WARNING: This post is long and took a while to write. But it is a very personal post and I put my heart into it. I feel it’s important and this is my blog, after all, so if you can – plug on through it.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and so I wanted to share my story with you. I am not sharing this with you out of the need for pity, or even out a sheer desire to talk about it. Truly, I’d rather not. I am only sharing this with you because Breast Cancer affects one in three women. Take stock of that number. That means that statistically speaking - between you, your mom, and your daughter – one will be diagnosed with Breast Cancer at some point in their life. Those are staggering odds and yet they are the terrifying truth about this disease. Let’s face it; most of us know someone affected by this disease. In the spirit of not burying our head in the sand, read on…
About a month ago, I was shaving my underarms in the shower. As I moved the razor down over my left armpit, I yelped audibly. I thought I had cut myself. But when I looked there, I saw nothing in the way of blood, a cut, or any sign that I had actually injured myself. As I ran my hand up and down my underarm, something else struck me as odd. It was tender and sore to the touch. Though there was no obvious redness or swelling. I did what anyone would do and rationalized it as a passing pain. I completely forgot about it.
Two weeks later, while in the shower, I felt compelled to check again that spot where the skin had been so tender. And there it was. No mark, no redness, nothing. Except now, a sizeable lump was there, both easy to see and touch. The skin was swollen, but as I said – there was no redness. I instantly felt the adrenaline in my body rush around, and my cheeks became flushed. I felt fear grip me in my stomach and my insides literally churned. I got out of the shower and stood in front of the mirror. There I was running my hand up and down over that lump in my underarm. All I could think: “Please Lord, no…I’m only 32”.
To the computer I ran, as I usually do when research is heavy on my mind. I started looking up whatever I could about lumps in the armpit, breast cancer, forms of breast cancer, stages of breast cancer, how to know if you have breast cancer, and what kind of cancer forms in the armpit, what does a lump in the armpit mean, all the causes of lumps in the armpit, and so on. You name it, and for four hours I sat glued to the computer screen – filling my mind with all the possible reasons and diagnosis for this large lump.
Funny thing about lumps under the armpit – there are typically only two reasons for them as it turned out: an infection or cancer. Who knew? Finding this out was like getting sucker punched in the gut. I cried at my computer and rationalized with myself that with no history of breast cancer in my family, and being only 32 years old; the odds were still in my favor. Weren’t they? Luckily, I had an appointment with my GP in two days and so I would approach her about it while I went in for another of my “Travel” shots. Remember those posts?
As I went in, I confessed to AB via phone how terrified I was. He reassured me that the doctor would know what to do, and that it was probably just an infected node, or gland. After the shot was over with (whew!) I said surprisingly casually “oh by the way…I found a lump in my armpit – can you look at it?” You wanna startle your doctor? Say that you found a lump anywhere in your breast region. You wanna get the “mothering touch”? Confirm for her that you are neither ready to start your period, or just past it, nor do you have any history of breast cancer in your family, nor do you have any pain associated with said lump, nor do you think it’s been there longer than a month. After a thorough breast and underarm exam, she confirmed for me that she indeed felt the half dollar sized lump and the swelling.
I left her office with a heavy duty prescription for the anti-biotic Augmentin, and practically a “pinkie-swear” moment that I would return in a week for a re-exam. Apparently, many women do not return for these types of follow-up appointments. They just can’t face the daunting prospect, I presume, that anything of this magnitude could be wrong with them. The doctor all but had me draw blood and press my finger to hers in a sort of “sister swear”, that I would come back. While I appreciated her tenacity, this did not bode well for my increasing fear that something was very wrong with my body.
