In life there are many turning points. Joys, tragedies, changes we prepare for as well as those we don't. Sometimes it's the things we aren't prepared for that make us better and stronger human beings in the end.
There's that old saying that in every test of life there is a testimony.
As a journalist, in both my personal and professional life, I've come into contact with people who have met life's turning points and were overcome by their situation or circumstances. At the same time I've been moved by the overwhelming number of people who instead overcame their situation.
For 17 years Rosemary Griggs, an artist and ceramic sculptor in St. Simons, had used her arms and hands freely to mold and sculpt her artwork. But a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2006 would change that, at least temporarily.
Griggs falls into that category of people who overcame her circumstances. Instead of giving up on her artwork, when she could barely lift her arms, she found a new way to continue expressing her craft. She began sketching almost every day. She sketched enough pieces for a book that is now changing the lives of others through its honest and humorous interpretation of breast cancer.
Now her work is inspiring more people than it ever has before.
Her illustrated journal is entitled “Mammary Lane, A Sketchbook of Breast Cancer Survival” can be found at www.mammarylanesketchbook.com.
I couldn’t get to St. Simons (insert sad face here) to meet Griggs in person so she shared some of her story with me in a recent phone interview. Here is a partial transcript of that interview with Griggs.
When I was diagnosed I was unable to work in my studio because of the molds and I went through a lot of different surgeries and was unable to lift the clay. So I had to do something to busy my mind and my hands so I drew. I started drawing the day of my annual mammogram appointment. I was trying to reschedule the appointment and so I was drawing a doodle of me suffering through a mammogram and that was my first drawing in the journal and from there when I was diagnosed I started drawing everything that was happening.
I went in for a routine mammogram. I was 45 when I was diagnosed and had a mammogram every year since I was 40. From that mammogram I was called back in for a magnification mammogram and then I was called back in to do a sonogram and then there was the biopsy and from the biopsy we had a diagnosis that I had ductal carcinoma in situ, which is a fairly common type of breast cancer. The place where I was diagnosed told us it was about a half a centimeter … a lumpectomy and some radiation and I’d be good to go. Well when we went to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville we found out that it was much more extensive than that. …It ended up being nine centimeters…a lot of tumor there and that was too large to preserve the breast.
One of the easiest things that my husband and I came up with in the midst of all this was to take the other breast. I did not want to look over my shoulder worried again that I would have to go through what we were about to go through again. It was an easy decision for us.
Before the Mammogram
Looking back I realize that I did have some tenderness in the spot it was in but I attributed it to my monthly cycle when the breasts tend to swell up and get tender. I did have one interesting thing happen. When I had to get all my pathology reports together to bring to the Mayo Clinic from previous mammograms I saw the prior year’s report noted calcification in the right breast. They stamped it benign. I did not get that information, I just got the little postcard in the mail saying you passed your mammogram, see you next year. If I had seen that I would have been alarmed enough to follow up myself and that really bothered me, made me mad that I didn’t have that opportunity to know that there was calcification. I felt like that was an injustice. Since then, any time I have any kind of procedure, whatever I always get a copy of the pathology report. I might not understand it but if I’ve got questions I’m going to ask them.
They called me and said they’d found a place that they wanted to do further examination with a magnification mammogram. I remember they had to manually crank down the machine to squeeze my breast. That was no fun. They called me back and from there it was just a wild drive. Three weeks after I was diagnosed I was having a double mastectomy. So it went very fast. … I was told over the phone. I always want to know. We (Rosemary and her husband David Ray of 16 years) were standing in our kitchen and were able to hold on to each other and cry a little bit and start making a plan. When David Ray and I get our game faces on for something like that we can move mountains and we sure did.
Telling Her Daughter
I have one daughter, 33. We told her that day we learned and she was packing to leave to move to Colorado so her life was full and busy. But she stayed to see me start with chemo. One day during my early chemo she brought me a big paper sack full of her hair, so we were both kind of bald headed together. She looked a lot better than I did. She had a lot of hair. I had no idea she was doing it. I was sitting in the chemo chair and this beautiful young woman with eyes as wide as saucers came walking up to me and handed me a sack and I didn’t even recognize it was my own daughter there for a second. At the time I had a few sprigs left on my head but it was coming out fast. I had a lot of hair before this.
The Physical Change
I think big hair and big breasts were a lot of my identity until I lost them both. I had to rethink how important those two things tended to be in my life. But those are surface things and my true core is really what I take away as my best quality.
The first couple of weeks I cried a gallon bucket full of tears. I was in total shock after being diagnosed. I was 45 and led a healthy lifestyle and had no family history. My father died of bladder cancer in his mid- 50s and my grandfather died of cancer in his mid-30s. So cancer was my number one adult fear and chemo ran a close second. When it became clear that I was facing my two biggest fears David Ray convinced me that since we were going to be together for all of our days why not trade one year for the next 40. That gave me something to work towards. But I went through the gamut of emotions. I was scared of the diagnosis and treatment. Mad that my efforts of good living hadn’t saved me from cancer. Then I was grief stricken at the loss of my breast and my big hair.
I felt exhausted, anemic and bored but never defeated. David Ray told me my only job was to get better and that became my full-time job so I really didn’t have a chance to feel defeated. I had a big job. It was a team effort, friends and family. Even my critters, my dogs and cats were part of the team. Getting through was a team effort. I had to show everybody that all that hard work paid off and now I’m happy and well and living life to the fullest.
Rosemary’s New Normal
It took a long time for me to come to terms with the loss of my breasts. I missed them even though I had reconstructive surgery. The silicone breast implants never became a part of me and after four years I had them removed and now I’m living breast free and my new normal is that I’m finally comfortable in my skin.
I was undergoing a double mastectomy three weeks after the diagnosis and right after the surgery we were encouraged because the doctors told us that everything looked like I wouldn’t require chemo. When I went back to the clinic that following week for a follow-up appointment my pathology report showed that in addition to the large area of cancer that they knew about I also had two small Her2neu positive tumors which were a much more aggressive type of breast cancer.
I had hoped that with a double mastectomy that I had given enough but it turned out that I still had to undergo 16 rounds of chemo plus 30 rounds of Herceptin. I had immediate reconstructive surgery to put expanders in my chest. They blew those up every week with saline solution until it stretched my pectoral muscles enough that they could put the permanent breast implants in. There were four additional surgeries having to do reconstruction and eventually deconstruction. [Breast reconstruction] was not for me. I wish that I had taken time after I lost my breast to decide where to go from there. I felt that I rushed that decision.
Don’t just accept a postcard in the mail. If you have any concerns or funny feelings you should follow up. A cancer diagnosis and prognosis and how a person adapts to the treatment is as individual as we are. It’s not my place to say that just because I managed to get through the treatment that anyone else will. But I sure would encourage anyone to plow ahead. I learned things to keep my body humming while I gave it over to modern medicine. My journal is only my story and every person has their own story. If I could give one piece of advice it’s to get knowledge. It’s a powerful tool. There are advances in treatments and people should study those things and find what speaks for them. Go to breast cancer websites and get a list of questions to ask your doctor. Knowledge of what your body’s doing is a powerful tool.
Rosemary Griggs has been cancer free for eight years.
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