She didn’t know about 22 weeks of chemo, multiple surgeries, too long showers where a river of tears and prayers flowed, or the night angels kept vigil when chemo threatened to finish what TNBC started. Sylvie didn’t know about the journey that led me from where I was to who I am today.
How could she know? While I wrote about it extensively in my blog, I didn’t share this journey on social media. As strange as it may sound, the journey with TNBC was simply too precious to become merely another tweet in cyber-land. Fighting TNBC wasn’t just about hair loss and tears and chemo and sickness. The cancer journey was so much more and it wasn’t just my journey.
The journey was about the family and friends who walked beside me. It was about Betty Bowers, Lockhart’s own doorknob angel, who never let a week pass that she didn’t leave a small gift or word of encouragement on my doorstep. It was about my daughter, Rebekah, and the Little Green Church in Martindale who brought so much food that it filled three freezers and my husband and I didn’t cook a single meal for almost nine months. It was about prayer shawls made by a 97 year old woman that covered me with love and prayers through each procedure. It was about co-workers who never missed a beat and always had my back at work. It was about others who stood in the gap and prayed when I was too ill or simply weary and could no longer do so for myself. It was about letting go of things that had never really mattered in the first place and embracing that which was good and true and lovely. Most of all, the journey was about love. I can honestly say that because of my journey with TNBC, I understand the meaning of love in a way I never fully comprehended before.
Breast cancer was not my first health challenge. After years of mysterious falls and unexplained health issues, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), an incurable, chronic and progressively debilitating disease in 2000. I cried once and then made a decision not to live my life defined as a statistic but rather to live each moment as fully and richly as my health would allow. Early in the journey with breast cancer, I reaffirmed that decision. I made a choice – a choice for life – a choice that for whatever time I was granted, I would LIVE and live abundantly.
I was given a great gift. Despite the fact that man said “no”, God said “yes” and I experienced what doctor’s refer to as a “complete clinical response” to chemotherapy. My new name was Mary NED – no evidence of disease! My understanding from my physician was that a complete clinical response to chemotherapy was fairly uncommon. Given the state of the initial tumor and the initial prognosis, the outcome was nothing short of miraculous. But, the time for miracles wasn’t quite over. In December, 2013, I received another, most unexpected gift from the cancer journey – healing from multiple sclerosis. The very chemo that almost finished my journey reset my immune system and for the first time in 15 years, I found myself completely symptom free of MS. While it will never be called a “cure”, it’s thought the effects will be permanent.
Greek mythology tells of a long-lived bird called the phoenix which dies by fire and then is reborn to new life from the ashes. In October 2013, four weeks after a double-mastectomy and reconstruction, I wrapped my still-bald head in an aviator cap and gingerly climb aboard the wing of 1941 Steerman open air bi-plane. The flight was a birthday gift from dear friends to celebrate the fact that the journey with TNBC was ending and the rest of my life was just beginning. Me, the woman so afraid of heights that she can’t even climb a ladder without getting dizzy took the flight of the phoenix. The sun burned away all was and left only joy in its place. That day, I felt as if we’d touched the face of God.
Since the phoenix flight, I’ve danced in the rain with joy and made more than one joyful noise. I took drawing lessons and loved it so much that I followed up with oil painting lessons and discovered a latent talent I never knew I possessed. I now have an art studio in my home. I write more and worry less. I play music and direct a children’s choir. I learned to tool leather. I’ve been known to eat dessert first and sometimes drink champagne and each chocolate while taking bubble baths. Life’s all good. I have more dust bunnies but also more joy. I have less time for negativity and more time for love.
I’m training for the BikeMS Ride to the River event in October to raise money to find a cure for multiple sclerosis. It seems fitting that the BikeMS event falls during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. You see my sister and brother-in-law both have MS too. They can’t ride. But, because of the TNBC, I can ride for my sister, brother-in-law and all the others who can’t ride for themselves. On October 11 – 12, the Pink Panters and I will don pink ribbon jerseys and put our wheels down in celebration of life. I will be 56 on that Monday – another reason to celebrate. I am still here – and healthy!
Cancer challenges you not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. It changes you in fundamental ways. Like the refiner’s fire, the cancer journey cleanses your life of that which is unnecessary, and leaves room only for that which is good and lovely and precious. Last year was a hard year – a challenging year. But, I don’t regret it. It was also a year of love and miracles. It created who I am today.
I’m glad Sylvie wants to give herself permission to live an abundant life. I’m glad that she’s going to take the phoenix flight now.
Live life fully so that at the end you’ll have no regrets for the things left undone. Live long, live well, live happy. The most important thing is to LIVE!
Mary Kyle is an artist, musician, health advocate, and freelance writer who makes her home in Lockhart, Texas. She was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer in February, 2013. Today, she remains cancer free and symptom free from Multiple Sclerosis. To read more about her journey with breast cancer, visit www.writebreast.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2014. Mary Kyle.
*Name changed to protect privacy.