Mother’s Day: My Three Year Cancer Free Anniversary
In 2019, I had a bilateral mastectomy on the day after Mother’s Day. In 2021, after my final reconstruction surgery, I was released from care on the day after Mother’s Day.
Today, Mother’s Day means more to me than a bouquet of flowers and no household chores. Do not get me wrong, I will still gladly dress up for a Sunday brunch with my two children, aged 17 and 15. But what I will reflect on most is that cancer did not take my womanhood.
In April of 2019, I learned of my cancer diagnosis just two days before I ran the Boston marathon. In fact, I had just completed mile two of the race when the text, “invasive carcinoma-positive” chimed on my iPhone. A few days later, after I returned home and met with my surgeon for the first time, I was told to expect a one-year fight with cancer. Which I defined as: The process to go from A to Z would be a year. “A” equated to the date cancer was confirmed (April 15, 2019) and “Z” equaled the expected end date (April 15, 2020).
I didn’t want to give cancer a year. I pushed hard to expedite the process. I scheduled doctor’s appointments on top of each other to get faster test results. I opted out of the traditional breast reconstruction process by using tissue expanders (an eight-week process) by demanding that my implants be surgically attached using cadaver tissue on the same day as my mastectomy. I exercised with drainage tubes, and quit my pain meds to do so, I drove too early, raised my arms over my midline too fast, and even carried items weighing over one pound when I was told not to.
I was in such a rush to be well, that I ended up face down in a hospital bed on three separate occasions with breast infections, sepsis the first time. Turned out I developed Red Breast Syndrome, a hypersensitivity to the cadaver pockets that supported my implants. It required intravenous antibiotic therapy, followed by a complete removal of my first set of implants, an internal rinse/wash of the pocket and then replacement implants. The following infections, and hospital stays, were a result of bad luck.
Initially, I tried to outrun the process because I was scared to sit idle and lose. The problem with being told you have cancer is that you want to troubleshoot it. You want to find the root cause and implement a solution. Sometimes there is no root cause and no viable fix. Sometimes, you have no option but to hope.
I hoped a lot, ran a lot to stay strong, and scheduled three fat grafting surgeries all before the twelve-month mark. Then, COVID-19 shut it all down.
So, my plan to finish the process in one year took two. Did I lose the race because I missed the deadline? Absolutely not. I will stand on the winners’ podium and accept a medal for my effort. But mostly I will take that trophy knowing I learned some things about myself that may help you.
- Always fight hard. But give yourself a break too. Rest is needed to repair and heal. Constantly being in overdrive does you no good.
- Be patient. A mastectomy is a serious surgery, and it takes time to bounce back, both from a physical and mental standpoint. You will have to go through the process, and you are not going to be able to control every detail.
- Cancer can take your breasts but not your womanhood. When I first thought about losing my breasts, I was adamant about not waking up from surgery with a flat or empty chest. Breasts do not make a woman, her heart and soul does.
- It is perfectly normal to not want an empty space. When I admitted that to someone, she said “You should be grateful you are alive and don’t obsess about your breast size.” For the record, I am not vain to want to look like a woman. I am human. Furthermore, I am more grateful than you will ever know.
This Mother’s Day, I will celebrate the two children that made me a mother more than 17 years ago. I will also raise my glass to being three years cancer free.
I am also grateful that I recuperated and ran the NY City Marathon in November of 2021. I am also proud to write my story for Susan G. Komen.