The anti-biotics were strong. The pharmacist took me aside and gently reminded me that this type of prescription was bound to cause side affects. He asked me if I had taken it before, and if I was prepared for the “aftermath”. He also looked at me as if I had sprouted a second head. I’m sure he was wondering what I could possibly have that would require such a hearty dose. Nice though he was, I left feeling even more vulnerable. Surely my Doctor knew full well that she needed to eliminate one of two possible diagnoses steadfastly. Surely she also knew that she had to kick this “infection” to the curb if she was going to rule out the other option? I had a week to show everyone, including myself that it was nothing more than an infected gland.
I resisted telling very many people at all. Why? Because talking about it made it real. Talking about it felt like giving it power. Talking about it gave it energy that I wasn’t willing to expend. Through the nausea, headaches, and profuse sweating caused by the pills I was taking – I was exhausted. Not to mention the mental exhaustion from wondering if you will be getting a death sentence in the next two weeks. We set ourselves to battle, whatever the outcome would be.
As the week of antibiotics trudged on, there were two things that remained consistent – my increasing fear and the size of the lump. It did not change one iota. No matter that I was mentally willing it to shrink day and night – it would not budge. Having this type of “reality sandwich” daily, hit both AB and I like a ton of bricks.
We would stand, facing the mirror- Anton close up behind me. My arm in the air and his hand running down the length of my underarm. No change? No honey, I’m sorry – no change. Sometimes we cried. Sometimes we just stuffed it and ate ice-cream and watched our favorite TV shows on the DVR. Sometimes I pleaded with AB to pray for me just one more time. Sometimes I sat up late at night scouring the internet for any possibility that a lump meant something else. Infection / Cancer. Take it or leave it, lady. Those are your two options. If it doesn’t respond to antibiotics, I read, it’s time to take it to the oncologist.
As the week droned on, and the lump remained unchanged, we felt a level of desperation rise up in our household. There was a baseline level of fear, on top of which lay a heavy layer of self-pity, and both were topped off with total un-acceptance that at 32 years old, I might have Breast Cancer.
A return visit to my GP confirmed that the lump was ever-present and that it was time to move on to the next phase of diagnosis through the help of a surgical oncologist who specialized in breast cancer. Just hearing the words “sending you…breast cancer…she’s a specialist…oncology…biopsy…” I felt my spirit shrink and my heart ache. For me? No. For my kids! What about my kids?!?! I have two kids to adopt…I can’t just stop all that for cancer! I just can’t! I had emotional numbness from head to toe and AB walked me to the car as I cried. The appointment was set and I was to “go to the next level”.
Those who we told were supportive and realistic, albeit shocked. No one could believe that the swelling had not gone down. Dear friends rallied in prayer and I got many e-mails from trusted family and sweet friends encouraging me and lifting Anton and I up in prayer.
In particular, I should tell you that at one point I found myself crying out to the Lord saying “I don’t accept this! You can’t have this for my life! You can’t have meant this for me! Please! With everything in me, I believe that YOU led me down this road of adoption and that YOU opened doors where all seemed hopeless. YOU made a way, where there seemed to be no way. Now this? It’s unacceptable! What about my kids?!?! Lord, please – HEAL ME!” I would cry and cry.
Now let’s pause for a second – still with me? Let’s talk about my reaction. Does this seem dramatic? One day you’re life is going by and all is well, and then you feel a lump in the shower and the next thing you know you’re scheduled to see an oncologist. Everything gets blurry. You start taking stock of things you’ve never even considered. This fear that you cannot begin to imagine creeps into your every fiber and chokes you with the possibility of what may be. You cannot think straight. You cannot wake or fall asleep without, if even for a split second, thinking about your mortality. The whole Pollyanna “don’t worry until you have a reason to” goes right on out the window. And in its place, a humbling fear that a year, maybe three, from now, there is a shard of possibility telling you that you may not be here. Sound over the top? I thought so too. And yet…the number of times I felt this way was astounding. When control of your life and the future itself becomes even remotely objective in the light of affliction, you would be surprised what will cross your mind. You would be surprised the possibilities that seem suddenly out of reach.
