For the past several years, cancer has played a role in AnnMarie Gleason’s life. In 2016, she underwent treatment for stage 2 thyroid cancer at the same time her father was undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. In October 2019, AnnMarie learned she had breast cancer. This is her story in her own words.
“I’m sure it’s nothing.” Those were the words playing over and over in my mind. I had found specks of blood in my sports bra a few times, but no cuts or scratches that would explain the blood.
When I discovered I could express blood from my nipple, I knew something had to be wrong. I had a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound, but everything came back clear. Nothing had changed since my last mammogram. So why was that voice in the back of my head telling me, “No, this isn’t right, do something, say something.”
In 2018, I held my dad’s hand one last time as he took his last breath while we listened to “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” He had fought for almost three years against pancreatic cancer, and I was one of his caregivers. A year later, I was sitting in my doctor’s office, hesitant to make a big deal out of something when my results clearly showed no change from my mammogram the year before. But why was I bleeding?
When I look back now, I am dumbfounded at the fact that I followed through on it. I had a million things on my plate and would have gladly taken “no worries” as an answer and pushed aside any thought of it until my next annual exam. That’s how I rolled.
But my dad must have been watching out for me from above because I kept pushing and asking until I found someone who listened.
It all felt incredulous that I even had breast cancer – let alone that this was actually my second cancer diagnosis. Just three years prior I had undergone a total thyroidectomy due to thyroid cancer. Through it all, I kept replaying the advice I received from my doctor. She told me that I would make myself sicker by worrying about the what-ifs. She told me to focus on what I know right now and stick to just that, to treat each step as its own separate event and only worry about one thing at a time.
I can’t tell you how much that impacted me in a positive way. I made it a mission to let go of the what-ifs, and for every hard thing I had to do, I found a purpose to make it a happy memory. I colored my hair neon pink and had all my friends take turns at the hair salon shaving it off. Each chemo, I had a friend pick me up and we spent hours disconnected from technology (well, except for my port) and we learned more about each other in those five hours than ever before. I created a journal and wrote down my favorite memories of that day with them and took a selfie with each one. I posted them on social media, not to show a positive side to all of this, but to remind myself I was alive.
In December 2019, I had a double mastectomy, followed by almost a year of chemotherapy. In July 2021, I had a total hysterectomy because of massive fibroids in my uterus. I had three biopsies that came back inconclusive, and I didn’t want to be held hostage by fear of the unknown. I joke with my friends at how irresponsible I’ve been to lose so many body parts all before I turn 50.
At some point in the future, I will undergo DIEP flap surgery. And that’s when I’ll get my first tattoo. My plastic surgeon told me at one point he could tattoo nipples for me, and this has become a running joke with my friends – that my first tattoo will be nipples. But now I am thinking it will be more encompassing. I want to get cherry blossom branch tattoos that run across all my scars on both breasts, with the blossoms blooming out as a sign of rebirth.
I’m two years out now, with no evidence of disease, and I’m about to leave on a solo trip to Jordan. The last few years were hard, I’m not going to sugar coat it, but regardless of how many surgeries and treatments I had, I made to the other side. And when I look back, this will have been just a blip on the timeline of my life journey.
Statements and opinions expressed are that of the individual and do not express the views or opinions of Susan G. Komen. This information is being provided for educational purposes only and is not to be construed as medical advice. Persons with breast cancer should consult their healthcare provider with specific questions or concerns about their treatment.