By Carole Van Holbeck, MSAN Mental Health and Wellness Contributor
Life was so busy. Ken had just finished his Masters program in Marriage and Family Therapy and started working with a human services agency to acquire hours for licensing. I was working full-time as a senior caregiver and had just returned to college. The older boys were returning to college and our youngest, Matt was starting high school. There wasn’t really time to take off to visit my doctor. I was feeling well and made the decision to skip my annual screenings.
My stomach felt bad. Stress, I suppose. I went in for a CT Scan of my abdomen in June of 2010. An astute radiologist at the Air Force Academy noticed a shadow on the bottom of my right breast. I got the call, “Mrs. Van Holbeck, please come in for a mammogram.”
I did. I remember sitting in the waiting room for what seemed a long time. The radiologist finally called me back and showed me an area on the image. I asked him if this was something that should be followed up in six months. He said, “No.” The way he said it and his body language confirmed what I would wait another three weeks to officially hear – I had breast cancer.
When you are told you have cancer your world suddenly stops. I tried to wrap my head around that idea and to figure out what to do next. What was the best course of treatment for me? How far advanced is the cancer? How do I tell my husband? How do I tell my boys?
So much of breast cancer treatment depends on where you are, and you don’t know where you are until a doctor opens your body up and removes your cancer. You have to make decisions on medical procedures without having all the facts. I found that troubling. I felt like I was just blindly throwing darts at a target. I needed time, and time is something you don’t always have when cancer knocks.
I decided to remove my right breast. I was not offered immediate reconstruction. My military doctor was against it. He said if my cancer returned it could be hard to treat with an implant. I was told I could have it later if I wanted. After surgery, I was diagnosed with aggressive progesterone/estrogen receptive lobular invasive carcinoma, Stage 1.
Fortunately, my cancer was caught early enough so I did not have radiation or traditional chemotherapy. The cancer had not spread through my lymph system. I was placed on an oral chemotherapy drug which I tolerated for nine months. At some point I could no longer live with the side effects of chemo brain, anxiety attacks, bone pain, swelling, and lethargy. It had been almost a year, and four more years of this was more than I wanted to sacrifice.
I just wanted my life back. My cancer was early. It would be okay. I would be okay. (I later learned that most women spend approximately two years on this type of oral chemotherapy versus the five recommended because of similar side effects.)
Life goes on, but it is never quite the same after cancer comes. You see, it never really leaves. Cancer becomes your daily companion. If you are not careful, it can take you over. It can make you feel flawed, vulnerable, and helpless.
I bear the physical reminder of that empty place on my chest. When I get out of the shower my muscle memory has me drying a breast that is no longer there. I deal with it every time I go through an airport and my prosthetic sets off the screening x-rays. Every time I buy a new piece of clothing for my wardrobe. Every day when I feel nerve pain that still flares up, especially on cold days.
I have to fight cancer. Every. Single. Day.
But…cancer brings gifts, too. I know that probably sounds strange. Let me share a few of the gifts that cancer gave me:
Take nothing for granted and be grateful. Life can change in the blink of an eye.
Love more…everyone! My love for my spouse especially grew. He walked along side me throughout this journey. We now make spending time together a priority and have loving fun.
I like me, whatever my body looks like. I realized losing a physical part of myself does not change who I am on the inside. I learned to be comfortable in my own skin. I go swimming in regular bathing suit and often go without my prosthetic. I figured out that most people don’t stare at my chest.
Be in the moment. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not guaranteed. I enjoy where I am right now.
It’s alright to let things go. If the house isn’t perfect or I can’t get everything done on my list, it’s okay.
Make time for things that make your heart sing. I’ve become quite the proficient knitter!
Finally, it is okay to put my health first. I’ve made it a priority to go to doctors, get my annual screenings, exercise, eat well, and relax.
I am living proof that early detection of breast cancer saves lives. My prognosis is good, although I have been told to remain vigilant as I am in the window for cancer to return. I feel confident that I have many good years ahead.
Six years later cancer is still my companion but I fight it – one day at a time.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. This campaign is designed to increase awareness of the disease and remind women to have annual screenings to detect the disease in its early stages. To learn more about what you can do to fight breast cancer, visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s website.