A friend suggested I write an article on breast cancer awareness for the month of October. That made sense to me and seemed simple enough since I am in the midst of the fight of my life against stage 3-breast cancer. I grabbed my laptop and pounded out paragraph after paragraph only to delete them all. I have learned so much this past year about breast cancer, my mind is full, but for some reason the article would not come together.
The problem: the misnomer of awareness. October became breast cancer awareness month in 1985 – thirty years ago – so it stands to reason we should all know a lot about the disease, right? Wrong! Wearing pink doesn’t make you aware of the reality of breast cancer any more than wearing a jersey makes you a football player. As I sit here in the midst of my breast cancer fight, I am astounded at all I did not know about breast cancer this time last year. By mid-October last year I was tired of seeing all of the pink, I was tired of hearing about mammograms, I was ready to move on to November. Little did I know at the time breast cancer was growing like wildfire in my body, spreading into my lymphatic system, ready to kill me. I was 42 years old when I was diagnosed and in spite of the thirty yearlong awareness push I actually knew very little about breast cancer. From someone who has been in the game – who had her butt singed by the fires of hell and lived to tell about it – please let me make you a little more aware about breast cancer.
First, a lot of women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, roughly 1 in 8. That means many of you reading this article will one day be told you have the disease or your wife, sister, mother, or daughter will get the dreaded news. Also, this is not a disease that just hits older women. I was forty-two when I was diagnosed and I can name a dozen women in my circle of friends who were younger than me when they were diagnosed. Early detection of the disease can make the difference between life and death, so if you value your life do not put off your annual mammogram and do some self-checking between doctor visits. About 40,000 women in American will die from breast cancer this year, and mammograms and early detection are critical. Mammograms will not prevent cancer, but early detection can mean the different between life and death.
Next, be aware that all breast cancer is not created equal. There are many different types of breast cancer, some much worse than others. And as with any cancer, there are several different stages at which breast cancer might be identified. So when someone tries to encourage me by saying, “I am a 20 year breast cancer survivor.” My first question to them is, “Tell me about your diagnosis.” If you find your breast cancer early and it is small and contained your chances at a long, healthy life are very good. However, if you are diagnosed, like I was, with a later stage cancer the prognosis is not always as cheery. Moreover, there are terms associated with breast cancer that perhaps you have never heard like triple negative, inflammatory, and estrogen receptor that change your course of treatment as well as your long-term prognosis. So please be aware that while all breast cancer is scary to deal with, all breast cancer is definitely not created equal.
Yesterday I saw an old friend and she said to me, “So, all your cancer is gone now, that is wonderful!” And I have to admit that is what most people think, that doctors can make all the cancer go away with aggressive treatment. Please be aware – doctors can NEVER tell you that you are CANCER FREE! That is a pie in the sky myth that might help some people move on with their lives but it just ain’t true. Once you have endured cancer treatment a positron emission tomography (PET) scan will be done to determine if there is any apparent cancer remaining in your body. Please note the word apparent – no scan can see one single cancer cell lurking in the deepest recesses of your body. While you might not have any apparent cancer, you might very well have one little cancer cell hanging out, waiting to meet up with some friends and form a nice, big malignant tumor. So when your friend announces they are finished with treatment and received a good report from the PET scan that does not mean they are literally cancer free. It is not over for them, ever. Of course since all cancer is not created equal, if they just had a small, contained tumor the odds that they no longer have any cancer cells in their body are good. But even if they experience the best possible results from treatment, the reality is cancer could return any minute – and that is the terrifying reality they have to live with the rest of their lives.
One person said to me, “If you have to have cancer, breast cancer is the best one to get.” Seriously? It is the second leading cancer killer in women behind lung cancer. If you are fortunate enough to survive the disease, you get to spend the rest of your life disfigured. In my case badly disfigured. Some people seem to think breasts are disposable since they serve no life-sustaining function like our heart, lungs, or kidneys. Please, be aware that having your breasts amputated brings with it a lifetime of physical and emotional pain that eclipses in one day the level of pain most people experience in the course of their entire lives. Don’t let the cheery pink commercialized month of October fool you; breast cancer is a harsh, debilitating killer. There is nothing easy about it.
Another thing people who have never faced this disease are not aware of are the effects of treatment. Chemotherapy kills cancer cells, which is super, but it also kills healthy cells, which is not so super. You know how your stomach felt the first time you saw the video of the Joe Theismann leg snap? Well, yeah that’s chemo. Not only does chemotherapy beat you down like a rented mule, the side effects linger – sometimes forever. During chemotherapy patients experience all manner of misery including extreme nausea, debilitating bone and joint pain, sensory loss, sleeplessness, sores, blisters, memory loss, hair loss, and extreme fatigue. But long-term side effects that may or may not ever subside include neuropathy, vision impairment, fatigue, chronic bone and joint pain, and lymphedema.
The financial cost of cancer is another issue we all need to be more aware of. My family has good health insurance, but even with good insurance the cost of cancer has been devastating for us. Pulling bills from the mailbox on a daily basis not only hurts the bank account it is a constant cause of stress. We depleted our vacation account to pay for co-payments, prosthetics, travel expenses, and prescriptions. Our kind and generous friends brought meals to our home while I was enduring chemotherapy and the money we saved on groceries during chemo kept us from having to take out a loan to pay the bills. Again, we have good insurance I cannot imagine the financial turmoil cancer causes for those not as fortunate. Cancer is expensive.
Another very real part of breast cancer you should be aware of is the fear. The first 72 hours after being told I had cancer I was sure death was imminent. I was sad, I was scared, and I was disappointed. Disappointed because I wanted more time with my children, the youngest were just 6 and 7 at the time of my diagnosis, and I wanted nothing more than to be their mom for many years to come. The fear of my children being left motherless paralyzed me. Once the chemotherapy is over, the surgery performed, the radiation administered then the doctor casually tells you, “See you in three months for a scan.” Then the real battle begins, the battle against fear that rages 24/7 in your mind. Medical science cannot tell me why I got cancer. Why me and not you. What did I eat, breathe, or encounter that caused cancer to grow in my body and not the body of the person sitting next to me? We don’t know! So after treatment you go home and change everything – you clean out your house, you change what you eat, what you clean with, what you eat off of, you scrutinize everything you allow into your home and body. You exercise more, read labels more, and pray more all while fighting the fear.
The final thing I want to make you aware of about cancer – it is one of the best things to ever happen to me. Once you stare death right in the eye life is never the same again. Death wrapped its dark cloak around my body and tried to drag me six feet under. But it didn’t. So now when my eyes open each morning I have more drive and passion for life than I ever thought possible. I no longer sweat the small stuff. I see clearly what matters and what does not matter. When my seven-year-old daughter asks to tell me about her day I do not give her my half-hearted attention. I drop everything instantly and look her deep in the eye and laugh with her and cry with her and become a better person with her. When I have an opportunity to share with someone about my Biblical worldview I do not sit mute in embarrassment, but I boldly tell how my life is better because of my relationship with Jesus Christ. Because of cancer I am less likely to hesitate, criticize, withdraw, or condescend and I am more likely to risk, praise, love, and support. What didn’t kill me definitely made me stronger.
Ronda M. Walker is a wife, mother of four, and member of the Montgomery County Commission.