'Wait, I've got breast cancer? Are you sure?'
Webster’s definition of bravery:
1: the quality or state of having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear or difficulty: the quality or state of being brave: COURAGE showing bravery under fire
brav·ery | \ ˈbrāv-rē , ˈbrā-və- \
Several people have praised me for being brave in my cancer journey. To set the story straight, I haven’t been brave. Bravery is choosing to run into a burning building and save orphan kittens, or choosing to be a nurse during an awful pandemic, or choosing to be a police officer or fireman, or choosing to stand up and protest for what you believe in.
I didn’t choose my cancer journey. And I’ve never been brave. But in my defense, my late mother, Phyllis Hawkins Harper, taught me you can choose to be miserable or you can choose to be happy. It’s up to you. I keep trying to choose happiness. I decided early on to meet breast cancer with my best coping mechanism – humor, albeit dark and twisted. Humor just the same.
- Diagnosis -
My diagnosis in a nutshell: Malinda Ingram, CFNP, at Elite Medical saved my life. I thought since There was no history of breast cancer in my family, I could easily skip mammograms. But that mean awful bossy nurse practitioner Malinda wouldn’t let me skip a year and scheduled my mammogram before I left her clinic. If I had gotten my way and waited a year, my story would have been a lot worse.
At my screening mammogram on November 24, 2018, at the NMMC Breast Care Center, the tech told me she needed to get more views. The breast radiologist came in and explained the mammogram showed something a little suspicious. She scheduled an ultrasound-guided breast biopsy the next week. The results from the biopsy came in a couple of days later and that’s when the fun hit the fan.
Malinda called and told me I had a small cancerous lump and surgeon Dr. David Gilliand was working me in that morning. The next day I met with oncologist Dr. Andrew Kellum. After all tests were completed, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 triple-negative breast cancer – an aggressive form of breast cancer. But thanks to Malinda, it was caught at an early stage. The next week, I was scheduled for a lumpectomy to be followed by four rounds of chemotherapy and 20 radiation treatments.
I wasn’t ready for the emotional and physical toll all this would take on me. The very worst thing that happened was on the day of my lumpectomy. My uncle, Royce Hawkins, a retired Southern Baptist minister and true gentleman, came to sit with me in the hospital. My sister and friend staying with me said I cursed like a Russian sailor in front of him when I returned from Radiology because of the pain I was in (I think the pain meds may have loosened my tongue a smidgen). Even though I’ve made it through a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and all their fun side effects - it was cursing in front of my uncle that almost did me in. My heart still hasn’t healed properly from that trauma. So sorry Uncle Royce.
During my 20 radiation treatments, to help fight boredom, a friend wrote funny poems, tic-tac-toe games, a countdown and jokes with a sharpie pen on my left side just to entertain my radiation techs. On my last radiation treatment day, my friend helped me bedazzle my last countdown note. I did check with the radiation techs the day before my last treatment to make sure stick-on jewels were allowed in Radiation Therapy. They told me they’d never had a patient ask that, but yes, I could wear stick-on jewels.
-Warm and Fuzzy-
Great things happen after you’re diagnosed. One of my breast cancer friends put it like this – “it’s like going to your own funeral and you don’t have to die first.” She meant that people you thought didn’t know you existed show up with love, gifts, food, flowers and cards. The ladies at church bringing food, the offers of rides to chemo and doctor appointments, surprise cards and gifts showing up in the mail and texts that simply said, “thinking of you today.” My son, Jamie, insisting he was staying with me and taking me to my last chemotherapy appointment, warmed my heart. Neighbors would check-in, just to make sure I hadn’t died yet. The list is endless.
I can’t describe the love I felt during this time. I was ignorantly obstinate that I was staying by myself at night. I desperately needed quiet time. I would text my core care group – Lynn, Laurie, Beth, Tonya and Carol – at night during chemo weeks and say “I didn’t die today. Going to bed.” And then in the morning when I woke up I would text them “I didn’t wake up dead.” How they put up with me and humored me is amazing.
Bad things happen also. Well-meaning friends send you links to stories about eating eight avocados a day to avoid breast cancer. People who’ve never had breast cancer tell you how lethal chemotherapy drugs can be. You learn to listen to your oncologist and your breast cancer friends. You mistakenly think when chemotherapy and radiation is over, you go back to normal.
Normal is gone. Your breast cancer friends, who’ve been through this, tell you the effects can last months and years after treatment ends. They assure you it’s perfectly normal and you can handle it. You have pity parties, usually late at night, and you start again the next morning.
I haven’t lost my sense of humor… yet. During the darkest nights of pain and nausea, I could hear my mother say “Leslie, you can’t give up until you find the give up office.” I would think to myself, “but Momma I’m looking awful hard to find the give-up office.” And then giggle to myself. You come out the other side with weird coping mechanisms, a dark, twisted sense of humor, but with a great sense of being loved.
And yet again, so sorry Uncle Royce that I cursed like a Russian sailor in front of you. Hopefully, in time, we’ll both get past that.
Please follow the recommended guidelines for breast cancer screenings.
You can choose to be miserable or you can choose to be happy. It’s up to you. I keep trying to choose happiness.