Tuesday, July 5, 2011

FIVE Years!!

Today is July 5, 2011…just another day to most people, but not to me. Today marks 5 years survival from a breast cancer diagnosis!! July 5 will forever be etched in my mind as the anniversary of the day I heard the four words that forever changed my life: “you have breast cancer”.

July 5, 2006, I was 40 years old, living and loving life with my husband and two children who were 16 and 12 at the time. I was in the midst of packing for a trip to North Carolina with my kids and older sister to visit my younger sister and her family. I’d had an ultrasound guided core needle biopsy a week prior after my first routine mammogram, and a follow up ultrasound both showed an area of concern. Having had two benign tumors in my mid- and late-20’s I wasn’t overly concerned. At every test the doctors had been reassuring that they felt it was just a fluid-filled cyst – nothing to worry about. When my phone rang that morning, I knew it would be the surgeon’s office with the results. What I didn’t know was that they were about to tell me I had cancer. I remember being stunned as I listened and tried to write down what the doctor (my doc was on vacation so it was one of the others in the practice) was telling me and trying to keep my composure. He made it sound like it probably wasn’t too bad and that I needed to follow up with my doctor when I got back into town after vacation. I mean, how could I have cancer? I didn’t have a family history of cancer; I was *only* 40 years old; there was no palpable lump; and this was my first routine mammogram – surely I didn’t have cancer. The first call I made was to Robert and I could barely utter the words. I don’t remember the conversation other than hearing him telling me I would be okay. When I told my family, I think I went into survival mode and was very matter-of-fact, trying not to fall apart. I promptly left town the next day as planned and stayed gone for almost 2 weeks (having a great time with my sisters was probably the best thing I could have done at the time!). I called the surgeon when I returned and heard “where have you been”? I should have known then that this would not be an easy, simple road to travel.

I had a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy in early August and received the official diagnosis and staging: invasive ductal carcinoma, stage IIB, with 2/10 lymph nodes testing positive for cancer as well. The referral to an oncologist came next and I *really* lost it when I found I would have to have chemotherapy, radiation, and hormonal treatment in addition to the surgery I’d had. Chemotherapy meant losing my hair and we all know how important hair is, right?? In addition to losing my hair, you have to understand I have had a life-long needle and throw-up phobia and chemotherapy definitely involves needles and when you read the side-effects of those drugs, well, it sounds like throw-up will be involved too!! However, God is good and faithful – I managed to reign in the needle fear (I didn’t say I got over it!!) and I never threw up!!

Three days after my 41st birthday, I started 27 weeks of weekly chemotherapy. I participated in a clinical trial and received adriamyacin and cytoxan every Friday for 15 weeks, followed by taxol every Friday for 12 weeks. During the first 15 weeks of treatment I also was to get a neupogen shot every day. Remember how I mentioned my fear of needles? Well, when you find out you have to give yourself an injection every day for 15 weeks, you begin to get over that fear just a bit!! At first, we thought Robert would be able to give me the injections, then we found out that they had to be done at a certain time every day and that it would be impossible for him to do. I did lots of praying at 10:00 every morning!! I finished chemo on April 6, 2007 and began taking radiation treatments five days a week for 7 weeks. By the time radiation was finished I had very short hair (and I do mean short) and it was getting hot so I decided to do away with the wig. What freedom!! In early May 2007 I started taking the anti-estrogen drug tamoxifen. One of the somewhat unexpected side effects of chemotherapy has been early menopause; therefore, I was switched from tamoxifen to anastrozole in 2010. Tamoxifen and anastrozole caused a lot of joint and bone pain that were heavily interfering with daily life so I recently switched to femara. Thankfully, the side effects are not as severe with this drug. I will have to take this drug for the next 5 to 10 years. In February 2008, I also had to have another excisional biopsy which happily was not cancer – just a lymph node that showed up in the wrong place. After you are diagnosed with cancer, you spend a lot of time in doctor’s offices. I was so happy when I was finally able to move to seeing my oncologist every 6 months and my surgeon yearly!! Every little step you take moves you that much closer to feeling “normal” again. I’ve hoped to keep making progress forward to the point that cancer is just a distant memory, but I am learning that is a hard place to get to. I have come a long way in 5 years, but I still have a way to go.

