Cathy McDonald



I’ve Been Through a Battle of My Life

The realization that I was in deep trouble was actually a blessing in disguise. It propelled me through shock, denial, and disbelief very quickly and on to finding the treatment that would save my life. I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive type of cancer, invasive ductile carcinoma, triple negative breast cancer. It requires aggressive, immediate treatment, starting with chemotherapy. In July 2009, at my annual exam, my doctor found nothing unusual. Having mammograms since age 30 due to family history. I went for a routine screening mammogram in July 2009 That evening the Radiologist called me and wanted me to come back to talk to him. I knew that wasn’t a good sign. He showed me my films on big screens and told me that I had cancer and he needed to do a biopsy. The biopsy was very painful and showed that the cancer was very aggressive and I needed to see a surgeon as soon as possible. After ongoing through MRI,CT Scans, Pet Scans, blood work, Bone Scans, more biopsies I was so numb from not knowing what I had to endure for my future ,Cancer, that it was a “bad” cancer and my prognosis was uncertain. , but here I was – in serious trouble. 

I began treatment very quickly. I went through six months of chemotherapy, with Adriamycin / Cytoxan .My surgery was scheduled, then more chemo. I had a double mastectomy with breast expanders. My surgeon explained to take them both with the high family history and the aggressiveness type of cancer that I had. They put a port in and a pic line and neither one worked as then we found out that the blood clotted and no blood would flow through the tubing. I was diagnosed with factor 8, which is a blood clotting disease. More test and x- rays. ICU stays at least twice a month, sometimes more for pulmonary embolisms, C Diff, pneumonia or just hydration. There were many times I don’t remember going to work, when I would throw up so much blood and co workers would have to carry me to the emergency department.. I would have blood and iron transfusions quiet often.

My experience with breast cancer has taught me that life can turn completely around in an instant. My life was working pretty well and having cancer was not on my agenda. Well, I have heard that “life is what happens when you are making other plans” and I found out that is true – and you can adjust. The path I was on then was not the one I chose – it was chosen for me and I intended to make the best of it. I learned that I didn’t have a choice about getting cancer, but I had a choice in how I responded to it. If I was going to have a chance to beat this disease, I was going to have to take charge of my treatment. When I realized I needed treatment quickly, I took all my x-rays and the biopsy reports to Duke Cancer Center and told them I wasn’t leaving until someone saw me. And they did. I researched and asked questions and became a partner in my own treatment decisions. I had to be my own advocate for the treatment I needed. And who better than me? I was the one who would pay the ultimate price if I didn’t receive the best treatment. I learned that there are incredibly loving and generous people in my life who stepped up and became my own personal “Relay for Life” team. One of my biggest fears was that I would need to depend on others. My carefully constructed “independence” was I going to work during this battle with cancer. I needed other people to listen to my fears. I learned that keeping perspective on my problems was important. 

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Just about the time I was in full “pity party” mode, something would bring me to my senses and I would realize many other people were suffering far worse circumstances than mine. Certainly the tragic national events in that year gave many of us a perspective on life and what is important. I learned to have my moments of grief, sadness, anger, depression and then get up and “get over it.” I learned that having hair is really important to me! I found myself with hair envy during my treatment. All I would notice was other people’s hair and I wanted some! I remember just before my hair fell out – I knew it was going to happen soon and I dreaded it. When I would drive, I kept the window up because I was afraid all the hair on the left side of my head would fly off all at once and I would be bald on one side. I could just picture the half head of hair landing on someone’s windshield and them wondering what happened! Now, I am taking a vow – any day with hair is a good hair day! 

I learned that my own inner strength, courage and faith have passed a very challenging test. I am here, and that is an incredible gift. I hope to be much more mindful of the blessings I have and extend the love, support and generosity I have been given to others. And finally, I learned that cancer is a challenge and an opportunity. I have been through a battle for my life . But I have also been given a better, more aware and more meaningful life and I am thankful for that. I still have panicky moments, anxiety about a recurrence, But I will not let them rule my life. Twenty years ago, breast cancer was a death sentence. Now, women are surviving at rates that increase with each year as new treatments are discovered. It is only through the dedication and hard work of many people that many of us are here today. Breast cancer is a path that no one chooses, without hesitation, go through it all again to gain the life that I have today. My breast cancer experience has added value to my life, in terms of self-actualization, strength, courage, determination, and lifestyle changes. This disease gave me the opportunity to experience real support, real compassion and real love. Of all that I learned in treatment, I found these abiding truths:

  • When faced with fears, tears, anxiety, depression, unadulterated illness, debilitating fatigue, separation anxiety from one’s former self, and a life threatening illness one has two choices – you can face it all head on or you can go into denial about the future or the lack thereof. You must not become a “patient” or a “victim”; you must choose to partner with your team of medical professionals. 
  • And you must make a conscious choice to be a spirited partner. 
  • A sense of humor is paramount. 
  • Getting in touch with spirituality is vital – whether it be formal religion, meditation or metaphysical beliefs – it is a comforting and soft place to fall and rest. 
  • Remember that you are more than your income or home or external signs of value. Making peace requires establishing a new emotional currency of self-valuing based upon health, physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, core value practices and self-realization.
  • A support network is critical, as is a willingness to implement holistic practices such as acupressure, massage, reiki, yoga, aromatherapy and self-hypnosis. 
  • Positive thinking is indispensable. It is a fundamental principle in helping to rebuild one’s life. 
  • Create a healing, sensory soothing environment. Having a haven at home is essential – it is about having surroundings that heal, that appeal to every sense – visual, auditory, scent, tactile and taste. It’s about wellness.
  • Learn to relax. 
  • Finally, make an unwavering commitment to your health “At the moment of commitment, the universe will conspire to assist you.” When a disease like breast cancer invades one’s life, a commitment to WELLNESS must be in the forefront of every thought, action and deed.