October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a very important month for me because I’m a breast cancer survivor.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2010, after having a questionable mammogram the preceding January. Questionable meant they detected some change in my breast but not enough to start down the “is it cancer?” track. Instead, I was scheduled for another mammogram six months later. It was that mammogram that led to the cancer diagnosis.
In September 2010, I had a lumpectomy and lymph node dissection. For those of you who don’t know, a lumpectomy is a breast-conserving surgical procedure available to women with certain kinds of cancers. Instead of removing the breast as is done with a mastectomy, with a lumpectomy, the cancerous tissue is removed from the breast. Lymph node dissection is the removal of several lymph nodes associated with the area where the cancer is located and testing those nodes for cancer cells. In my case, 22 lymph nodes were removed and two (if I remember correctly) were found to be cancerous.
Had my lymph nodes not been positive, my treatment would have consisted of radiation therapy alone. Since two of mine were positive for cancer, my treatment consisted of about eight months of chemotherapy and 32 back-to-back days of radiation. Yes, you read it right. I was scheduled for 32 straight days (no weekends) of radiation treatment. I ended up having to take a break of several days because of damage the radiation was doing to my skin. I still got the 32 days of radiation; it just took about 40 days to get them.
People have different reactions to cancer treatment. Some folk suffer nausea during chemo. Not me. Instead, I suffered from a low blood count. In fact, my blood count got so low at one point they thought I’d have to have a blood transfusion. I remember being so weak that I could barely walk into the Cancer Clinic. Believe it or not, by my next appointment, I was back to normal, or what would become my new normal.
Like most chemo patients, I lost all my hair. And I had a lot of it, too. I had been wearing sisterlocks for about eight years at that point so my hair was pretty far down my back. I was surprised that losing my hair wasn’t more traumatic. I wasn’t really concerned about how I looked; I was more concerned that being bald was evidence that I was sick. And I didn’t want to be sick. Better yet, I didn’t want folks to know I was sick.
I told very few people of my cancer diagnosis. Of course, I told my immediate family. That was hard to do because I knew they would be afraid for me. Despite all the medical advances that have been made concerning cancer, the word still connotes with death. I debated telling my family because I didn’t want them to worry, but my husband convinced me that I really had no choice. Of course, he was right, and I was glad I did tell them because I needed their support.
I only told my immediate supervisor and one other person at work. I was able to do my job so I didn’t have to take any time off. Since I was (and still am) a college professor, I was able to teach my two classes each semester but I just had to stop doing everything else. The only reason all this worked is because my husband picked up the slack. When I talk about my cancer experience, it typically turns into a story about him. If you want to read that story, you can find it here.
In case you haven’t done the math, September 2015 marked the five-year anniversary of my cancer surgery. Five years is a magic number of sorts, when it comes to cancer. The five-year survival rate for my kind of cancer is 85%, meaning 85 out of 100 people who are diagnosed with my kind of breast cancer are alive after five years. It also means that 15 people out of a hundred are not. I am grateful to be among the living.
I think cancer changes a person, rather life changes for a cancer survivor. I call it the new normal. Other than the regular visits to doctors and surgeons, my new normal is now just normal. I can’t really remember the old normal. I think that is a good thing. It means I’m living life and not looking back.
I shared all this with you because it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, more likely than not, this disease has touched your life or the life of someone you love. I challenge you to do at least one thing this month to support Breast Cancer Awareness. You can donate money or participate in a Breast Cancer Walk; you can volunteer at the Cancer Center in your local hospital; you can remind one woman in your life to get her annual mammogram; or you can share this Breast Cancer Love Letter with someone you love.
Angela Benson is the author of 14 novels and a nonfiction writing book. Her next book. The Summer of Me, will be the first of her books to address breast cancer.