The night before my visit to the oncologist, we had a respected and dear friend pray for me over the phone. Something both he and my husband had audibly asked God for was that the lump would be no more. That in it’s place, only breast tissue would remain. That nothing would be there, plain and simple. Remember that my GP described my lump as “half dollar in size” and that she “definitely” felt it in there.
A friend accompanied me to the oncologist the following week, where I would have an exam and ultrasound to determine the position, size, and depth of the lump. All I could think about were the countless needles involved in chemotherapy. Those who read here regularly can attest to my absolute and resonating fear of sharp foreign metal objects being inserted into my skin.
When it came time for my exam, that sweet friend I had lugged along reached up and grabbed my hand – and there we two sat – in the oncologist exam room, and I in my “cape”, hands held and she prayed for me. Right then and there. Lord, give Christie peace and reassure her – give her doctor wisdom and more than anything Lord, let this be nothing. Nothing.” I can’t tell you the boost that gave me in that moment.
In came a warm and gentle woman, my…(gulp)…oncologist…who immediately put me at ease. She did an aggressive breast exam and then the words “I have to say…I don’t feel a lump here…in fact, I don’t feel…well – it just feels like breast tissue to me”. To be sure, she did an ultrasound. She didn’t see any abnormalities or unexplained lumps. She did see a lymph node that while it looked healthy, was enlarged. I still felt ill at ease and found myself saying “but what about the swelling and tenderness?” She agreed that I would not be done until we had ruled out all possibility. I asked her point blank if she thought I might have cancer, and she did not think I did, but that we had to do all the necessary tests to be sure. Just hearing her say that was still like honey over my troubled ears.
I was scheduled for a mammogram – the first of my life. And I was also scheduled to return to the oncologist the following week for a biopsy of the lymph node. The mammogram was a piece of cake. Wholeheartedly recommend going and not putting this off. It was so not what I had heard about or expected. Clearly technology has come a long way, and I hardly felt any discomfort at all – other than the whole “I don’t know you and you’re handling my breasts” bit. It was absolutely nothing to be worked up over. I was in and out quickly and there was zero pain involved.
The biopsy took place at a local hospital last Thursday, and involved a “bee sting” anesthetic, as my doctor called it, followed by a needle inserted into the lymph node where cells and tissue could be extracted for study. They were to be sent off to the lab, where they would be analyzed and tested for any cancer bearing traits. The procedure itself was scary for me – but you just get to a point where the outcome is so much more important than the pain, in that moment – so you suck it up. It was not the most pleasant thing I’ve ever done – but it was over in five minutes and we were out the door. But not before getting to see several particles of my lymph node tissue floating around inside a murky pink liquid. “Here, this is what we got – it’s a great sample”, they told me.
Only today, Tuesday, was I scheduled to go in and hear the results. This would determine if the cells they found were malignant or benign. If I had cancer, or I didn’t. If my life would change, or I would be able to continue down the road I had been traveling to find my babies and bring them home.
The doctor entered the room and she wasted no time getting right to the point by saying “Christie, you’re ok…it’s gonna be ok! The cells are benign – no malignancy was found and there is no cancer present”. I just sat there staring at her. She said “this is good news, right?” I caught my breath…exhaled…found my voice and said “yes! Yes, this is wonderful news”. All I could think was “I’m going to live! I’m not sick! I’m not sick!” A blur of “check back…three months…make sure you’re doing fine…enlarged lymph nodes happen…virus, infection…just your body…” I was in a trance. I got dressed in slow motion. I was so happy I wanted to shout it to everybody I passed as I ran, yes - ran, to my car.
I promised myself I would not blog about this until I had answers for you – and only to encourage you all to get checked. Unfortunately, many women and even men will go for these same types of tests and will not hear the good news that I heard today. I can’t tell you how that probability affected me as I walked out of there. Unfortunately, too many women will have those same tests run only to find that they do have malignant cells and they do have to face the unthinkable.