My mom recently finished treatment for ovarian cancer – Yay! for finishing treatment and being on the road to recovery for her!!

After my mom’s diagnosis, my doctors wanted me to have genetic testing for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations. It was a hard decision to make – I was almost 5 years out from my own diagnosis and that is a huge milestone in the life of a cancer survivor. To be tested meant being thrown back in “cancer land”, while not testing would mean having to go through heavy surveillance, possibly unnecessarily. In the end, I decided to have the test and this spring found out that I am BRCA1 positive. This was not the news I wanted to hear…AT…ALL. Hereditary cancer is really not that common – it’s pretty rare actually. However, it means my odds of having a recurrence or a new breast cancer or ovarian cancer are much higher than is normal. With the BRCA1 mutation, all three of my doctors – oncologist, surgeon and gyn are heavily recommending I have a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and hysterectomy. They tell me it is really not a case of “if” breast cancer will return, but “when”. I have always said that if I had cancer again, I would have a mastectomy, but to have to make that decision when I do not have cancer is tough. I am currently researching surgeons to have a consultation/second opinion with. If I opt to not have the surgery, it means more scans and surveillance than usual and I am not sure I can do that. Every time you return to the doctor after cancer treatment, there is a certain amount of anxiety that comes with it. Every mammogram, every blood test, every ultrasound, every exam causes anxiety for days leading up to and in the days waiting for results. I am so fortunate that I have friends and acquaintances locally and across the nation that I can turn to for support and advice when needed. I have turned to a number of them in the past couple of months. Those friends and acquaintances are one of the positive things to come from having had breast cancer. As I mark this fifth anniversary of survival, I am happy to be here celebrating this significant milestone and refuse to let what lies ahead darken the coming days. I choose to celebrate and live life…every day!!

I would be remiss if I didn’t give some testimony of God’s goodness through the past five years. As I look back through a journal I kept and scriptures I wrote in the back of my church notebook during the past five years I am reminded of how He has had his hand on my life. In the few months leading up to my diagnosis, I began to let go of some of the responsibilities I had held in our homeschool support group (I had been serving as co-op administrator) and working in children’s ministry at church. As a homeschool mom, I believed I needed to be more available to our son as he was finishing his high school work over the next two years and preparing for college. Little did I know how important those decisions would be in the coming months. After I was diagnosed one of the questions I faced was “what about school”? I prayed and these scriptures were an answer:

I Thessalonians 5:24 “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”

2 Corinthians 12:9 “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

We continued on with school, relying on God every step of the way. My kids were awesome – on days I could barely get out of bed, they got busy and did their schoolwork with little help or they curled up on the couch with me for help. They learned a lot about housework that year as well☺. The following year was hard too, but we persevered leaning on this scripture:

6:9Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Allan was a senior and through perseverance we saw him earn his Eagle Scout award, successfully take college algebra as concurrent enrollment, graduate from high school and he was awarded a scholarship for college!!

We had many friends and family who provided meals, cards, playdates, and sleepovers – we were blessed! Those meals, cards and sleepovers always came at just the right time – God’s time. We were blessed by Robert’s job in that he was able to take me to chemo *every* week except one that he had to be out of town – 27 days or ½ days off is a lot!!

Today and on the days I am not sure what to do or what lies ahead, I try to remember this scripture: Proverbs 3:5-6 “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

I share my story in hopes that it will bless or encourage someone with God’s faithfulness. There is no doubt in my mind that God has his hand on my life and that He walks with me every step of the way, never leaving me, and carrying me when I cannot walk alone. I don’t have all the answers and I don’t always understand, I just have to trust and believe.