As a man, I would not have suspected that the lump in my left breast was cancer, had my mother not been diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in college. But in the summer 2002, at 43 years of age, I had reason to be concerned.
That summer, as I held my two-year-old daughter, Juliana, in my arms, I felt some pain when her tiny foot hit a particular spot on my chest. It was on that exact spot where I noticed a lump about the size of a pencil eraser. Soon afterwards I went to get my first mammogram. When the results came back negative, I forgot about the lump and the pain and went back to “life as usual.”
Juliana’s foot hit that spot again 18 months later. That time I noticed that the pain was sharper and the lump was much bigger – about the size of my thumb. My doctor ordered an ultrasound that revealed a “suspicious lesion.” As he explained this to me, I could see the signs of distress on his face. I knew in my heart that it was cancer.
The day before Thanksgiving 2003, the biopsy results confirmed that it was in fact breast cancer. At that moment my life would be changed forever – although at that time I didn’t have a true appreciation of how much it would actually change.
Surgery and chemotherapy did not keep me from working and believing that I would “beat” this. My doctor informed me that the five-year survival rate for stage II ER positive breast cancer was greater than 80 percent. My mother eventually had no evidence of cancer, so why not me? I didn’t think to ask about the statistics after five years, or what the chances were for recurrence, or what my life would be like if the cancer did recur; I was in a state of blissful ignorance, content to know that I had followed the protocol and all would be well.
But as the fifth year of “remission” approached, I had what felt like a heart attack – a squeezing pressure in my chest. Although a heart attack was ruled out, numerous tests later revealed that the cancer had come back, finding its way into my lungs. Now I was forced to ask those questions that I neglected to ask before, and the answers to living with stage IV breast cancer were scary – answers like: “there’s no cure,” “its treated like a chronic condition” and “we focus on longevity and quality of life.”
Despite being in a state of semi-shock, I did my best to adjust to my new way of life with positive changes in my diet, exercise and a reduced work schedule. But a year and a half later, two tumors appeared in my brain. Five months ago test results showed more metastatic lesions in my liver and spine.
So here I am today, living with cancer for more than nine years. And even though I live with this condition, I believe that I am a lucky man for three reasons:
Reason #1 - I am alive. Now I know the statistics, and some say that I should have been “gone” already. Yet I am here, above ground, fully functional with few symptoms and able to enjoy life with my loving wife Janeth, and my beautiful twelve year old daughter – which brings me to the next reason.
Reason #2 - I don’t take anything for granted. Knowing that this condition is in my lungs, I’m grateful that I can breathe fresh air without assistance. Knowing that it’s in my spine, I’m grateful that I can take morning walks through the streets of downtown with my daughter, sharing a pizza or browsing the bookstore. And knowing that it’s been in my brain, I’m grateful that it has not affected my ability think clearly, to see all of the vibrant colors of the rainbow and the smiling faces of my family, or to hear the beautiful sounds of my daughter playing her violin.
Reason #3 – I have hope for a cure. I don’t believe I would have said this a year ago! But the newer treatments that I have used, including hormonal and targeted therapy, appear to be more effective with fewer side effects. My condition is “stable” for now, and I feel and look better than I have in a long time. (I am often told, “Gee, you don’t look like you have breast cancer!”) I am prayerful that my recovery will continue with newer, better treatments on the horizon.
May all of you living with this condition take heart that, in some ways, these are indeed “the best of times.”
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