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On April 15, a beautiful sunny spring day, I made a quick stop for my yearly mammogram before heading to work. The technician asked me if I had any concerns, and I replied with the usual response, “No, no concerns.” When the results arrived, I didn’t bother to open the letter for several days. Every other test always confirmed that all was fine, and I had no cause to think that these results would prove to be any different. When I finally opened the letter, it was recommended that I have an ultra sound on the left breast. There was still no reason for me to feel any type of concern…let alone any sense of alarm.
On April 27, I returned for the ultra sound. I was surprised when I didn’t get an immediate confirmation that it was a cyst, which is what my previous ultra sounds always revealed. On this occasion, the technician was very intent and took an extensive number of pictures of various parts of my breast. The next day, I received a call from the doctor to inform me that there were four suspicious spots on my breast, and they wanted to do a biopsy on two of them. Now, I began to experience my first sense of concern, as this was new territory for me.
A week later, I went to get the biopsy. With fascination, I watched the doctor guide the instrument through my breast tissue to the spots identified on the monitoring screen. The doctor and nurse reassured me that I would receive a call the following day by 3 p.m.
The next morning, as I was riding up the elevator at work a colleague asked how I was. I offered my normal response, “I’m fine, thank you,” knowing that I really wasn’t so fine. As the day progressed, my anxiety grew with each passing hour. I had the cell phone attached to me everywhere I went. When 3 p.m. finally came, time slowed down to a tense, painstaking crawl. At 3:30 p.m., not willing to wait any longer, I called the breast center and was told that someone would call me shortly. The minutes seemed like hours as I waited. At 4:45 p.m., I jumped when my cell phone rang. I grabbed for it and intently listened to the voice of my doctor on the other end stating, “The biopsy showed that you have breast carcinoma.”
I was numb. My fears had been transformed into my reality. I had cancer!
Shaking, I called my husband to tell him that I had cancer. What terrible, frightening words they were to me. He sounded calm and said to come home and that we would talk. When I arrived at home he met me at the door and enveloped me in his arms. He held me tenderly as I cried. I was so afraid. My life felt tenuous.
That night I woke frequently with my mind racing. Any type of restful sleep was not going to be a possibility on this night. I had no pain, lumps, or signs of cancer. How could I have cancer? Why me? How far was this foreign thing in my body? I envisioned death. I finally arose at 4:45 a.m., as sleep was out of the question. Sleeping pills would become my friend for the next few months.
The CEO of the company where I worked was a cancer survivor. He made a point to talk to me about his experience with cancer and of my recent diagnosis. He made a statement that at the time I thought was absolute nonsense. He said, “You may not believe it now, but cancer is a gift that will change your life.” Little did I know that this statement would become my reality. I was to find in the months ahead that I would have three major learning lessons in my journey through cancer that will change my life forever.
My first gift from cancer was that I learned that I don’t have to be strong and do it alone. In the past, I kept my difficulties in life quiet and personal, not sharing them with others. This time I made a deliberate decision to share my cancer journey with others around me, as I desperately needed the support, encouragement, and prayers. I always had a need to control my life, and this was a new experience of which I had no control. I called my eight siblings, emailed my twenty-four nieces and nephews, spoke to my colleagues, and emailed my friends. Little did I know at the time that this decision would bless me throughout my entire cancer journey. The word quickly spread, and I was contacted by scores of old friends who I had not talked to in many years. The phone calls, visits, emails, and cards from my children, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and friends were so precious to me. I printed off each email and saved each card, as they were so vital in helping to sustain me throughout my difficult ordeal. I was overwhelmed with the outpouring of love, support, and prayers for me. Reading the emails and cards brought tears to my eyes. I felt humbled, blessed and loved.
Each day I wore a charm bracelet that my daughter-in-law gave to me when I was first diagnosed with cancer. It became my symbol of hope in my cancer journey. The bracelet had four charms which took on special meaning for me. The star charm with the words, “Reach for the stars,” reminded me to reach for total healing and health. The charm with the words, “I believe,” was a symbol for me to believe that I already was being granted total healing and health. The charm of a heart reminded me that God loves me and to accept and give love to those around me. The final charm of a treasure chest helped me focus on the many blessings that I already had received in life. The bracelet helped keep me centered and focused on my health and healing from cancer.
I met with the surgeon, accompanied by a paper filled with my questions, simultaneously checking her out, as she was checking me out. She explained my options for the surgery. I decided to have a bilateral mastectomy. I wanted the cancer out of my body. In the short time that I had been diagnosed, I had already read multiple books on cancer and had searched the Internet for answers, which confirmed my decision. I had become an expert on Invasive Lobular Carcinoma.
