Our 2017 summer vacation was supposed to be a week in June at my “happy place” down the shore with my husband and two sons. But for most of that week, our shore house was anything but happy.
A month before, I had my annual mammogram. I was getting regular mammograms because I had a small, benign lump removed from my right breast a few years before. The radiologist who read my recent mammogram was concerned about a small spot in my left breast. My doctor tried to calm me down, saying that the radiologist was being “alarmist.” I can still hear her saying that word. I felt sure that there was nothing to worry about. Just in case, however, my doctor suggested I get a biopsy.
Getting My Breast Cancer Diagnosis
I had the biopsy four days before vacation. (Pro tip: Never schedule a biopsy before a vacation.) That Tuesday morning when my doctor called, I expected her to say, “All clear!” Instead, she said, “Maria, I’m sorry to tell you this, but you have cancer. Luckily, we found it very early.”
I remember sitting on the floor with my husband thinking this had to be a mistake. The rest of our vacation was a blur. This was the start of my breast cancer journey.
At first, I was sad. But the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. This wasn’t fair at all. I was 45 years old. I exercised. I never smoked. I hardly drank alcohol.
Then came panic. My grandmother died from breast cancer. Was I going to die, too? Two weeks into my diagnosis, even simple things like calling the doctor’s office were overwhelming. Some days, I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I knew I couldn’t keep doing that. I decided that I had a choice in how I dealt with my breast cancer diagnosis.
Building a Cancer Care Team
I couldn’t control the disease, but I could control how I reacted to it. That was a huge turning point. Suddenly I felt energized to take a more active role in my treatment.
The first thing I realized was that I wanted to change my care team. You need to completely believe in your care team because your life is in their hands.
One of my biggest roadblocks was that I didn’t feel like I was with the right doctor. I had been under her care for nearly five years, so it was hard to imagine telling her I wanted to leave her practice. Luckily, she was very understanding. I also didn’t “click” with the plastic surgeon assigned to me. He joked that with some extra reconstruction, I could look even better than I did before I got my breast cancer diagnosis. That wasn’t funny to me, and I felt no guilt leaving his practice.
After doing a lot of research, I felt ready to build my cancer care team. I chose a breast surgeon who had trained at the most highly regarded cancer institutions in the country. Then I chose a plastic surgeon who focused primarily on cancer reconstruction — not cosmetic enhancements. Lastly, I chose an oncologist who specialized in my type of breast cancer. He came so highly recommended that I never doubted his expertise, even when he told me that my type of cancer was very aggressive and would require about a year of treatment.
Staying Positive Made Treatment More Tolerable
Knowing that I would need chemotherapy and would lose my hair, I did something I had always wanted to do: I dyed my hair blue. I loved it, and I didn’t care what people thought.
I had my double mastectomy at the end of August. By October, I started chemotherapy. This meant going to the hospital every Friday for 12 consecutive weeks, then one Friday every three weeks for another nine months.
I tried to make my treatment days as pleasant as possible. I wore an inspirational or silly T-shirt and posted photos to document the day on social media. Family or friends often visited me during treatment, which made the hours fly by quickly. I splurged on a delicious meal from a nearby restaurant and a big fat cookie for dessert. And my husband made huge batches of mashed potatoes for me to enjoy while I recovered from each treatment. I joked that I was the only person who gained weight during chemotherapy.
I don’t want to make it sound like cancer was easy, or that I always succeeded at keeping my spirits up. I tried to be as positive as possible, but there were lots of times when there were no silver linings.
Telling my kids that I had cancer was awful. Having to wait two months between my diagnosis and my double mastectomy was really scary. Knowing that you have cancer growing inside you is terrifying. After one of my surgeries, I developed an infection that created serious physical setbacks to my recovery — and set me back emotionally. When my blue hair started falling out in clumps in the shower right before Christmas, I cried. A lot.
Looking Ahead After Breast Cancer
This August I celebrated five years of being cancer-free, which is a massive milestone in my breast cancer journey. I came through it, thanks to doctors, nurses, family, friends, and strangers-who-became-friends through support groups like Unite for HER, Living Beyond Breast Cancer, and Warriors Together.
Even though I know cancer is no longer in my body, it still occupies space in my mind. The fear of recurrence is very real. I don’t think that will ever go away.
The most important thing I have learned on my breast cancer journey is that it’s never too late to become your own health advocate. This is true for everyone, not just cancer patients. Trust your instincts. Do your research. Ask around. Build a care team that truly listens to you.