I Survived Breast Cancer—and a Double Mastectomy
It was the end of a routine workday. A routine physical exam. My shift in pediatric cardiothoracic surgery was over. I went to radiology for my annual mammogram appointment. I remember needing to get home. I wanted the tech to hurry and finish reading the usual images so I could leave. But it was taking longer than it should have.
She eventually came out. She looked worried. She told me there was a suspicious mass. They immediately ordered a biopsy.
I remember feeling numb. Numb all over. But I still felt the sharp, uncomfortable needle. I kept this secret, buried in numbness, for days until my results came back.
I had stage 2 breast cancer. I was 51 years old.
The darling of cancers
Breast cancer is an odd thing. I think of it as the darling of all cancers. There is incredible community support for this terrible, highly prevalent disease. Millions of dollars are donated, countless races are run, celebrity auctions are held. Supportive pink ribbons are everywhere. Yet, learning I had breast cancer and sitting there with this diagnosis—my mother had received it before me; her mother before her—I felt alone.
I was incredibly fortunate to be a nurse practitioner at a prestigious hospital. I had access to a vast array of resources and the best, and most timely, care possible. Still, as the old adage goes, the cure seemed worse than the disease. Just two weeks after my diagnosis, I was scheduled for a mastectomy, the treatment recommended based on my family history and risk.
Anyone who is diagnosed with breast cancer has very little time to make critical decisions about a plan of care. I had only days to make an irrevocable decision: save my breasts, or not. A medical professional well aware of the risks, I chose the safer, more conservative and, some would say, more emotionally devastating option: a radical double mastectomy.
The road to survival
My breasts were gone. Part of me felt my femininity went with them. But I didn’t have time to dwell on that. The double mastectomy was followed by months of radiation. Then chemo. And then more chemo. In between, I made another decision, to undergo breast reconstruction.
It was two years before I felt like myself again. By then, my scars were less pronounced. I was more comfortable with my flatter-chested body.
That was eight years ago. Reflecting on all of it, I feel incredibly grateful. For this procedure. For the care I received. For the options I had. I wish, though, that someone had better prepared me for the reality of losing my breasts. I wish someone had said to me, to my face, “This is going to be one of the biggest challenges of your life. You will question your self-worth. But you will survive.”
Becoming a warrior
I am writing this now because I want women to know that they will survive, too. Going through all this saved my life. It made me who I am today: a warrior. Someone with scars. Someone my four girls look up to, more now than before, because of what I stood up to and what I survived.
Funny thing is, though, as negative as this experience felt at first, so many positives have come from it. I found confidence in my body again. I built an even deeper connection with my loving partner, who stood by my side every step. I set an example for my daughters—who themselves are at high risk for breast cancer—as they watched their mom beat it.
Breast cancer cannot define you. Your breasts, or lack thereof, cannot define you.
To anyone out there worried about breast cancer risk, recently diagnosed and unsure of what route to take, or currently recovering from a double mastectomy—in fact, to any woman reading this at all—I want you to understand that you are not alone. Breast cancer cannot define you. Your breasts, or lack thereof, cannot define you.
Your choices, your bravery, your will to live—they define you. And those you love will love you for that, most of all.