The world again is awash in pink. Pink pajamas and t-shirts, pens and notepads, cups and coffee mugs, earrings and necklaces, bookmarks and backpacks. Anything you could ever want you can now find in breast cancer pink. October used to usher in a transformation in the woods behind my house from lush shades of green to autumn’s shades of orange, burgundy, purple, and gold. Now it means everything, everywhere is pink.
Even the NFL will wear breast cancer pink.
As a breast cancer survivor, my October calendar is full of check-ups with the breast surgeon, the oncologist, the gynecologist, and it is time to schedule another mammogram.
Hard to believe but this year marks my fifth year as a breast cancer survivor. After a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, four months of chemotherapy, and reconstructive surgery, and five years of adjunct therapy in the form of a daily dose of tamoxifen, the doctors predict my chances of a recurrence of cancer will be below two percent.
Five years cancer-free is a milestone to be celebrated. But, is it the “crucible of combat” that it’s made out to be? Sometimes when I read articles about breast cancer survivors, I feel uncomfortable because we are portrayed as heroes, warriors who should hoist heavy trophies over our heads and proudly parade our accomplishments around like Olympic gold medalists. But if survivors or “thrivers,” as some like to call us, are heroes, what do we call the ones who die or the ones who fight it their entire lives? Almost two years ago, my friend Connie, who lived in Richmond, was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. She had a mastectomy and was ready to start a heavy dose of chemotherapy when I saw her. She looked beautiful even though I know she didn’t feel that way with one breast removed and a horribly uncomfortable and noticeable breast expander stretching the skin around it and bulging out of her chest.
“I feel pregnant,” she said, “like a baby is growing inside me.”
I panicked and worried the cancer had already spread to her organs.
A few weeks later, she told her doctors she felt bloated and uncomfortable. More tests confirmed my fears. The cancer metastasized in her liver, causing a tumor that she thought felt like a baby.
For over a year, she tried different chemotherapy regimes, trying to beat back the cancer. Nothing worked. Last spring, worn and thin, she returned home from the hospital, and told her sister the fight was over. The cancer could not be stopped. Her liver stopped functioning, and her body was quickly shutting down.
“Are you mad at me?” she asked her sister.
“Why would I ever be mad at you?” she asked.
“Because I’m giving up,” Connie quietly said. “I just can’t do it anymore.”
But Connie did not give up. She got real.
To me, that is most heroic act in life. Nothing requires more courage than facing reality and accepting it, especially when reality is dying and leaving the people you love.
For Connie that meant leaving a husband and four kids.
After my first dose of chemotherapy five years ago, I felt consumed by a fear I never imagined. I sat down at my computer and thought, “I am in for the fight of my life. What am I going to do to make it through this — not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually?” I made a list of everything I thought I needed in my arsenal, starting with contacting the people closest to me and asking for their support in very specific ways. I assessed everything in my life. My wide array of activities and responsibilities suddenly narrowed down to two things – take care of myself and maintain the most normal home life possible for my family. It was my first step in getting real with what was happening in my life. My cancer fight took every ounce of my mental, physical, spiritual and emotional energy. I know Connie’s did too, except that she had the added knowledge that her fight would not end with her standing at the finish line with her gold medal. I think in her heart, she knew she wouldn’t survive the minute they told her the cancer had spread to her liver. But, she did not give up then. She looked at her family and fought for them for as long as she could.
I remember calling a friend to ask her to help me find a Homecoming dress for my daughter because I knew I couldn’t make it through a shopping trip without some help. She asked how I felt, and I started crying. “It’s harder than you thought, isn’t it?” Oh, was that an understatement. Then she said, ”Just remember, you’re not doing this for you. If you were, it would be easy to give up. You’re doing it for your husband, your daughters, your other family members and friends. If you remember that you’re doing it for us, you won’t give up.”
She was right, and I believe that’s what motivated Connie to fight so hard, even when she probably knew she wouldn’t survive. She wisely used the short time she had with her family to show them her true self, the strong-willed, funny, and wise lady that would never give up her life with them without a fight.
Her life and her motto, “Faith in God means faith in his timing,” are daily inspirations to me.
I recently sent a donation to my friend Brianne in Arizona who is registered to participate in her third Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk to honor her mother who died of breast cancer over a year ago. In her fundraising letter, she said, “I hate cancer and I’m determined to do everything possible to stop it in its ugly little tracks.” (Click her to help her raise funds http://www.the3day.org/site/TR/2011/SanDiegoEvent2011?px=1053554&pg=personal&fr_id=1627)
Her mom, Shelley, was diagnosed in 1997 and had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. For nearly eight weeks, she drove two-and-a-half hours to and from the hospital for her radiation treatments.
In 2004, the cancer came back in her bones. Just two weeks into her radiation treatments, her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer, so the two of them drove together from a tiny town called Koosharem, Utah to Provo for their radiation treatments.
She took a chemo pill for two years after that, which made her hands and feet turn black. Still, the cancer moved into her spine, ribs, and neck. She returned to the hospital for six more weeks of radiation, driving the long distance to and from the hospital every day, and somehow managing to maintain her full-time job in the cafeteria of an elementary school. A year later the cancer moved into her femur, all up her spine, and into her pelvis.
Later they found tumors in her kidneys and stomach, and she knew her fight was over. She begged Brianne not to put “cancer” as her cause of death. After such a hard fight, she could not let the cancer have the final say.
While I am happy to be five years out from my cancer diagnosis, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it, either because a lingering chemotherapy side effect reminds me or a friend is either fighting it or has died from it. I also know that even though the odds are in my favor, there is no guarantee that it will never reappear in my body. I don’t think any cancer survivor ever feels completely sure that a recurrence won’t happen.
Cancer humbled and changed me in permanent ways, and while I have recovered and moved forward, I am always reminded of it. While I am grateful to be a five-year survivor, I am no hero. I just did what I had to do to save my life.
The real heroes are the ones who have died, and their families that supported them. While their physical bodies were beaten and battered to the point that they hardly recognized themselves, their spirits were strong, determined, and brave.
In the end, they did not “give up” like Connie thought and Shelly would not have “let cancer win” if it ended up as the cause of death on her death certificate. Their lives were given up for something much holier. They gave their lives back to God. That requires a rare kind of bravery, the kind rooted in the deepest humility.
They had faith in God and his timing.
They are the ones we need to remember every time we see a pink ribbon.