Pride goeth before a fall…Book of Proverbs
All good stories, it seems to me, begin with a bit of irony. Today is the first day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Today also marks the two year anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis. Because, if you are going to be diagnosed with breast cancer, what better day to be told? How else should you begin your journey, but by being surrounded with pink marketing campaigns that include television commercials, end-cap grocery store displays, pro sports uniforms, and neighborhood trash cans?
One evening back in September 2013, Baby #4 and I were alone in the family room. The room was dark and our Great Dane, Molly, was stretched out on her floor pillow next to the recliner. Molly’s gentle snoring created a slow rhythm while I rocked the chair and read on my tablet. The baby, almost eight months old, was nursing himself to sleep. I pushed on my left breast before doing that thing that breast-feeding mothers do, to be sure every last bit of milk is expressed. Some of you know what I mean: the pushing, smushing, squeezing, tugging, and overall violence performed to be sure the breast is empty, so that the goods are filled up and ready to go in the next 2-3 hours. This was the fourth child I had nursed, and I knew a hungry baby is a selfish and ravenous fool. I would have to be prepared if I didn’t want to be nursing him every hour. The only way to prevent that was to be sure my breasts were completely empty, so my body would produce enough to fill ‘er up to capacity.
I was smug about my ability to nurse. It isn’t easy to do and isn’t for everyone. It also isn’t glamorous, but it is painful in the beginning and a great deal of physical work for the duration. Some bodies aren’t able to do it, and the emotional and mental toll that causes can be painful, too. Any way you look at it, pain may be involved.
I was never the prettiest girl, or the one with the great body, or the most athletic, or the one with a chest to impress. Baby #1 was a preemie and had a NICU stay. When I realized I would be able to breastfeed her successfully with enough milk pumped and saved for my husband to handle midnight feedings, I felt like a champ. And now, here we were with Baby #4, and I was confident in my assertion that I would breastfeed this guy for a solid year, like I did his siblings before him. I had two weeks worth of milk frozen in the freezer and no supply issues.
All those years of breastfeeding not only had me filling out tops bought right off the rack (I’ll be honest, I despise trying on clothes) but it also meant a lower risk of breast cancer and a slew of other health benefits. Yep, this was my reward for years of body self-consciousness, of not needing a sports bra during volleyball games, of swimsuit agony, of undergarment padding, of limited special-occasion dress choices.
That night in September, I felt a lump and pushed hard on it. It rolled under my fingers but didn’t give. I pushed even harder, until my fingers had it pinned against my chest wall. It felt like a marble. Why wasn’t it sore? Parenting is a contact sport, and when one of the kids elbowed me or head-butted my chest, it would be tender. A blocked milk duct? It would have been painful as soon as the baby began to nurse. Infection? I’d be in agony. Wow, I’m one tough mother, I told myself. I’m so badass I don’t even feel pain anymore.
I pushed on that lump every time Baby #4 nursed for the next two days, then mentioned it to my husband. “It doesn’t hurt, but maybe I should get it checked out.” He wasn’t overly concerned, either, but he’s big on following the rules. If something about your body changes and it nags at you, you get it checked out.
The doctor said an ultrasound was warranted, just to be safe, but it was likely a result of nursing. I was confident in her assumption. As a matter of fact, I looked forward to the ultrasound because it was a bonus child-free excursion. I didn’t usually have two of those back to back! My happy mood dampened, however, when the ultrasound technician asked “Did you feel one lump or two?” The radiologist was nervous, edgy even, when he reported two areas of concern. Biopsies confirmed cancer, and the end of breastfeeding Baby #4.
I had sat in smug self-satisfaction for almost ten years, knowing that I was able to sustain my children for the first six months of their lives with my body alone. I was in shock about the breast cancer diagnosis, but the abrupt stop to breastfeeding wounded my spirit. When I called the pediatrician’s office, it was through tears that I asked the nurse what formula to buy and what to do with it. It said a great deal about my perception of the “Breast is Best” culture, that I was ashamed to buy a tub of formula powder, as if I had failed my child and had lost my social status because I could no longer nurse him. Obviously, I had some emotional issues to work out, but I finally understood what some other mothers dealt with immediately after giving birth. It was humbling.
I received a surprising genetic mutation diagnosis (BRCA2, and I have no known family history of breast cancer) that puts me at an elevated risk for multiple cancers. I have had both breasts surgically removed, chemotherapy and radiation, a complete hysterectomy, and breast reconstruction. I am dealing with hormone medication that is screwing up my quality of life and now, a diagnosis of osteoporosis, too.
I get smoked almost weekly on the YMCA track by my silver-haired compatriots and I reluctantly lift weights at home. I do enjoy Zumba class, even if I’m always a step or two behind. I try to make educated decisions on all of the beauty products I buy. I make a conscientious effort to accept the changes in my body, and I am learning to accept my changed mental state. I’m working on giving up sugar and eating a Mediterranean diet, and–the biggest surprise of all!–these lifestyle changes have not made me nearly as miserable as I had feared. If anything, I feel motivated to stay on this course and set a good example for my family.
If I had shrugged off that lump, the potential for the cancer to spread with each day I delayed would have been staggering. Some breast cancers are so aggressive that the patient has no defense against the disease’s progression. I was one of the lucky ones, because acting when I did saved my life. We don’t owe our families, our friends, our employees, our patients/clients/insert-person-who-motivates-you-here our best health. We owe it to ourselves. You can’t be anyone or anything for another person if you aren’t taking care of yourself first. What does this mean for you? Be in tune with your body. Take care of it, and certainly don’t ignore it.
I’ve learned to be bolder and to be open to new philosophies, opinions, and thoughts. I celebrate my successes and laugh at my failures. I’ve realized that every person is an individual, with his/her own complex past, present, and future. I don’t believe that having cancer is a gift or that I’m a better person because I’ve had it. I do think, however, that I had two choices on October 1, 2013: I could allow myself to be swallowed up by sadness, pity, and sorrow, or I could embrace this experience and learn from it. I’d like to think I’m on the latter path.