Tuesday, October 23, 2012

October = Breast Cancer Awareness Month

I don't have very many memories of my childhood. 

I've thought about this fact a few times before, but it really dawned on me the other day - I honestly do not remember very much of my childhood. The majority of memories that I am able to conjure up are most likely due to the vast amount of documentation in the form of photographs that occurred surrounding those events, as my mom was discovering her passion for photography and scrapbooking during that time. 

However, there are a few moments that I am able to look back on with clarity. For example, the time my older sister, Anne, and I were playing softball in the backyard and as I was running to first base, she full out threw the ball at the back of my head and nailed me square in the occiput. Or how in the 2nd grade I dressed up as a pirate for Halloween and some kid in my class came to school in a homemade port-o-potty costume. Or what about the time I sobbed as my pet guinea pig, Snickelfritz, died of constipation most likely secondary to some underlying disease involving the gastrointestinal tract? 

Those are great.

Anyway, I can also recall having mother's helpers in my life. Throughout my childhood, my mom hired various women to help her around the house. These were usually college students in the surrounding area, and their job duties consisted of light cleaning, driving me (and sometimes my sisters, before they were 16) to various extracurricular activities, grocery shopping, and babysitting me. Many came and went, but my favorite was definitely Jill. 

Jill was fun, beautiful, compassionate, and my friend. She would let me brush her long silky hair as we watched movies together. She would take me shopping and on errands with her. She would drive me to my figure skating lessons and other various athletic practices. We would talk, giggle, and play together. I always had so much fun with her. 

When Jill got married, she asked me to be her flower girl. She picked out a floor-length ivory, satin dress for me to wear that had puffed short sleeves with fabric rosettes on them, beading at the neckline,  and scalloping at the bottom much like Belle's yellow dress from Beauty & the Beast. I got to wear a little miniature tiara with tulle, like a veil, to match her. I'll never forget how as part of her message to me in her description of the wedding party, she included that she one day hoped to have a little girl just like me. 

Of course things faded as they do with getting older and moving on. Jill kept in touch with our family through Christmas cards, and we would see her every once in a while. I have since become friends with her through Facebook, and have stayed updated on her life in this way. I don't know how nor am able to begin to describe the hardship she has faced in this lifetime, between cancer and losing children. However, I wanted to share this most recent update she wrote in honor of October being breast cancer awareness month. To have gone through so much and still have an abundance of faith in God amazes me. This reminds me to take a step back and think about what is truly important in life. 

Breast Cancer Awareness Month.... 

I pass through the aisles of Meijer and I see the pink ribbon on the yogurt, the race for the cure fundraisers, even the bright pink trash barrels that line the streets. I try to raise my right arm above my head, attempt to do a regular push-up, or sit in one spot too long and begin to feel the constant aching reminder that all is not how it once was. All of these are just reminders of something always tucked in some corner of my mind… cancer.

I was 28 years old and in what most would call the "prime of my life." I was healthy and fit, living a full life with my husband and two young daughters. Lying in bed one night, a few days after running the 5/3rd 25k race I felt a mysterious lump under the bottom portion of a muscle I had pulled in my chest. Prompted by my husband to at least call and see what they said, I phoned my OB. She assured me that with my age, the fact that we had no family history of any sort of cancer, and the rest of my risk factures being literally zero that the chance it was cancer was extremely, extremely small. She said that she would be happy to take a look at it just to calm any worries we may have. I went in a few days later and had her carefully examine my breast and the lump I had discovered. She assured me it looked like a simple cyst but sent me downtown for an ultrasound... just to be sure. Apparently at 28 your breasts are too dense and mammograms wouldn’t be of much help to them. Somehow I correlated the word dense to the word perky and remember smiling to myself as I sat on that cold metal table in my paper gown. After giving birth and all the months of nursing someone still had perky, dense boobs….well, dense anyways. The tech would come and go and the then the doctor came in to suggest we just remove the mass. It was large enough that they felt it would be better to just remove it-- he assured me he was fairly confident that it would come back benign but would feel better, given my age, if we just had it removed. He didn't seem too concerned and so I took that as a cue and went home quite optimistic that everything was just fine. I returned a few days later, and in a simple procedure they removed that little mass.

