One woman’s battle with breast cancer

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A few years ago, I never imagined I’d be writing about being a breast cancer survivor. But here I am doing just that.

This December marks three years since I had my mastectomy. I sure didn’t expect that, at age 45, after finding a lump in my breast, and after a mammography and ultrasound revealed that it was highly suspicious for breast cancer, that I’d soon need to have my breast removed. I had none of the typical risk factors for breast cancer, and I’m the first one in my family and among my friends to have a diagnosis.

It certainly was strange being on the receiving end of patient care at the place where I went to work every day. But I had faith in my colleagues, and I was also fortunate to be treated in my community hospital, so that I could be close to my husband, daughters, friends and colleagues.

I remember thinking before my surgery about all the equipment that I would typically point out to potential donors during hospital tours. Who knew that I would one day be using it?

When I awoke from surgery, there was a Christmas tree in my room decorated by my friends. It was a touching gesture, given how crummy it feels to be in the hospital over the holidays. When you’re faced with a critical illness, you’re not the only one dealing with your diagnosis and treatment. Your family and friends are affected too.

For the next year, I underwent my chemotherapy and radiation treatments just like the many patients who visit the chemo clinic at Rouge Valley Centenary. Having regular chemo sessions became a new, but weird, kind of normal. The chemo centre was very busy, and inevitably over the long hours of treatment, you’d strike up friendships with those sitting next to you. Some people are really outgoing and forthright about their disease. Others are more reserved. Scared may be a better description.

This part of my treatment was rough, though. The chemo cocktail of drugs prescribed for me left me feeling weak and tired. Plus, I lost all my hair, including the hair on my head, nose hairs, eyebrows and eyelashes. Boy did I miss my eyelashes! You never think about how important they are until the soap you use to wash your face runs into your eyes and they begin to burn.

However, I’m fortunate that during that time, my fantastic colleagues were so supportive, and that my job allowed me to work from home or to come into the office when I was feeling up to it. If I was working in the office, the other staff members were careful not to come in if they weren’t feeling well, and were sympathetic when I was feeling under the weather.

And let me tell you, you really think about how important hand hygiene is when simple hand washing can make a difference to your health and well-being.

Cancer is different for everyone. No two stories are the same. What I experienced three years ago may be completely different from what someone else experiences today. But know that it is possible to survive it. I’m a walking example of that.

During my treatment, I remember my two daughters looking up statistics on the internet and, after seeing the high survival rates for cancer, decided I was going to be just fine. It turns out that they were right.

Today, although I’m at risk for reoccurrence, I only need a follow-up MRI once a year.

I’m hesitant to say that things always happen for a reason, but maybe it’s true to some degree. Three years after my mastectomy, we now have a brand new, state-of-the-art MRI at Rouge Valley Ajax and Pickering. Having this quality of treatment available to our patients, and right in our community, is significant. It means that our patients no longer need to travel outside of west Durham to receive this kind of care, which many of us can appreciate.

Waiting for a diagnosis or treatment is incredibly scary and stressful. Now, bringing down wait times and ensuring that life-saving equipment and services are available closer to home are even more meaningful to me.

When I’m giving a tour to a donor of one of our hospital campuses and I pass by patients waiting in the lobby, looking a little nervous, I wonder what they’re thinking. Especially since I was once in their shoes. I’m so very grateful to those compassionate, warm and knowledgeable health care professionals who saved my life three Christmases ago.

This Christmas, once again, I’ll be holding my breath a little. Hoping and praying that my MRI scans stay clear. And I’ll also be crossing my fingers for all those worried-looking people who I see in the lobby.