Every two minutes in this country, a woman receives a diagnosis of breast cancer. I recently had my two minutes of fame.
Some of you will stop reading at this point because you're quite certain that breast cancer does not apply to you. Perhaps you, your family members and friends have avoided being among the 200,000 people each year who learn they have the disease.
I had neglected getting routine mammograms. My other mammograms had been fine. So many things seemed more important than a yearly routine test that would show nothing was wrong.
I thought women with breast cancer felt a lump in the shower. I didn't. I thought women with breast cancer felt sick. I didn't. I thought I was special. I'm not. Having invasive breast cancer wasn't anywhere on my refrigerator calendar. And if it's not on our refrigerator, our family does not participate in an event.
Funny how a suspicious shadow on a routine test changes everything. One minute our family was planning a summer vacation. The next thing I knew, I was negotiating with God while getting a core needle biopsy. When the pathology report came back, the doctor wanted me to sit down. People don't often tell you to sit down if it's good news. I didn't cry. I was trying too hard to keep from telling the doctor to shut up. I felt an overwhelming urge to stick my fingers in my ears and hum.
The most frightening thing was not being told I had cancer. It was when my husband and I gathered our three children together to tell them. Breast cancer isn't just about me. It's about the people I love. My 14-year-old son solemnly asked me if I was going to die. The answer was obvious: "I can't die. My house is a wreck." My children nodded, but they knew that nothing was as secure or predictable as it had been. Our family trip was going to be much different from what we thought it would be.
I told them I would lose my hair, but that was OK — eagles are bald, and they're our national symbol. My sons offered to shave their hair off as a sign of solidarity. I asked them if they would be willing to eat broccoli with me instead. There was an awkward silence. My 6-foot tall 17-year-old tried to give me a pep talk. He slapped me on the back and said that I have to be OK, because who else would take care of him?
My 9-year-old daughter excitedly raised her hand. "I know who! Dad will!" So much for being indispensable. Lots of well-meaning, cheery people tell me everything is going to be fine because breast cancer turned out fine for their Aunt Louise or their cousin Helga.
But when my doctor discusses the possibility of surgically removing part of my body, frying me with radiation and pumping me full of toxic chemicals that will make me vomit and lose my hair, it does not sound fine to me. In the eloquent words of my teenagers' friends, it sounds like it sucks.
But the theory is to be upbeat about it all. So — hey! I love this plan! Bring it on! As I enter the complicated world of breast cancer, one thing stands out: Early detection is vital to a long-term survival rate. Routine mammograms save lives.
The bad news is that I have cancer. The good news is that I know I have cancer. Although it wasn't detected early, I'm getting help. I have hope. There are thousands of women, feeling fine and living in a naive comfort zone, who don't know what I am fortunate enough to know.
My refrigerator is a testament to the fact that doctor visits and chemotherapy will just have to be worked in with the piano lessons, laundry, band concerts, grocery shopping, church activities and family vacations. I will have to clear off things that don't seem as important anymore. I have only so many magnets.
I'm not yet a cancer survivor, but I intend to be. Not out of courage — I'm really not all that brave — but because there are people I love and there are things I have to do. My refrigerator says so.
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