That little mass would change my life. I was sitting in a restaurant- in a booth I will never forget-- when my phone rang. I explained to my friend that I was waiting for the call and quickly excused myself. I wasn't nervous or even concerned-- just remember feeling like it wasn't polite to not answer the phone for a doctor that was taking the time to actually call me. The words he started to speak where a complete shock to my entire body. The only words i remember him saying was invasive carcel ductinoma ... i remember asking invasive what? He asked me a few times where my husband was and if perhaps I wanted him to call him. I didn't want him to hear it from anyone but me... but how does a wife call her husband and give him that kind of news. The only other question I asked was if my hair would fall out... vain, but real. The details were far too complicated for my muddled brain to understand and the nausea in my stomach was just a shadowing of what was to come. My sweet husband raced over to be with me. We sat in the parking lot for what seemed like a long time- just crying, hugging, and wondering what cancer would look like when it was experienced first-hand.

The next week was a blur of activity: first opinions, second opinions, more surgery, more bad results, charts, diagrams and lots of words with more than 3 syllables. The conclusion was that my cancer was a very fast growing, aggressive form that needed to be treated just as aggressively. The lumpectomy they had performed hadn't gotten clean margins and the lymph nodes they removed proved to be riddled with cancer. But there was no time to remove any more-- the chemo needed to be delivered and fast.

I took my place in the long line of recliners; flanked by older, more mature patients on either side... they looked at me with sympathetic glances of uncertainty. I remember fingering my long blond hair while looking at the stocking caps and scarves that surrounded me. The thoughts of vanity faded as the medicine pumped into my veins and I started listening to the conversations around me. Death seemed palpable in that room and when surrounded by so much sickness, it sure does make one think. By the young age of 28 i was well acquainted with death. I had buried one daughter and two sons-- I had held them in my arms and watched as they breathed their last breath. It wasn't necessarily death that scared me-- I saw the peace in their eyes-- it was this whole business of sickness. How could I be so sick, when I felt so good? The medicine continued to pump and the hours ticked by. The nausea came and went along with the nurses monitoring the endless bags of fluid hooked to my IV pole and connected to my body by a port sewn under my skin.

In the months to come I would become accustomed to this great room of lazy boys where we all gathered to be infused with what we hoped was life giving medication. I became a scarf wearing, bald headed, cancer patient who measured her weeks based on how many days until or since her last chemo. I became well acquainted with words like nuelasta; I became a pro at peeing while keeping my IV pole from tipping into the toilet, and knew the best pharmacies and their hours throughout the town. But I was also a wife and a mother. I had two little girls- just 4 years and 6 months who still counted on me to provide for their needs. Many days I didn't know how I was going to provide for my own needs... let alone theirs. It was a humbling time of accepting and appreciating the help of those who loved me.

The decision was made that because the margins of my lumpectomy's where never clear, the cancerous breast had to be removed... they called it a mastectomy. I called it unthinkable. They were going in and removing every little portion of my breast-- leaving me concave with angry scars screaming across my chest. I was given a few weeks to heal before they would begin the 40 rounds of radiation. Humbled. My hair was gone. My breast was gone. I was everything the world said that beauty was not... and yet I was loved. My husband never left-- he never said it wasn't what he signed up for or seemed to accurately see what the mirror proclaimed. Family stepped in and friends came close and somehow in my ugliness and pain I felt more loved than ever.

Cancer sucks.... it really does. Nothing about the entire experience would I ever wish on any one. I pray constantly that my girls will never have to experience losing their breasts, their hair, or their health. I pray that they won't battle the fear of reoccurrence or live with the awareness that each ache and pain could really be something else. But I do want them to be strong. To think about what happens when you die and to have hope that this is not all there really is. I want them to sit in rooms where everyone isn't able to cover up their pain and really look into the eyes of someone who is dying. I want them to have time for other people- to sit in a chair for hours and listen to a man named Harold tell them, with love in his eyes, how his son drove 2 hours just to come and pick him up to take him to his chemo appointment. I want them to really see people and to know that the exterior of a person is only just that- a shell. That true beauty cannot be measured by bust size or hair color and that people that treat you like it can are just plain wrong. I want my girls to love deeply and to realize that life is so brief. That what we do with our life really matters... because in an instant all can change. Cancer or maybe just suffering in general, brings a different layer to life. It allows you to see things differently and to feel more deeply. People become people-- each with a story. October is breast cancer awareness month-- the pink ribbons find their way on just about everything. Next time you see one take a minute to take a deep breath... to slow down for a minute and be reminded of those around you. Take time to invest in them- to listen to their story... or maybe just be willing to share yours.


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