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Twelve Years and Counting . . .

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I’ve been asked if I have ever had any real challenges in my life. I’m seventy-eight years old and while I have had a reasonably good life, there have been a number of challenges over the years. I’ve been married over sixty years and as a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, it goes without saying that “challenge” tended to be a constant companion. However, the one that remains uppermost in my mind happened over twelve years ago.

“Hello, Margaret. This is Dr. Bourne. I told you I would call you as soon as I got the results of your biopsy. I’m afraid I didn’t get the answer I had hoped for. It’s malignant.”

With those words, my stomach plummeted. When I found the lump a couple of weeks previous to that call, I wasn’t too concerned. I’d had my yearly mammogram just two months before and the results had come back negative. After all, I had the form letter from the lab that said so. Didn’t that mean I was okay? Wrong. So when I found that lump during my usual self-exam in the shower that morning, I assumed it was merely a cyst since I’d been diagnosed with cystitis several years ago. But just to be on the safe side, I called my gynecologist’s office and was told to get in there right away. She too felt the lump and promptly ordered another mammogram and the results of the subsequent biopsy prompted that fateful call from Dr. Bourne. So even though those words were softly spoken by her that afternoon, in my mind they actually shouted “BREAST CANCER!”

A million thoughts started going through my mind. First of all, I had to tell my husband. He’d had his own cancer scare twenty or so years ago with a malignant tumor on one of his vocal chords. Surgery followed by six weeks of radium treatments and he was pronounced cancer free and he has remained so ever since. Would I be that lucky?

Our families all lived in other states and we set about breaking the news.  I went through a few other tests and a date was set for the surgery. A lumpectomy wasn’t considered because of the location and size of the tumor, so a modified bilateral mastectomy was warranted. I was so concerned about getting everything in order that I didn’t have time to get nervous or frightened. But wait—that’s not entirely true. I was nervous and frightened 24/7. But I kept telling myself that women went through this all the time and survived just fine—maybe they ended up a bit lopsided, but otherwise okay. At the time, my next door neighbor and friend was fighting her own battle with cancer. She was in the process of chemotherapy treatments and was so sick she could hardly walk. She had no appetite and was rapidly losing weight as well as her hair. As the day of my surgery approached, she told me she would have me in her prayers.

My daughter, Shari flew in to be with me and help in any way she could. When I came out of surgery and was being wheeled into the recovery room, my beautiful daughter and my husband were walking right along with me carrying a lovely bunch of flowers. I was wide awake and full of questions and wanted to talk to the surgeon. On cue she came into my room smiling. She said everything went well and felt that they got the entire tumor. When I was able to raise my right arm above my head, she pronounced me well enough to go home the next day,. I couldn’t wait to get back to my life.

I was released the next day with a prescription for pain, along with orders to call the doctor’s office to set up an appointment for follow-up checkups. My husband drove me home and when we pulled into the driveway, I saw my neighbor’s daughter on her front porch. I called out to her and she dropped what she was doing and came over to me, and putting her arms around me she softly said “Mom died last night.” The chemo proved to be too much for her body to handle anymore. We just stood there sobbing into each other’s arms. I swore then and there that when I went to see the oncologist, I was going to refuse chemotherapy treatments. 

The appointment was made for me to see him and I approached his office ready to stand my ground and say “No” if and when he uttered the dreaded word. He checked over my records, the details of the surgery and the recommendations of Dr. Bourne. I heaved a sigh of relief when he told me that he felt chemotherapy was not called for in my case. Along with quarterly visits for blood tests, occasional x-rays, etc. and a daily dose of the drug Tamoxifen for the next five years, that was all that was required.

Except for a bout with a small tumor on my left kidney (I subsequently had a nephrectomy), I’ve been cancer free for over twelve years now. I credit my support group for keeping my spirits up through the entire ordeal. My family and friends and my doctors were there for me every step of the way. I even had the support of the teaching staff, dance team and boy’s basketball team of my granddaughter Missy’s school. After my recovery, my husband and I attended a basketball game there so we could watch Missy and her dance team perform. Arriving at the gym, I noticed several teachers and the girls all wearing small pink ribbons pinned to their blouses. Even the ballplayers had them woven through the laces of their shoes! Missy had personally hand-made all these little ribbons and distributed them.  Before the game started, an announcement was made to the effect that they knew of a lady who was presently battling breast cancer and they were wearing pink ribbons in support,. I soon realized they were talking about me! The girls dedicated their dance routine to me and I’m sure it was wonderful, but I could barely see it through the tears streaming down my face.

I’ve since made it a point to remind every female friend and relative to have a yearly mammogram. Surprisingly a few women have told me they had never had the test and didn’[t feel they needed it because they didn’t consider themselves ‘at risk’.  As far as I know, I am the first woman in my family to be diagnosed with breast cancer. I am living proof that it doesn’t play favorites. And I thank God that I am living!

People as a whole have many occasions to celebrate—we have birthdays, weddings, graduations, job promotions and the like. My husband and I used to go out to dinner when one of us left a job for one reason or another, knowing another one would be just around the corner. Of course everyone celebrates the biggies like New Year’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day and of course let’s not forget Christmas Day and Hanukkah. But for me my very personal big day is April 13th, the anniversary of my surgery. Every year when that day rolls around, I know that I can execute a well-placed kick to the behind of my nemesis. I pump my fist in the air and shout a resounding “YES!”  So far, it’s been twelve years and counting . . . 

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