I never thought I would get breast cancer. No family history and I was an extremely healthy 59-year-old. After failing every test — mammogram, repeat mammogram, biopsy, surgery, second surgery for invasive cancer — I felt like I had been pushed out of a plane. I really had no control of my outcome. I was usually pretty positive and upbeat, but I couldn’t think my way out of this disease.
Finally, after surgery I started radiation therapy. I still couldn’t believe this was happening to me. But as I laid on the table for my first radiation treatment, the music playing in the treatment room was Bon Jovi’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?”
I had never heard that song but it meant something to me. Something wonderful. I was going home. I would show up every day and listen to a different song every day and I would beat this cancer. And every song was bringing me a new message. No song is ever taken for granted these days. And I am beating cancer!
— Trudie Williams
I was diagnosed at age 49 with breast cancer. While I healed from surgery and dealt with successive chemo treatments, I found myself using sewing as a form of self-therapy. Though a novice sewer, I sewed a barnyard-themed play quilt for my little grandson. It helped me to channel my thoughts to more fun times ahead. During the radiation treatments that followed, I imagined myself and my husband enjoying a wonderful vacation on the island of Santorini, Greece, a place that my husband took me a year later.
What transpired was what dreams are made of; my love of travel took my husband and me to Germany, where we lived for the next two years and explored all corners of Europe. Now I’m back in the Pacific Northwest, my cancer is in remission, and I’m looking forward to all that life still has to offer.
— Teri Gilbert
Port Orchard, Wash.
When I found a lump in my breast last fall, I was able to get into the Breast and Cervical Cancer program through Susan G. Komen for the Cure. This took a huge weight off my mind since I was temporarily without insurance, and they focus on making sure women get diagnosed early.
I decided to deal with my breast cancer as if it was an injury, not an illness or disease. In my mind, I could fix what was “broken” with the mastectomy, chemo and radiation treatments, and everyone at Providence St. Vincent’s offered great support.
Even though we normally ate very well, my naturopathic doctor at NCNM (National College of Natural Medicine) had all kinds of special supplements, homeopathic remedies and vitamins to recommend. I went to an acupuncturist, too. My husband stepped up and took on more of the household chores and pampered me. I focused on staying active, and luckily I worked at a nursery so I was able to be outdoors and work with plants. My boss and the women I worked with were always cheerful and upbeat, so going to work was a joy and took my mind off myself. Friends and family from around the country emailed and called regularly and I felt comfortable sharing my treatments, since one of them may have to deal with cancer at some point in their life, too.
I want to be open about what I went through and really appreciated all the women I didn’t even know who approached me with stories of how long ago they had dealt with it, too. Now I am even more diligent about taking walks and not worrying too much. I feel VERY fortunate to have rediscovered what good friends I have, and I will never take any of them for granted.
— Mary Reisenauer
Life isn’t easy. Life with cancer is worse. When you find out you have cancer your first thought is you are going to die. Your mind races in all directions as you try to process what is going to happen to you and your loved ones.
For me it was having to decide how my life was going to change and what I was going to do about it. At the time, I was caught up in struggling with my mom’s recent death — due to cancer — and having to take care of myself, my husband and his father who had recently moved in with us and was also ill. The chemo treatments began, the nausea set in, the hair fell out, and the crawling from the bedroom to the living room began as it was too painful to stand and walk. I did my best. Then life changed again, and as the road to recovery began, so did the next change in my life. No time to feel sorry for “me” anymore. Life had to move forward in a positive direction, as I had family to care for.
The pain left and I was once again able to stand on my feet, walk straight and hold my head high. I didn’t die. I was reborn into a new life and left the old one behind. The journey continues, 13 years cancer free and I am moving forward. The sad part: My husband and father-in-law are no longer here to watch me live my life.
— Patricia Stevens
I found THE LUMP Sept. 29, 2009. By Oct. 13 it was out. I chose to have chemo and then radiation. In the middle of radiation a nodule was found in my lung, really by accident (they were looking to see if I had had a clot in my lung).
Then on Sept. 7, 2010, I had a lobe removed for cancer. It was not a metastasis!
So now my fear of breast cancer is almost nil, while I have a tough time dealing with the much worse statistics of lung cancer.
