Friday, August 05, 2011

Five Years Later, Still Well, Still Grateful

They say that women who survive five years after a breast cancer diagnosis have a better chance of staying cancer-free.

Such statistics are encouraging, for it was five years ago this week that a doctor pronounced those words to me, the ones that no woman ever wants to hear: “You have breast cancer.”

At first you think you’re going to die. You walk around with that feeling of dread in your gut.

Two days after that doctor visit, we had the kids and grandkids over for the husband’s birthday cookout. I baked a cake, made potato salad, spread the tablecloth on the picnic table. I went through the motions of a family celebration, but it all felt unreal. I think it felt that way to all of us. I know it did to the husband, because he would catch my eye now and then, and I understood he was in the same unknowing state as I was.

My doctor had recommended I go the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville for care. I made an appointment with the top surgeon, but they wanted a biopsy first. As I went through that procedure with a local surgeon, I still felt fearful and surreal.

Where was my faith during those first few days? I’m not sure. My prayers were of the desperate sort. Please don’t let me die, I’m not ready to die. But by the time I had my first appointment at UVa, the Psalms—which my doctor suggested I read—were giving me some hope and comfort. I’d written several verses on old business cards and tucked them into my jeans pockets, to have with me all the time.

I’d observed other people go through life-threatening diseases and it seemed their doctors always began with the worst possible prognosis. You’re going to die. You’ll be disabled for life. You’ll always have this disease. How horrible.

At that first visit with Dr. Brenin, he said, “Yes, you do have breast cancer. But you’re going to be alright.”

You’re going to be alright. I believed him. Then other people began to tell me I was going to be alright. Everywhere, they reflected it back to me.

I went through surgery, three months of recovery, then chemotherapy and more recovery.

Early on, a friend had told me not to act on fear. My pastor had prayed that God would lead me on a path to healing. Another had said that each woman has to make her own decisions. And so these three pieces of advice undergirded my confidence and guided my decisions.

My family was so caring during that time, helping in any way they could. My oldest daughter, Heidi, took off work to accompany me to several doctor’s appointments. My youngest daughter, Rachel, called me from Northern Ireland nearly every day for months. My son’s gift of humor kept me laughing.

My work buddies were awesome. They visited, called, encouraged me. One day they surprised me with gifts of hats, to cover my head after chemo.

My church home group supplied me with steady prayers and many good meals, which they delivered to my out-of-the-way home almost every day for weeks.

And the cards. When I wrote about the cancer in this column, many readers responded by sending cards. There are no words to describe how much that meant to me. I felt so loved.

So five years later, how am I doing?

I was saddened by Andrea Lohr’s recent death from breast cancer. She got her first diagnosis a few months before me. But she was a much younger, and older women seem to survive better. I met and wrote about Andrea for Bloom magazine. She was so caring and kind. Her death seems unfair.

I continue to take the supplement that studies have shown to prevent recurrence of breast cancer, along with those that support my immune system. I walk, do yoga and exercise with light weights to stay strong. I eat a vegetable-based diet along with some animal proteins. To the best of my ability, I avoid foods grown with pesticides, antibiotics or growth hormones.

That’s the physical stuff. However, I still struggle with some of the emotional issues which, I believe, had a much greater influence on my getting cancer.

Will all of this prevent a recurrence? So far, so good. But I have no guarantee.

For now, I am grateful for each day of life.

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