March 18, 1994…when I replay that day in my mind, it is in slow motion. It didn’t feel like it that day; it felt like a runaway snowball, out of control, barreling down a mountain. I hadn’t felt sick. My right breast had had some swelling, a lump, and “funky” skin, but I felt okay. However, the grave look on my surgeon’s face and the way he compassionately took my hand let me know it was serious.
What? Start chemotherapy today? You can’t be serious! That’s what they wanted me to do. How was I to call my husband and say, “Come get me; I’ve just had chemo and I can’t drive home?” I needed time to process this news, time to tell my family, time to pray. I returned to work and tried to keep my mind busy. It was a Friday. By late afternoon I got the courage to tell my boss that I would need Monday afternoon off to start chemotherapy. As I shared with him, he began to cry, and I realized immediately that part of this diagnosis entails taking care of those around us…helping them cope.
Over the weekend we called family and friends. We would need their help and support. I had my waist-length hair cut short and learned all I could about this deadly invader, inflammatory breast cancer. On Monday, when I returned to work, my colleagues were shocked to see my short hair. It was the perfect intro to tell them about my diagnosis. I wanted their help over the coming months, and they couldn’t help me if they didn’t know what was happening or what I needed.
I tolerated the chemo, surgery, radiation, and seemingly endless doctor appointments and tests without missing more than two weeks of work. It was therapeutic for me to continue working; it helped me cope and kept some normalcy to my life.
My husband was there for me every step of the way. What would I have done without him? In 1994, there wasn’t much to be found about IBC. The little bit I did find was not encouraging. My prognosis was not good. I reasoned that no one gets out of life alive anyway, so I would just have to change my expectations of living to “old age” and do a better job of living now.
A funny thing happened to me as a side effect of cancer treatment. When the surgeon removed my breast, he apparently loosened my tongue! I hadn’t learned in anatomy that they were connected! A change came over me. I began telling everyone about my cancer experience. People needed to know it could happen to THEM…that no one is immune to breast cancer. Since that time I have taken every opportunity to speak out, stressing that women need to take responsibility for their own health. I started a support group, made TV spots, did interviews, and tried to put a face to this breast cancer. There are all things I would not have done before IBC.
Following treatment, I decided to look to the future again. I had started my education in 1976 to become a Registered Nurse but was unable to complete the program. Later, I had become a Licensed Practical Nurse. But still I dreamed of being an R.N. So, in October 1996 (two years after my diagnosis), I completed an associate degree and became a Registered Nurse!! In 1998, since I was still alive and planned on staying that way, I entered school again … while working full time! Finally, August 1999, I walked across the stage and received my bachelor’s degree (BSN) in nursing!!
None of us knows how long we will live. Those of us who have faced this cancer have the advantage (Yes, I said advantage!) of being reminded of this fact daily. Hopefully I can continue to use this realization to make my life and the lives of those around me better than they would have otherwise been.