Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Be a survivor

I first published this on my now-defunct website, "Cancer Can't " 10 years ago. Yep, I am a breast cancer survivor (you can read my story in "I'd Rather go to California", a small book that people have told me helped them or a friend get through their own ordeal).

I think the words I wrote then are just as valuable today. so here goes...

Most of us know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I hope that doesn't just mean wearing a pink ribbon pin and listening to a guest speaker at one of your clubs. I hope it reminds you to do your monthly self-examination and make your annual appointment for a mammogram.

Yes, I know all the excuses:
     1. That lump? It's probably a cyst -- I've had them before. I'm not going to worry about it.
     2. Cancer doesn't run in my family, In fact, I can't think of a single relative who's had it.
     3. I'll make an appointment as soon as I get time, but right now I am just too busy to sit in a doctor's office.
     4. If it is cancer, I don't want to know it.
     5. Why bother? If it is cancer, I'm going to die anyway.

I'm pretty familiar with the first three, because I used them myself. I was moved to action only when my gynecologist asked what I was waiting for.

I think the fourth goes through everyone's mind -- for a few minutes, anyway. If this is your excuse, you need to recognize that not knowing isn't going to make it go away. You need to acknowledge your enemy before you can fight it.

As for number five, this is the most incredible of all, and yet I have heard perfectly sane and otherwise rational women tell me this. My response is, "Really? I'm still here."

You might well ask yourself, if you suspect something is wrong, "What's the worst that can happen?" First, you may have your fear confirmed by a doctor. On the other hand, you now have an ally.

You may have a needle aspiriation to check for cancer cells. This is painless (at least, I never felt it). And, it may come back negative and you can go home and kiss your husband or lover and carry on with your busy life.

If it is positive, you may have a biopsy/lumpectomy. This requires surgery, but there is a quick recovery and little scarring. You may miss a day or two of work, and then put your experience behind you.

If the biopsy shows a more advanced cancer, you have a choice of partial resection or a mastectomy. You and your surgeon will sit down and talk about the pros and cons. The days of radical mastectomies are in the past except in very advanced cases -- which yours isn't, because you caught it early.

Your surgeon may remove some lymph glands to see if the cancer has spread. If he finds some positive nodes, this doesn't necessarily mean the cancer has gone throughout your body. It is just in the nodes, and now you can stop it before it goes any further. You may have to have chemotherapy or radiation, or both.

If you need chemo, chances are you will need another minor surgery to insert a catheter. This means you don't get a needle stuck in your arm every time you go. There are drugs now to keep you from being sick, so don't expect more than a little nausea and lack of appetite. Most women I know continue to work throughout their treatment. A plus is that you may lose those unwanted pounds.

If you hate the thought of being bald (and you will be) now is the time to buy a few wigs and experiment with that hairstyle you were always too timid to try before.

Radiation means daily trips to the oncology center for six weeks or more. This is a nuisance, but other than being a little tired, it does not make you sick. You may get a mild burn, but no worse than that sunburn you got at the beach last summer.

And that's the worst that can happen. The good news is, you have given yourself a chance to survive. You can pat yourself on the back, knowing that you still have many good years ahead.

None of the things I have described are as bad as what will happen if you don't take that first step.

So please, make October the month you do something for yourself. Get that mammogram. And ask your sister, mother, friend or daughter to do the same.


  1. Thanks for sharing this Sandy-an excellent reminder!

  2. Well written and reduces the fear of the words "breast cancer." Thanks for sharing. Glad you're around to write and share with us.

  3. I'm going Thursday at 10:30. What's a 20 second flattened boob... it's worth it.

  4. Great post, Sandy. I just bought the book. I had my mammo three weeks ago, but since my last was six years ago, in Cali, the dr is waiting for those two from before to do a comparison. They said I should hear something soon and I'm expecting good news since there were no immediate concerns from the dr.

    I'm so haooy you made it and are here to encourage others to do their safety exams each month. I'm proud to know you, diva.

  5. Got the "all clear" two weeks ago. Yes, have had the needle procedure and it is painless. "Negative" meant a smile to the doctor and a total breakdown in the car, thanking God I'd been spared. That was 10 yrs ago, but the memory is a fresh as if it happened this morning and the reason I never miss a year. FYI, no breast cancer in my family either, but nowadays, no longer a determining factor. Thanks girl, and I, too, am glad you're here to remind us not only of what can happen, but that it's not the death sentence everyone assumes.