Elise Gramza



For many of us who have been personally effected by breast cancer the “pink” is ever present. 

 Don’t get me wrong, I love it all. The awareness. The fundraising for research. And even though pink is not my favorite color, I love seeing people united in a cause that’s so dear to me. 

My mother has been in the “industry” for the majority of her career, working in the Breast Imaging department of a major medical center in Michigan. My grandmother survived breast cancer at 69, only to be taken several years later by pancreatic cancer. I had been surrounded by the idea of and knowledge about breast cancer almost my entire life. I had joined the races and walks. I had donated to the cause. I had supported and advocated. With the staggering statistics of 1 in 8 women diagnosed in their lifetime I always believed in the “when” and not the “if” of being diagnosed with breast cancer. 

Even so, I could have not prepared myself mentally or physically for 2016. At 33 years old, happily married, a mother of 3 young children with a wonderful career – I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had found the lump on accident one day after a shower. Despite my support of the breast cancer cause for years, I had been ignorant that it could affect me at this age. I wasn’t doing my monthly self breast exam like I should have been. Looking back I think “what if I had found it just a bit sooner.” But you learn quickly after diagnoses, there is no going back and the “what ifs” that flood your mind mean nothing. 

There was a blur of appointments, pokes, prods, and smooshes. And then that news. The news that changed everything. The emotions and thoughts that race through your mind after a cancer diagnoses cannot fully be expressed in words. You know it if you’ve felt it and if you haven’t, I hope that you never do. 

Our lives were filled with uncertainty yet somehow my husband and I had to prepare ourselves and our children for a future we knew little about. There were more appointments and pokes and prods. There is never a shortage of those during cancer. Somehow with cancer time crawls and flies by all the same. It seemed to take forever for surgery, even though just 18 days after diagnoses I was wheeled in to an operating room for a bi-lateral mastectomy. Healing from surgery took weeks, but looking back I wondered where the time had gone as I had to return to work not ready for the daily grind. We ached for answers from pathology and genetic testing and once we had the answers the races were off to get me ready to start chemotherapy. At the first day of chemo, I thought about what my last chemo would be like so far away and here I am now having conquered what I so immensely feared. 

During it all, I was determined to be me. To be a wife and mother. To be a hard working employee. To push myself forward even on days when my body was screaming for me to stop. To eat healthier than ever and stay active. To push myself to walk to the nearby hospital on lunches for blood work and skip the free valet during my chemo visits forcing my woozy body to make the trek to the car in the parking garage. As determined as I was to be “me” I also learned quickly that I was never doing to be the same. 

Now, we all change over the years. We age, grow taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, grayer, wrinklier… It’s inevitable. Aging has never bothered me. I was always appreciative I was another year older. And that remains true. But the person I see now feels like a stranger. The changes I see are not “natural.” My body has been ravaged by this cancer. It’s surgeries. It’s drugs. My clothes fit poorly with no breasts. Despite eating better and healthier than ever and remaining active I am about has heavy as I was 6 months pregnant (or more). My face is full and round. My hair, although growing in, looks strange. The wrinkles in my face are deep and plenty. I’m sporting a scars both visible and non. 

Understandably some of these changes, like my hair, are only temporary. But I cannot explain fully the weight of seeing someone other than yourself staring back at you in a mirror or picture. Thinking back to the “me” from last year, the “me” that looked different, the “me” who didn’t think daily about cancer… The “me” I will never be again, hurts, so deeply. It may seem vain. “It’s not the outside that counts.” But the physical changes I am dealing with, the ravaging that has happened to my body, is just as well a reflection of what has happened to my mind and spirit. 

I have cried many tears. I have screamed and prayed and begged and plead. Will the cancer return? Is it really actually gone? Will the side effects of surgery, chemo and hormone therapy haunt me the rest of my days? The future is still uncertain at best. 

 But I have also enjoyed my children and husband more deeply. I pushed past any pain or exhaustion to make memories capturing as much as I could. I didn’t know I could love more strongly than I did, but here I am holding on to every second as if it will be the last. My husband and I have always had a great relationship, but cancer has made our bond an unspeakable strength. My children have always been the center of my universe, but cancer has made my desire to be their mother (always) so deep that it’s often my only driving force when the thought of defeat seeps in. There is so much “bad” in cancer, but there is “good” that can be found and it’s that good that will move you forward. 

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” So, here I am with my “why” ready to take on any “how” for as long as God gives me.