What I Learned From Breast Cancer

On February 25, 2013, I embarked on the most incredible journey of my life…..breast cancer SURVIVOR.

Prior to that date, my life was really pretty awesome (and it still is!). I was married to the love of my life and lived in beautiful old Greek revival home that was pretty reminiscent of Tara from Gone with the Wind. I danced ballet folklorico with a dance troupe, belonged to an art guild and was preparing for an exhibit, played music in a band, ran a music school that provided free lessons to under-served children, all while juggling a career here at IBM. I knew my neighbors and my granddaughter and I rode bicycles to and from her school every day. It was a lovely, perfect, wonderfully normal life. I loved it!

Then, at Thanksgiving 2012, we (my husband and I) found “it”…. We found the lump that turned out to be the unthinkable – cancer. And, just like that, the world as I knew it was irrevocably changed.

The first thing I learned was that not all breast cancer is created equal. Being an overachiever, I didn’t just get cancer, I got “C-A-N-C-E-R” …. a really rare form of hereditary breast cancer that accounts for fewer than five percent of all breast cancer patients. Statistically, only three percent of women with this form survive to the two-year mark. I was facing my own mortality in a very short amount of time.  How could my body be so sick when I felt so fine – so healthy?  How could I be sick when I had SO MUCH to do!?!  I was never afraid of dying, but will confess that prior to cancer, I had red hair and boy was I MAD! 🙂

Cancer, any cancer, is a kick-in-the-gut life altering event. Just like any other life-altering event, it changes you and those who love you. But, it’s still life and life is what you choose to make of it. While cancer is never a journey I would have chosen, I am also not sorry that it is part of my journey. The 14 months after diagnosis were filled with treatments, and surgeries, and chemo and then more of the same. I met amazing people with their own amazing journey. I saw the love of family, friends and even strangers manifested in love to me and my family in ways that I could never have comprehended except for this process. To know how loved and cherished you are on this side of the veil is a rare gift.

I am one of the lucky ones. I am still here. I am a mother, daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, wife, best friend. I am more than a SURVIVOR  – I am a THRIVER!

I am often asked to share something about the journey. I would need a book to share everything but here are the items which I think are most important for anyone facing this to know.

1.   Early detection saves lives. I cannot stress this enough. I found my cancer. It was still six months before my annual mammogram was due. If I had waited, I would not be here today. Because I knew my BRCA status, my niece was tested and found out she was BRCA positive as well and started doing self-checks. On the morning of her 26th birthday, she found her breast cancer. She is undergoing chemo now. BUT, early detection has given her a fighting change to live to see her children grow up.

2.   Know your genetic history. The fact that your parents did not have cancer does not mean you are immune. I had one of the hereditary cancers from a BRCA gene mutation. If I had known I was at risk, I would have made different health choices.

3.   There is a beauty to everything in life. If you open your eyes and your heart to it, you will find much beauty, joy and love – even in the midst of the horror and suffering that is cancer. Your mind and soul need that joy to stay healthy during this journey.  If you close your heart to the joy, you’ll only see the suffering and pain and your heart and soul will be sick too. That is not a place you want to go.

4.   Attitude is everything. You cannot control the fact that this terrible disease has invaded your body. You can control how you choose to respond. Your attitude is up to you. A positive attitude is everything.

5.   Choose abundant life. At the time I was diagnosed, the statistics supported a narrative that my body was, in all likelihood, dying. The most important decision that I made was to choose life and to live as abundantly as possible for whatever time was given to me. I still strive to live an abundant life now.

6.  We are mind, body, and spirit. When you have cancer, only the body is sick. Your mind and spirit are still healthy and whole.

7.  You are not a statistic. Do not live (or die) defined by what the statistics say.

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