When you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you don’t ever forget the date. For me, it was Feb. 16, 1990. I was a month shy of 40.
Hearing the nitty-gritty details in the surgeon’s office, I almost passed out. Fortunately, my husband was listening. On the way home, I mentally planned my funeral. Not unusual, I’m told. You hear the word “cancer,” you think about death.
But early on, I decided to live. The three best reasons: a husband and two daughters (then ages 3 and 11) who loved me. What followed was a crazy 10 months of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — made bearable by the support of God, family, friends and excellent doctors and nurses.
Four years later when the cancer returned, I went through a mastectomy and a harsher form of chemotherapy. Since then, I’ve been cancer-free.
I’ve seen my girls grow up, graduate from college and pursue careers. I’ve been a mother of the bride and a “Baba” to the world’s two greatest grandchildren (no bias!). There are no words to describe how blessed I feel to have been there for all those special days, and for the ordinary, ho-hum ones, too.
But you don’t ever forget. When someone you know or meet is diagnosed with breast cancer, the memories come back and your heart breaks for them.
“Once you’ve gone through that journey, you can’t help but reach out and help others,” said Nyasha Bonner-Shakir in our cover story this month.
Survivors walk for the cure, make speeches, write books or start healing programs. My own response has been to encourage cancer patients one-on-one. Here’s some of what I tell them:
1. Fight. You didn’t ask for cancer; you don’t deserve it. Stay positive. The best part of your life is ahead of you. It’s worth fighting for!
2. Forget the numbers. They’re everywhere. Percentages, stages, prognoses in months or years for your type of cancer. Remember, YOU are not a statistic; you are one-of-a-kind.
3. Ask questions. I sought the opinions of three doctors before repeating chemotherapy. I didn’t want to do it again. My third oncologist had an answer that resonated with me. He couldn’t guarantee results either way, he said, but if it were his mother, he’d want her to do everything possible to fight the disease.
4. Do what makes you feel good. Music, yoga, sitting outside, sappy musicals, whatever lifts your mood rules during therapy time.
5. Accept help. We all think we’re invincible. Having friends clean my house, leave meals and care for my children felt uncomfortable until a wise friend said, “Just get better. Then you can do it for others.”
6. Find things to sustain you. Because doctor visits, tests and scary waits are now part of your life. Faith is my bedrock, and in hard times I turn to life-affirming memories. December 1990: My family and I are ice skating on the outdoor rink at Lake Placid, N.Y., after 10 months of treatment. My body is bloated from chemo, my hair an inch long. But when the wind hits my face, I’m a child — limber, graceful and full of potential.
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