Often you are caught unaware. It might be in the mall, it might be at church, it might be in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. You see someone and you have a sudden understanding. Your eyes meet and there is an awareness. And there you are. Confronted with someone else’s pain. And it starts all over again.
I was standing in a crowd of people, when I looked up to see a beautiful young woman standing in front of me. Tears sat not far behind her eyes and her lips trembled. Immediately I put my hand on her arm and asked "what is wrong hon?"
“Will you feel my lump and tell me if it felt like yours?”
Less than two years ago I walked in to a Women’s Health clinic for a routine mammogram. On my 31st wedding anniversary of all things. I walked out with the breast cancer diagnosis.
Totally unexpected, unprepared and truthfully devastated.
I had lost my father to colon cancer. We lost my mother’s sisters to breast and ovarian cancers. My mother was dying from liver failure brought on by HER cancer treatment. In my family, people got cancer... and they died of it.
I had felt as if someone had sucked the air from my lungs and replaced it with lead. I had tried so hard to hold it together when the mammogram became an ultrasound and the ultrasound became a biopsy. The radiologist told me “I am certain this is breast cancer. It may be in your lymph system. I will call with results Thurs. before noon.” I made it out to the lobby where my anxious husband sat alone. I saw him and all my self-control vanished. I let the tears fall as he rushed to meet me in the middle. Holding me in his arms, he made the statement, no longer a question, “they found something didn't they.” I nodded into his shoulder. In those few seconds, our future was changed. It was uncertain.
I had what is called a Lobular cancer. Lobular cancer is the second most common form of breast cancers. It grows in the milk producing glands of the breast. Lobular cancer does not lump up generally. It is flat and spreads, so it is much harder to feel. All these years of self-breast exams, I was afraid each time I would find a lump. I would have the one cancer that doesn't lump.
It usually grows slowly, so by the time it shows up on mammograms its gotten quite large. I would recall that earlier in the summer I had asked my husband, “when did my right boob get bigger than the left one?” I noticed that it was fuller. I did not know that it is a symptom of Lobular cancer. (Sudden extra weight or fullness, size, dimples or indentations can indicate Lobular breast cancer.)
I would find out that my tumor was relatively small in size, but it had reached into three lymph nodes. “It’s good fortune that it decided to show up when you had a mammogram,” my oncologist would tell me. “It’s usually there for years before it actually shows up on film.” I trusted it wasn't good fortune, but God.
You will lose some friends. You will gain others. You will have some friends that you really wish you COULD lose. You will be stunned by the generosity of one and grateful for the support of many. You will find support in places you least expect it. You will be delighted by the efforts to encourage you. You will confront God. Why me, why now? You will accept that crappy things happen in a fallen world and you just hit the jackpot. You will learn that God loves you just because you are, you. It was never about how good you were, about how long you prayed, how many classes you taught or how much money you gave. You accept that HE loves you just because He LOVES you. You will learn...to accept grace.
You will learn to cope with having cancer. You will cope with the way everyone else copes with your cancer. You will hold your children, your mother, your sisters, while they sob in fear of what you just told them. They will make you promise that you will fight, and you will promise to do your best. You will be brave for them, when inside you want to crumble. You will grieve the loss of your health. Three words changed everything…
You will come to love your oncologist (and if you don’t, find another oncologist). You will let doctors implant things into your body. You will let them pump chemicals into your blood and then more drugs to offset the side effects of the chemicals. You will learn to look at your bare scalp and deal with its nakedness. You will learn a naked scalp gets cold. You will quickly figure out the difference between muscle pain and bone pain. You will learn about ‘Roid ‘Rage. You will find yourself busting a gut in the middle of Kohls Department Store, because someone thought placing pink ribbon products right next to “quick hair dry towels” was a good marketing strategy. You will find humor in the most bizarre places. You will laugh.
You will agree to let the doctors mutilate your body and remove the parts that are familiar, the parts that are yours. You won’t care because they betrayed you. (Lobular cancer is notorious for reoccurring in the opposite side.) You will learn “doctor speak”, which is what they say when they really mean something else. Like “a longer period of recovery” really means “the most painful surgery of your life.” You will experience that pain, and the burn of it will permeate everything. For a while pain will change your reality. You will learn to sleep on your back and not move. All. night. long. You will juggle drains and tubes. You will figure out how to dress but move your arms as little as possible. You will swallow your humiliation and accept help from your spouse when you discover you cannot even toilet yourself properly. You will learn to look at your scars without regret. You will find (in time) that you don’t require a bra because ONE...You no longer have nipples so headlights are no longer a concern. And TWO...You don’t need the support. The new girls are high and tight. You will feel desperate to be pretty again. And you will.
Yes, you will.
I don’t blame survivors who avoid talking about their experience. It’s hard to know how much to share to someone newly diagnosed. As in all traumas, the retelling requires a reliving. You will feel the anger, the fear and uncertainty all over again. You will feel the effects of chemo again, the trauma of shedding your hair. You will remember how you felt about your bald head, and how you cried when you realized you had lost all your eyelashes. You have to remember the pain of surgery and the shock of realization that your body is no longer familiar.
I often found myself in positions to comfort or minister to other cancer warriors. But it is hard to talk about these things. It’s hard to speak them aloud. Now, nearly two years later I am at a point I am ready to start writing. I am ready to share the experience, to tell the story. But in the midst of the roller coaster ride, in the raw anguish of it; it’s hard to think about it much less write it all out.
In the midst of it, it just sucks.
The roller coaster may never come to an end. But it will slow down and even out a bit. I decided many months ago, with fierce determination I would never be content to call myself a “survivor”.
No. I. am. a. Pink. Warrior.
I will fight for everyone who must ride this roller coaster. I am a Pink Warrior, prepared to encourage.
I am a Pink Warrior for those who are desperate for reassurance. I am a Pink Warrior for the women who have to ride alone. I am a Pink Warrior for those who need someone to speak in truth and practicality.
I stood there in the crowded room, unaware of everyone around me. Her eyes were fastened on mine as she watched my face for any flicker or concern as I groped around this girl’s breast. She certainly had a lump and my heart sunk as I recognized its characteristics. What should I do? She will ask me.
You will get an appointment with a breast specialist asap. You will have a mammogram. You will have it biopsied if they find it suspicious.
Her tears dripped as she looked at her toddling child and told me, “I don’t know if I can do this, Tina.” I wrapped my arms around her and assured her that she will.
She will because her friends will support her. She will because... I will... ride the roller coaster along with her.
2 Samuel 22 : 1 - 22
“The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior— from violent people you save me.
“I called to the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and have been saved from my enemies. The waves of death swirled about me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. “In my distress I called to the LORD; I called out to my God.
From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came to his ears. The earth trembled and quaked, the foundations of the heavens shook; they trembled because he was angry. Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his canopy around him—the dark rain clouds of the sky. Out of the brightness of his presence bolts of lightning blazed forth.
The LORD thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded. He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them. The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at the rebuke of the LORD, at the blast of breath from his nostrils.
“He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the LORD was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; HE RESCUED ME BECAUSE HE DELIGHTED IN ME.
Dedicated to Becky Edwards and Amy Dent - a couple of the world's best cheerleaders
And to the women of WOW. Your support gave me courage.