A breast cancer survivor shares her experiences with the BRCA gene.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Why I Am Grateful

I know that many who heard I was having to undergo a double mastectomy and hysterectomy (actually, it was only an oophorectomy -- ovaries only -- as if that really makes any difference when you're having stuff pulled out of you) were a bit freaked out. Women, especially, have cringed in horror and thought, "Thank goodness that's not me!" I know this because that's what I thought whenever I encountered a woman who had breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy.

When I was diagnosed 7 years ago, I "escaped" having my breasts removed, and only had chemo and a lumpectomy. Whew! I was so relieved. And when I read an article last summer about a young woman with the BRCA gene who chose preemptive surgery, I was thankful that I didn't have to make that choice...until my oncologist asked that I be tested. Damn her.

So, here I am with my body cut up and rearranged and not quite ready for bikini season, but I can honestly tell you that it's okay. And, here's why:

First, I'm alive. When you're sitting in umpteen doctors' offices and mammography centers and chemo rooms, you come across others with breast cancer who have received a death sentence. And you wonder, why them? Why not me? How did I get lucky to live and they didn't? And they have small children they're leaving behind and they're only 35 years old, and that's too young to die. So, you're so grateful to get to live -- even if it's for just a little bit longer -- that you simply don't care what they cut out of you.

Second, with breast cancer, your connected to a community of some of the most amazing, inspiring women you'll ever know. Among this network, you find women who treat having a mastectomy like getting a manicure -- they're just that strong. So, you end up wanting to be as strong and cool as they are. And, if you're not as strong--that's okay, too. They help hold you up. You're never left alone with this disease; there's plenty of support out there.

And then, there's Roberta. She is the caretaker of Gary's mom. Roberta left Liberia years ago because of the devastating civil war. I asked her if she missed home and, of course, she said yes. She began sharing wonderful stories about life among her family and her village. But, soldiers came in and killed many family members and friends.

"I used to cry and cry all the time," she told me. "And then one day, I said to myself, "Roberta, you must be strong.' So, I quit crying and moved on."

If that wasn't enough to humble me, there was one other incident that put what I've been going through into perspective.

When I was nearing the end of chemotherapy 7 years ago, I was sitting in my oncologist's office complaining. Actually, I was trying to convince her to cut off treatment early because I was sick of it all--the baldness, the constant metallic taste in my mouth, a body bloated from steroids and a 20 pound weight gain. My good attitude up to that point was crumbling and I was frustrated and irritated. But she refused.

This occurred on September 10th, 2001. The next day, I watched TV footage of bodies falling from the top of the Twin Towers onto the street below, and I realized that I would gladly chose baldness, steroids, weight gain surgery, radiation and anything else associated with cancer treatment over having to make a choice as to whether to jump out of a 100+ story building or die in a fire.

It hit me that my life was a piece of cake...the life of a princess...compared to the hardships and heartbreak of so many others. And if they can endure, then by, God, so can I. And that's why I am grateful.