I work on enjoying every day as much as I can.
Today, my sister called to tell me she had a suspicious mammogram and is having an ultrasound. I can only pray for her that it’s nothing.
— Maryanne Leipper
A survivor must realize that, in fact, she is a survivor. She was a survivor from the moment she was diagnosed with breast cancer. When we understand this, we know that we never lost our life. We really have nothing to get back. It was there all the time, throughout surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and the emotional trauma of it all.
Life was always there but it had changed.
Knowing that, we move on with the reality that all of life is about change. Nothing stays the same. Change is not necessarily bad, it just is. We might want to resume the activities that we were involved in prior to breast cancer but we must open ourselves to the fact that life is, indeed, different now. We learn to live a “new normal.”
We are not the victims, we are the heroes. We begin living our life with this new direction knowing that if we beat cancer we can beat most anything. So it is not about getting life back, as life never went anywhere. Every breath we take, as survivors, makes us realize that our life was there all the while. It had just changed color.
What was once brilliant yellow was transformed for a brief moment in time to a washed out, pale gray. The glow returned, the sun is shining again and what we once thought was yellow has turned to gold.
To savor the Oregon sunrise and sunset, with its azure, crimson and topaz majesty and feel the surging indigo water of the Pacific Ocean makes one realize that living in the moment is a precious gift we give ourselves.
— Marilyn Reihs
Surviving breast cancer turned out to be much more challenging than I thought. I knew the physical aspect would be hard. I prepared myself. I was fortunate to have found the best oncology surgeon and plastic surgeon in the Oregon/Washington area. I was secure in knowing that my physical care and recovery were in good hands.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional fallout that occurred toward the end of my recovery. You concentrate so hard on getting past the surgeries, chemo, radiation … being brave for the world to see, that when you have a moment to consider what you’ve been through … you crash. At least I did.
I had a loving husband, family that was there for me. I had friends calling to say, “Let me know if you need anything.” That was all great, but when I had the really hard questions — What do I do now? Will I see my sons grow to be men? Will I be around to see my grandchildren get married? Is this the time to update my will? WHO AM I NOW??? — I had no one to confide in who had gone through this.
My nurse navigator kept reminding me of an organization called Breast Friends, located in Tigard. “Call them,” she said. “They have workshops and a lot of experience with this.”
When I finally came to the realization that I simply could not do this alone, I called, and the voice I heard was Sharon Henifin’s. Immediately, I felt comfortable enough to tell her what I was feeling; and she related to every fear I had. She had a workshop called Thriving Beyond that I might be interested in attending.
I didn’t know it then, but Breast Friends (Becky and Sharon) would save my life. I had a place to go to with all my questions and feelings that I couldn’t explain. A place where I could be completely honest about what I was experiencing; and since they were survivors themselves, they were able to relate on a level no one else could, unless they’d gone through breast cancer.
“No! You’re not crazy for feeling the way you do.” “We’re here to help you get through this.” These are the words that make all the difference when you doubt what your future might bring. I am able to look at my life as the blessing that it is, on a level that I would never have gotten to, had it not been for everyone who helped me.
Breast Friends was instrumental in my success with my mental recovery. I joined an all-women breast cancer survivor dragon boat racing team called Pink Phoenix, which surrounds me with amazing women who enjoy and celebrate their lives after cancer, paddling on the water.
With any luck, I can pay it forward and help other women navigate the emotional waters of breast cancer. I got my life back, richer than I’d ever dreamed.
— Linda Adams
There was nothing to “get back,” nothing lost. Life is a continuum, a series of events and endeavors and impacts. I am not a “cancer survivor” any more than I am a joy survivor or heartbreak survivor or windfall survivor or influenza survivor or childbirth survivor.
Life isn’t about tragedies and triumphs; it’s about, as (Rudyard) Kipling said, treating the impostors the same. Cancer (which is nothing more than really ambitious cells) was — is — a thread in my tapestry, a page in my book. It will always be part of who I am, just as will my brown eyes, my son, my skinny wrists, my long-dead father, my life partner, my memories of Bangkok, and the stars over my creekside hardwoods. Life is closed-end for all of us, and we integrate everything that happens, for good or ill, from moment to moment.
