I have always believed that it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react to it that will determine the impact of events on your life. My long held belief was put to the test when I went for my routine annual screening mammogram in May of 2013.
A week or so after my digital screening mammogram, I received a letter that instructed me to make an appointment for an ultrasound – a diagnostic mammogram – which meant that the radiologist wanted more views to analyze. This still seemed routine to me; I had previous ultrasounds in past years, and each time, all came out fine.
This time, not so much. On the day of my ultrasound, after the images were completed by the sonographer, the nurse told me to have a seat in the lobby. A short time later, she took me to the radiologist’s office. He displayed my breast ultrasound images on several screens and pointed to an area of micro-calcifications. He pointed to the exact same area on my left breast on an image from my routine annual screening mammogram of 2012. The area covered by the micro-calcifications had grown substantially in the last year. A lymph node also appeared enlarged. The radiologist explained what he thought he was viewing, and told me that before I left his office, the nurse would make my appointment for a biopsy of the questionable area and lymph node.
Leaving that clinic, I immediately entered a kind of unemotional state. When I got into my car, I called my mom. I remained unemotional and matter-of-fact during our entire conversation, hung up, and then I cried. Cancer. Breast cancer. Lymph node. It all came rushing in – now nothing at all seemed routine.
By the time I made my 15-minute drive home, I was choosing how to react to this thing now happening to me. Mammograms every year – check. If this is breast cancer, have we caught it early – check. Need to be positive and not get all freaked out until I know all the details – check.
As soon as my journey began, my family and friends rallied around to support me. Through the blur of tests, diagnosis, appointments, decisions, procedures and treatments, I never felt alone. I felt so cared for, and I am very thankful to have had people in my life whom I loved and who loved me. “I’m just thinking about you, and I want you to know that I love you” texts were regularly received from friends and family, and always made me smile. Hugs were warm and sincere. My immediate family and my work family raised me up. I will never forget that.
Things moved quickly after my ultrasound. Biopsies were performed. Good news – looked like no lymph node involvement. Bad news – breast cancer confirmed. Next came a full day at the hospital meeting with an entire team of medical professionals (my personal cancer-fighting army!) – Nurse Navigator, Physician’s Assistants, Oncologist, Surgeon, Plastic Surgeon, Nurses, and a Geneticist. At the end of that day, I had made decisions to have a bilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Chemotherapy? Radiation? In my case, those decisions would come later – after my surgery. Next step – a more complete biopsy of both the breast area and of the sentinel lymph node was needed to determine the staging of my disease. The following week, those biopsies were performed. Good news – the cancer had not spread to my lymph node. Bad news – proceed with the mastectomy.
For me, the hardest part of my journey thus far was feeling that I wouldn’t be “me” after my mastectomy. I have always been small breasted; I never felt that my breasts defined my sexuality or self-image. I didn’t feel afraid about the surgery. I felt sad. I remember the night before surgery looking in my mirror and just knowing I wouldn’t see this “me” ever again. That was weird. “It’s not what happens to me, it’s how I react to it that determines its impact on my life”. I said that over and over to myself that night.
Less than one month and a half after my screening mammogram, my Surgeon performed my bilateral mastectomy. The following week, I met with my Oncologist again to get her recommendations regarding further treatment. I listened. I asked questions. I told her that I had reservations about chemotherapy (quality of life, hair loss, etc.), and would make my final decision in the next week or two. She urged me to make my decision quickly and to follow her advice.
My real struggle during 2013 was not about breasts, but about chemotherapy. I was afraid of becoming sick after treatments. I was afraid of losing my hair. I didn’t want people to look at me and feel sorry for me. I didn’t want everyone to KNOW that I had cancer and so treat me differently. I was still the same positive, fun, happy person I had always been!
After days of deliberating, I decided I wanted to proceed with chemotherapy. I decided I wanted absolutely no regrets, and the only way to do that would be to take all the precautions I possibly could – including chemotherapy – in hopes of winning this battle. If my cancer comes back, I don’t want to look back and think, “I wish I would have …….”
After that decision came more procedures and decisions. CT scan on my heart. Installation of a port for the intravenous chemotherapy. Because I so wanted to keep my hair, I researched and decided to use “cold cap therapy” to try to prevent the chemotherapy drugs from killing all my hair follicles. It was questionable, expensive, time-consuming, and very hard to endure, but in the end, it was worth it.
I went to my first chemotherapy appointment with a very positive outlook. I was not afraid. I didn’t dwell on the possibility of getting sick or losing my hair. I just decided I would control all I could control, which was my attitude about what was happening to me. I decided to smile and to expect the best instead of the worst. I decided to just do it – just get through it. I was going to look back one day and know I did all I could to survive. I felt strong, and I felt lucky and blessed to be alive.
Four treatments over four months later, I completed my chemotherapy regimen. I didn’t get sick once. I kept about two thirds of my hair. I felt extremely lucky and blessed. Then finally came the reconstruction process.
Today, nearly 3 ½ years after my diagnosis and 2 ½ years after reconstruction, I am not living with breast cancer. I am living. I am a survivor. I am still that same positive, fun, happy person that I have always been! IF my cancer returns one day, I sincerely believe that how I will react to it will determine its impact on my life.
I hope that reading through the progression of my journey will inspire someone to, at the very least, schedule a mammogram, and then reschedule routinely. Maybe I will inspire someone to react to their own diagnosis in a way that will inspire others. Lots of us take our good health for granted. Maybe after reading this, you no longer will. We should always hope for the best, but use all the resources available to fight for our life!
Sonya Parker is the manager of Carrot-Top’s Customer Care Center and rejoined the company in December of 2015 after her successful battle over breast cancer.
In 2016 in the U.S., there will be an estimated 1,685,210 new cancer cases and 595,690 cancer deaths. Everyday there are 3 new cases and 1 death due to cancer. (Key Breast Cancer Statistics)
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, except for skin cancers. About 1 in 8 (12%) women in the US will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime. (Key Breast Cancer Statistics)
In 2016, about 40,450 women will die from breast cancer. (Key Breast Cancer Statistics)
For more information about Breast Cancer, screenings and other resources contact the American Cancer Society or the National Breast Cancer Foundation. Check with local healthcare organizations and hospitals for mobile mammography services that bring comfortable, convenient and private screening exams and services literally to the front door of your business or organization. Carrot-Top and its employees are committed to eradication of breast cancer and all other cancers that affect the lives and families of every American.