My Pink Ribbon Journey
On September 28, 2009 I stepped foot in Africa. For an animal lover like me this was a journey of a lifetime. For three weeks I was to volunteer with lion cubs and elephants on a game reserve in Zimbabwe. On the weekends we would go to the local orphanage and play with the children most of which suffered from aids or had lost their parents to the disease. This work was more rewarding than anything I had ever done in my life so far. Then it was on to Cape Town, South Africa for another three weeks of volunteer work in a no kill shelter with cats and dogs. Many of them had been severely abused and/or neglected. During this trip I was the happiest I had ever been. Africa had captured my heart yet her wildlife and children had captured my soul.
Exactly one year to that date, September 28, 2010 I lay on a surgeon’s table waiting to have a mass in my right breast biopsied. Tears came to my eyes as I thought these could be the last moments of life as I know it. How could I have been so happy one year ago today and now I am lying on this table with possible breast cancer? While the doctor was performing the biopsy I closed my eyes so I could get lost in those beautiful memories from the year before. I thought of the lion cubs we walked every day in the bush and how the giraffes would run by in the distance. I remembered how the puppies would attack us with wet kisses at the shelter in the morning. I longed to be there again, to be anywhere but here. No matter how I tried I could not escape the fear and panic I was feeling. If only I had gone to a doctor right away would I be here right now?
In July 2010 I had noticed a pulling feeling in my right breast but ignored it thinking it would go away on its own. It did not. I examined my breast while lying down and did not feel anything. One day I did a self exam while sitting up and there it was, a large lump. My heart sank; it was at that moment I knew this could be serious. I went in for a mammogram and could tell by the look on my nurse’s face that this was not going to be good news. They called it a suspicious mass and told me I needed a biopsy.
On September 30 my doctor phoned with the results of my biopsy and I heard the words no woman ever expects to hear. “You have breast cancer”. Every emotion you can think of comes flooding in. Am I going to die? I’m not ready! Will I lose my hair? What about my career? The next day was Oct 1, ironically the beginning of breast cancer awareness month. Everywhere I went I was reminded that I had breast cancer! I can remember seeing commercials with women who were surviving this illness and were thriving. I made a conscious decision that I wanted to be like them, a survivor not a victim.
I began weeks of testing, scans, and doctor visits to plan my treatment options. Due to the size of the tumor my surgeon suggested a mastectomy. I was only 41 years old and this option did not sit right with me. We decided to go through chemotherapy first to try and shrink the tumor so I could have a lumpectomy and save my breast. I also began a clinical trial where I was given even more medication to try and shrink the tumor. After six months of chemotherapy we were successful. The tumor had shrunk in half! I was given some time to recover from the effects of the chemo before undergoing surgery. A few weeks later I had a lumpectomy and everything went well. So I thought. A week later my surgeon called and said that they needed to go back in and remove some more tissue to get clearer margins. Now, after the second lumpectomy my margins are clean and the tumor is gone!
Recently I began a six week course of radiation to decrease my chances of recurrence.
As my one year anniversary approaches I am reflecting on all that I have experienced this year and how far I have come. The most prominent feeling I have is gratitude. The support and love I’ve received from family, friends and strangers was and continues to be overwhelming!
Cancer forced me to look at and reevaluate every aspect of my life. It brought me back to basics. What I’ve learned is that I am not guaranteed to be alive tomorrow and so I must life my life to the fullest. For me, that meant pursuing my true passion in life, animals and animal welfare. I took an animal cruelty investigator class to help me be a better advocate for the animals. I began doing public outreach at circuses informing people of the cruelty that animals suffer as well as doing undercover investigative work exposing that suffering. I’ve felt more fulfilled and satisfied this year than ever before and I owe it all to cancer.
When times got tough I would turn to my memories of Africa and the animals to help get me through. This time next year I hope to return to Africa and the animals I love to celebrate life, to celebrate being a survivor.
My journey through the pink ribbon of breast cancer has been challenging at times but I would not change one moment of it. It has made me who I am today…a stronger, better and more beautiful me!