I tell you all of this – and I know it has been a lot – to remind you that cancer is no respecter of persons. It doesn’t care who you are to the world, or who you are not, how old you are, how young you are, or who in your family had it or didn’t have it. It strikes unannounced and affects millions of people.
Since there are simple tests that can be done for breast cancer screening, make an appointment. What excuse can you possible have? So many women skip this visit every year, and so many women find out too late that they have breast cancer. There are cures, but the earlier it’s caught – the higher your chances are for survival. You owe that to yourself and to your family.
Once we realized that I was ok – Anton shuddered and said “thank God – now we can stop thinking in terms of the next three years or so, and go back to thinking in terms of the next 50 years together”. Until that moment, I had not truly realized the impact my potential diagnosis for cancer had had on my sweet husband. How much fear that had gripped him at his core to have to even consider a lifetime without each other, or a farewell to the dreams we had built around adopting our children and building our family. How much pain it would have caused him to see me sick and fighting for my life.
Lesson learned: No matter what the diagnosis is – take charge of your healthcare and be proactive. Don’t be too afraid of the answers or the treatments to seek the results. You’re not being fair to yourself or to those who love you.
If you’re over forty, call today and schedule your mammogram. No matter your age, give yourself regular breast exams, and if you discover a lump or swelling in your breast or armpit area – seek the care of a doctor immediately. There is no harm in being vigilant – like me, it could be nothing more than breast tissue. But if it’s more, you will be so glad you pursued it with tenacity.
Please visit these websites for more information about breast cancer awareness, diagnosis, and treatments.
AS AN ASIDE:
I do my best to avoid being “preachy” on this blog. So forgive me this time if I give credit where I feel it is utterly due. Some of you are wondering if I think God healed me. I do. We know almost certainly that there was a lump in my underarm four days before going to the oncologist. We know that many people lifted us up in prayer and specifically prayed that nothing would be found other than “breast tissue” when the appointment with the oncologist came. We also know that that is exactly what was found.
We live in a day and age where convincing people of “miracles” is almost impossible. We find ways around it and our finite minds cannot conceive of supernatural healing. Even though we want to believe, I know the skeptics would simply say “you never had a lump to begin with” or “it was never an issue, you only thought it was”. Truly, I may never know for sure. But spiritually, here is what I can take away from this experience that I might not, had I a skeptical heart:
- Anton and I took immediate stock of our lives and were able to assess where we are heading and where we are at. Our love for each other took on a brilliant light in the contrast of my impending infirmity.
- My fear of all things medical has abated substantially. A gift I have asked God for on many occasions in my life.
- My belief in God’s healing power and ability to hear His children gets renewed all over again each time He works a miracle in our lives. Of course, part of this miracle is in the believing and accepting that He can, in fact, do it!
- My appreciation for my life, with all its many flaws, became tangible –a gift we don’t get to experience in our day to day lives.
I do not think God always heals or that He always answers with the reply we want to hear. But each time we face obstacles, which God in his infinite wisdom allows, I do believe that He works good in and through them. Had I had a diagnosis of cancer, I believe He would have worked it for good in some way. That’s part of the process of faith. Believing that the Lord has your best interest at heart in all times, and all ways. That He’s in control and that He cares so deeply for us. In sickness, health, poverty, wealth, good times and bad. He’s still on the throne and He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. The Bible says that not a sparrow falls from the sky that He does not have his eye on –how much more does your Father in heaven care for you?
So, yes. I think God healed me – or even allowed me to be sick so that I might call out to Him – and then to be OK, but to have had that time to draw near to Him and to call on Him. And this was a tremendous learning and growing experience, beginning to end. Both in my faith, and in the knowledge of my own limitations. When at some point you’re willing to let go and say “Lord, not my will, but Yours!” Of my humanity, and when pressed – my desire to live life, serve Christ, and to love others.
He works in mysterious ways…