I am a person who had cancer, and it wasn’t the worst thing, or even the second- or third-worst thing, or the best thing; it was just a thing.
— Lane Browning
I left working as an executive for a Fortune 500 company for a better quality of life. I wanted to return to a life where I woke up in my own bed in my own home every day. Shortly after my new carefree life began, and working only part time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The diagnosis, surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments forced me to look thoughtfully at my life and my career path.
With my health returning, I decided to start my own business. I had already faced fear and risks, (so) starting a new business at age 51 seemed mild in comparison. I was familiar with wicking fabric from workout clothes but could not find anything comfortable for sleep. Now, seven years later we are a successful business in a niche market. My company, Haralee.Com Sleepwear, makes beautiful wicking garments for women suffering night sweats due to cancer treatments, menopause, humid climates or just a high internal thermostat.
Never in a million years did I think a breast cancer diagnosis would lead to a new career as an entrepreneur helping other women get a better night’s sleep!
— Haralee Weintraub
After having a single mastectomy and chemo following my March 2008 diagnosis, I spent a lot of time writing my thoughts and feelings down in a journal. I allowed myself to cry. I surrounded myself with people I loved and who loved me. I took daily walks even when I didn’t feel like it because I knew exercise was important in my recovery. I ate healthy.
I did what my doctors told me because I have four sons, parents and siblings that I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to. I am proud to say I have been cancer-free for three years now. I have stayed involved in helping others who are on this journey.
— Denise Bacon
Ground zero. It was Thanksgiving Day. Even after more than two months there was still a thick dusting of dirt and ash in and around the area. The occasional breeze contained the odd, acrid smell of death. From my vantage point, it was eerily quiet except for the slow and steady stream of dump trucks, their precious contents being taken to carefully specified locations. The smiling and hopeful faces lovingly posted on memorial walls were a powerful reminder that we must never forget.
One week earlier, I had been deployed as an American Red Cross volunteer to provide mental health services to victims of the World Trade Center disaster. Only days prior to that my doctors, thankfully, told me the suspicious areas of my recent mammogram were probably nothing to be concerned about and to go ahead and go to New York. With concern for my health tucked in the back of my mind, I headed toward an experience that would forever change my perspective on life.
I worked in one of the many Red Cross Service Centers located in Lower Manhattan. For 10 days I had the privilege of sitting with hundreds of people, each with a remarkable story of survival. Many were so traumatized that the unspeakable horrors could only be shared by sitting quietly with someone who cared. Every night, after an exhausting day, I entered the survivor’s precious stories into my journal, vowing that I would always remember each of them.
Shortly after I returned home, a biopsy determined that I did have early stage breast cancer. On one hand, I was stunned. What? Not me! I’m not ready for this! Am I going to die? On the other hand, having recently witnessed the unending strength and courage from the Sept. 11 survivors, I knew that my problem was small by comparison. I knew that their examples of survival would be a great source of hope to me.
In the weeks and months that followed, I trudged through seemingly endless doctor appointments, trips to Portland, surgeries and other treatment procedures. All the while I knew that I was one of the lucky ones — not only because my cancer was caught very early, but also because I had been given a profoundly wonderful gift from the people I met in New York. Whenever I felt my courage waning, I simply opened my journal and read the stories of these courageous people. I was instantly uplifted by their strength.
One year later I was asked to go back to New York on the anniversary of Sept. 11 to work with survivors. I eagerly went, but when I came home, once again I was diagnosed with breast cancer. More fear, more treatment. But also, more stories of courage and hope to boost me through the difficult process again. One might think I would never want to return to New York! But that is where the source of so much of my strength lies — with those heroes who shared their stories with me.
I am fully recovered now, and deeply saddened to think that that is probably not the case for many of those people who touched my life so deeply. All I can give them now is the continued promise that I will never forget. So, to Ella, Vince, Richard, Daniel, Carol, Jeanette and the hundreds of thousands of other people directly affected by this tragedy, you are in my thoughts every day … and I am grateful.
Oh, and I still (draw pink or red heart here) New York!
