Today I had the honor of helping to represent the many cancer survivors at the 2015 Relay for Life of East Penn. This was my first ever relay and I felt a bit out of my element. I was unsure what to do or where to go. Everyone was kind and pushed me along in the right direction (happy to tell me where to go!
As this year's honorary Survivor, it was my responsibility to introduce myself and tell my story. Below is the text of my 'speech'. I thought I would share it with all of you as well. After some rest tonight, I plan to go back to the park to support my team- Team Atatud. They are awesome and if you're in the neighborhood of Macungie Memorial Park, stop by.
I remember when the word cancer first entered my vocabulary. Actually, I don’t think it was the word ‘cancer’ itself, but it was cancer. I was a small child, probably five years old.
My mother explained that we had to leave our home and go to help my grandparents. My grandfather was sick and they needed my mom’s help. As a result, we kids would go along with her and move in with my grandparents in their tiny little home.
I don’t remember a lot of specifics about that illness, snatches mostly- he coughed into a tissue and it looked bad. He was rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night- multiple times. As kids, we were shielded from the scary details.
While I didn't have a name for it at the time, I later came to understand that my grandfather had contracted melanoma in his lungs.
Those months were hardest on my mom I think. She watched her father’s body deteriorate as it was ravaged by the cancer and the treatments, and once it reached his brain- it took his mind as well. Looking back on the photos from those days back in 1967-1968, I see a woman who is hanging on by a thread, trying to make it through.
She did make it through as all good caregivers do. She took care of her dad and also of her mom who was left behind when his time was done. As their only child, it was all on her.
My grandfather died in October of 1968
Flash forward 45 years.
I have always been the woman who was diligent about women’s health. Annual GYN exams, my mammograms were done almost on (or actually on) the same day each year. I rarely missed my screenings and if I was late, it grated on me with an almost physical feeling- I was compelled to stay on top of those things.
October 9th, 2013, I had my annual mammogram. Normally, these things were followed by a phone call saying “we need an ultrasound” because they see a cyst or something. Not this time- It went like clockwork. Normal! Awesome!
November 8th 2013, while taking a shower, I noticed I was bleeding from my nipple (TMI, I know, sorry- important info for anyone who should pay attention to these things). I immediately called my breast surgeon who got me an appointment for the following Monday. A quick Google search told me pretty much everything the surgeon would later confirm. This is never a great sign.
While my mammogram only a month earlier had been normal, I actually had breast cancer. Initial diagnosis was stage zero ductal carcinoma in situ.
Even though this was a very aggressive treatment decision- I opted for mastectomy. It would save me radiation therapy and I had much history of issues with cysts and such and I felt it was the best option for me. A personal decision each woman needs to make, this one was mine. I wanted to be done with this for good.
A couple of weeks after surgery, I had arranged a consultation with an oncologist to go over my pathology, just to have him review everything to be sure we had thought of everything. My mom drove me to the consult since I wasn’t yet allowed to drive. The oncologist, a warm, wonderful man who I have actually seen as a hematologist in the past, reviewed the chart with us. He went through the pathology in detail and walked the decision trees that the oncologists use themselves to determine the most appropriate treatments. He explained tumor grades and hormone receptor status. I understood immediately what he was saying and before he even got there my mind said
want him to be telling me that my cancer was worse than thought, and that I
needed chemo, with my mom in the room.
You see, my mom worries about everything where I am concerned. She got lightheaded if I bumped my head. How could she possibly hear that I needed chemo?
I glanced over at her (she looked very scared) and said “it will be ok” She said “I know”
In that moment we became each other’s caregiver. While the cancer patient has it rough- cancer sucks, chemo is awful and while I haven’t had to do it myself, I know radiation is as well. Going through it yourself is one thing - watching the person you love suffer and being completely and utterly powerless to take that suffering away- that is truly terrible. Caregivers are true heroes and their role can’t be overstated.
I had a lot of caregivers- I mentioned my mom, but I had my whole family- My husband who cooked dinners regularly, my kids who worried and drove me and took time to sit with me at chemo. My step-dad who just wanted to do anything. My co-workers who picked up the slack at work when I couldn’t. All my friends and loved ones who sent cards, gifts, called, visited or just posted supportive comments on Facebook.
All of that supported me and got me through. My role was just to get better. I didn’t have a choice but to keep going. Each of those people who took time to do something to be a caregiver had a choice. They chose to support me, I can’t possibly thank them enough for making the choice to give me their time and support. It made all the difference in the world. They were like my own personal army in the fight I was making against this invisible foe.
My mom was the first cancer caregiver I ever knew. I never knew that she would need do that for me. I wish she never had to see another loved one with cancer, but I am very glad I had her by my side. Her and the rest of my caregiver ‘army’
Please remember to thank all the caregivers. They are my heroes.