My Cancer Story: Not a Gift, but a Learning Experience

by Kathy aka Cheese Curd

It was March of 2016. I don’t remember the day, but I remember driving home from work and getting a call from a nurse navigator. She said my breast biopsy showed cancer – Stage 1 and Grade 1. I would most likely need surgery and radiation and I’d be fine.  I pulled into the driveway and I tried to process everything quickly because I wanted to be brave. My 17 year old daughter and mother were inside my home. My daughter had already lost her father in 2005 and my mother saw her sister-in-law and mother-in-law die from breast cancer. We talked about the diagnosis and I assured them I’d be fine.

The MRI had a different viewpoint, and showed I had Stage 3 cancer, so next I met with my soon-to-be treatment team – oncologist, radiologist, and surgeon. I started keeping a journal and a bag to throw things in because my head was spinning and I was so overwhelmed. I learned this trick after my husband died to prevent losing any important papers. Everything went in the bag – cards, test results, and my journal with all my notes at appointments. Retention was low so those notes were a blessing.

After learning I needed chemotherapy, I remember sitting in my living room with my mom and daughter in the kitchen. I started crying hysterically because I was absolutely terrified of chemo. I saw people go through chemo and they became shells of themselves. Was that going to be? How can I be sick – I did three half marathons last year and won a fitness contest in February?????

Some people say cancer is a gift. I saw jewelry is a gift – cancer is a learning experience.

After I got over the absolute terror I decided I was going to treat this with everything I had. I was eating clean already, but I was going to eat cleaner. I kept up with acupuncture, and started free Reiki through a wonderful organization called LifeSparks. Those people, along with a naturopathic doctor, and a holistic counselor that helped me focus on my mind and body, all gave me tools that I helped me to get through things.

My parents went back to Wisconsin to figure out where they wanted to live. Mom did fly out to help me during my two surgeries, but after chemo started I was on my own. It was my daughter’s senior year, she didn’t drive, and so I had to rely on friends to take me to chemo and pick her up from school those days. I truly believe in angels! 

Co-workers pitched in and gave me $700 in gift cards for restaurants. My supervisor’s sister-in-law also went through chemo and loaned me her wigs. The AVP gave me permission to work from home when that was normally not allowed.  Again – more angels! I begged my parents to come out in the fall to help me with my daughter because I was struggling enough with trying to handle treatment and couldn’t always drive my daughter around. They did come out a month after school started.

My daughter had her senior pictures taken. A few were with me after I had my first chemo treatment. After the photo session I went and had my head shaved because I knew I couldn’t handle seeing my hair fall out in clumps.  

After I shaved my head and I remember trying so hard to look “normal”. I get that I didn’t want people to look at me and feel sorry, but I also felt like I was ashamed. I was ashamed for getting cancer. Why? Maybe I was ashamed because I might look weak? As a single mom I struggled to always seem tough, in charge, and able to keep everything together and I felt like I was falling apart.

I was told I was in remission in December of 2016 after I finished chemo.

The two lumpectomies didn’t take care of the cancer, so I opted for a full mastectomy before radiation. Radiation was the hardest for me. Chemo was easy – thanks to Reiki, the side effects were minimal. Radiation gave me burns worse than any sunburn I ever had. Then, after my parents went back to Wisconsin for the summer, and I was going through radiation – my mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer. I wanted to be with her so badly, but it was around my daughter’s prom time, senior activities, and I was going to radiation five days a week. Mom was told she had 2-3 months left, so I booked a flight to Wisconsin the week after I finished radiation.

My blood pressure shot up during this time and I had to start medication for that. Also, I really struggled with mindfulness, and believing there is a God.

A couple weeks after Mom’s diagnosis Dad called me up and said if I wanted to see Mom again I needed to go there now. My daughter and I dropped everything and boarded a plane, I left my radiologist a message I was going to miss Monday’s session and I saw Mom for the last time. My flight in May ended up being for her funeral instead of the reunion I had hoped.

Reconstruction started after I healed from radiation. That was not a good experience, and the first time I saw myself naked with implants in my plastic surgeon’s office I cried. My breasts looked like misshapen blobs of different sizes. I hated looking at myself in the mirror after my double mastectomy, and reconstruction didn’t help.

That’s when I got my first tattoos. I decided if my breasts were going to be misshapen lumps of scars I was going to get tattoos and make them art. It allowed me to be able to look at myself in the mirror and not cry. My implants caused muscle spasms, pain when I reached in certain directions, and contributed to breaking a rib during a cycling accident. Thank goodness medicine has changed! In January I met with a new plastic surgeon and just had DIEP flap surgery in April. My muscle spasms are gone, I can reach any way I want and not having shooting pain, and I don’t feel like so much of a freak with frankenboobs.

Cancer has taken away my confidence with dating – I haven’t been intimate with a male since 2015. Cancer has helped me to grow spiritually – I’m now a Reiki practitioner and volunteer with LifeSparks to help other cancer patients. Cancer has helped me to be more compassionate towards others – I know I never know what someone is going through so I try to practice kindness – even when someone cuts me off driving. I will still never call cancer a gift.

I don’t know what my future holds. I’m on medication for another four years to prevent my cancer from coming back. The medication has caused weight gain, but I figure it’s a small price to pay. One goal I set for this year is to do a half marathon – my first since 2015. I set that goal before I knew I was having surgery, so training is starting a little slower, but I really miss that part of my past self.

I feel blessed that I have lived longer than my aunt and grandmother. Oh, and now that I have my hair back I tell myself there’s never a bad hair day!