— Mary Jo Wood
In 1985, I was treated for osteopenia at OHSU. Having never had a mammogram, my doctor wanted me to have one. I resisted this for two months, as there was no history in my family of breast cancer. After several requests I finally had a mammogram — and the sad diagnosis of breast cancer in the right breast was made.
Lumpectomy was just being made an option and I had an upper right segmental resection involving 21 lymph nodes followed by radiation that same year.
Each year another mammogram was done. In 2000, breast cancer occurred in the right breast again with a total mastectomy followed by chemo and then Tamoxifen. The Tamoxifen made me uncomfortable all of the time so I quit after two years.
In November of 2006, I was diagnosed with cancer again — this time in the left breast. Within two weeks, one daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer at OHSU and my other daughter with breast cancer in Longview.
Within a short period of time, all three of us had bilateral mastectomies. We could have each been devastated, but without rationalizing it, we each were strong enough to weather it through, knowing that it was the only thing we could do for each other.
It is difficult to say whether we are stronger because of this. I can only know that I am immensely proud of my daughters and the dignity they portray.
— Edith Henningsgaard Miller
When my doctor told me I had breast cancer in November, 1998, my response was, “No, I don’t.” Then reality set in. The next two weeks were a flurry of wonderful cards, lunches, two crying sessions and a lot of encouraging words from family, friends and co-workers.
I had my mastectomy at St. Vincent’s Hospital on Thanksgiving Eve. My two doctors and all the nurses were wonderful.
When I was discharged, I made a promise that when I retired, I would give back by volunteering at the hospital. I started volunteering eight years ago and then six months later I also starting working on call. Now I’m working at the ICU/CRU receptionist desk five nights a week and loving it.
Who would have thought that my distressing news would have resulted in having the best job I’ve ever had?
— Diane Reed
The phone rang on May 10 this year as I was putting the finishing touches on dinner for our company visiting outside on the deck with my husband. I answered and listened to the caller, my mind suddenly frozen. I hung up the phone and it was as though I had stepped into a river rafting boat with no paddle, unable to control its direction.
When we were alone later that evening, I told my husband the call was our family doctor to let me know my biopsy from the previous Friday showed malignant cancer cells in my breast, and I had an appointment with an oncology surgeon the following Monday.
The river rafting boat took me everywhere I needed to be physically in the next 21 days, but my mind couldn’t seem to get up to speed. Was I dreaming this? Should I be crying hysterically? How will I tell my children? What about my work at the office? Precisely three weeks later, I underwent a double mastectomy.
The river rafting boat came ashore on June 2 when I came home from the hospital. There were the tubes and discomfort, the ability to nap at the drop of a hat, but no pain. Test results revealed I would not require any radiation or chemotherapy. Flowers arrived. Friends came to visit. Neighbors brought over meals. Three weeks later I returned to work a few hours a day. My co-workers hung a huge banner and had morning treats to welcome me back. Lots of hugs and relief and well wishes! I participated in a Relay for Life cancer walk. It seemed strange to be there wearing a survivor T-shirt.
I think that is when this odd sensation came over me which I have finally labeled Survivors Guilt. Somehow I had dodged the proverbial bullet — no follow-up treatment except for an appointment in December with my oncologist. The physical healing continues and prostheses purchased. Still the nagging persists that I was truly one of the lucky ones, having only to take Arimidex for the next five years.
A tiny 1 mg pill every day for 60 months — how does that possibly begin to equate to the hundreds, maybe thousands of women who after surgery go through the ugly but life-saving chemo and radiation treatments, tired, nauseated and barely able to get through each day? Nagging, nagging, in the back of my mind.
I decided I did not want to even mention my surgery to people I met who did not know what I had been through oh such a few short weeks before. Truly I felt guilty that I had no outward sign of this terrible disease called breast cancer. So I am quiet now and only answer questions from those who know the story. My hope is I can soon put this in perspective
So how will I get my life back? With the unfailing, unflappable love and support of my husband, family, co-workers (a truly marvelous group) and my faith.
Breast cancer attacks on many fronts, not just in one’s breast tissue. Hooray for all the survivors who continue to fight back after surgery and for those of us who are fortunate enough to miss the treatment aftermath!
May we all find the peace needed for our new lives, no matter the journey.
— Carol M. Barstow