When I met the plastic surgeon, he explained breast reconstruction options, which were limited for me, because I didn’t have enough fat in my stomach for a trans-flap. My decision was in alignment with his recommendation, which was to put expanders under the pectoral muscles, expand the areas over several months with saline, and have implants inserted after the saline had stretched the skin and tissue to allow for the implants.
I took my long list of questions to my first visit with the oncologist. He explained how after the cancer is removed there is still a need to treat the seeds that the cancer sends out to the rest of the body. He further explained the various cancer treatment options (estrogen therapy, chemotherapy, and radiation) and how a decision would be made on the type of treatment following the surgery pathology results.
Due to scheduling conflicts between the surgeon and plastic surgeon, the surgery date was set for June 30. This period evolved into an exceedingly agonizing five-week wait. Throughout this interminable wait, my feelings vacillated from fear and anger to hope and optimism. I filled the difficult wait time by keeping my mind and body busy through burying myself in my work of training educators, and at home, I worked feverishly in the garden, which left me feeling more positive and hopeful. In those five weeks, I checked out books from the library, searched the Internet, and read articles on breast cancer, breast reconstruction, cancer treatments, and nutrition and herbs for cancer. Filled with the need to better understand what the future held for me, I was rapidly becoming a breast cancer expert.
Patience was never my strong suit. I rationalized that I had better come to terms with living each day in the present and to the fullest. This was my second gift of cancer. However, realizing the need to live in the present at a conscious level is so much easier than actually living it, as I had deeply ingrained habits of living my life tied to my past and my future. I had to unlearn past habits and relearn new ones. It is a slow, continuous journey; one that will be on-going throughout the remainder of my life.
I am learning to value lessons from the past and dreams for the future, while at the same time focus on the great moments of the present in my life. Such moments as listening to the rain on the roof, savoring the cold, tart taste of a limeade, stopping to smell a fragrant, lavender rose in my backyard, delighting in the smile of my five-month-old granddaughter, and feeling the warmth and safety of my husband’s embrace.
In pursuit of living in the moment, I added a new affirmation to say to myself multiple times a day. “I feel incredibly alive as I am fully living in the moment,” has become my meaningful mantra. I realized that living in the moment means that I need a far better balance in my daily living. Throughout my adult life my career took precedence over the other aspects of my life. I barely knew the true meaning of what leisure life could offer, as I had seldom allowed myself the freedom to indulge in such pastimes. This will now become a continuous and consistent addition to my growth process.
My surgery on June 30th was very successful. The pathology reports showed no cancer in the lymph nodes, which was an absolute blessing. The reports also confirmed that my decision to have a bilateral mastectomy was an excellent decision, as the cancer was larger than anticipated and both breasts were filled with pre-cancer cells.
Now that the cancer is out of my body, I am committed to keeping the cancer seeds from growing in other parts of my body, which leads to my third gift of cancer. I made the decision to provide my body with all it needs to be healthy and
resilient. I read multiple books and articles on the relationship of health and cancer. My commitment to health involves changing long-held eating, exercise, stress, and breathing habits. To ensure my success, I developed a health plan using a Continuous Improvement Process that I had been sharing with educators across the nation to guide them in schools. The same process guided me in my pursuit of health and wellness.
As I am facing chemotherapy in the very near future, I am filled with hope and determination. I am confident that the journey of learning has only just begun. I accept that there will be challenges ahead, and pin my hopes on the fact that there will be many more gifts to receive and to give along the way.
Written by Kay L. Frunzi in 2009.
She has been cancer free for eight years.
Gifts from Chemo?
I am sitting in the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center receiving my last chemo treatment. As the chemo is dripping slowly into my body, I am reflecting on my gifts of chemo. I struggled for the last three months since starting chemo with the question, “what are the gifts from chemo?” I conclude that with chemo there are barriers to overcome, which disguise the gifts.
I scheduled my chemo on Thursdays, so my toughest days fell on the weekends. The steroids that I am on the three days surrounding chemo makes me crash with fatigue and mild depression. The shot that I receive the day after each chemo treatment to stimulate my bone marrow to produce white blood cells leaves my joints and bones hurting, similar to the growing pains that I experienced as a pre-teen. I spend the weekends following my chemotherapy treatments with my cold, tired, and discouraged body wrapped in the prayer shawl my oldest sister gave to me and taking frequent naps. I am fortunate to not have nausea that many of my chemo friends experienced.
I go to work every Monday following chemo with enough energy to get me through the morning. Going to my car over my lunch break to take a 20-minute nap gets me through the afternoons. Each night I sleep ten hours, which gives me the energy to get up the next day and drive to work. Going to work each day is essential to my mental health, as I know if I listen to my exhausted, depleted body that I will not get out of my recliner chair.
The first few weeks following each chemo treatment, I struggle to see past my chemo symptoms to view the bigger picture of healing. The sore bones and joints, the blisters in my mouth and throat, the dry skin and nose, the red, inflamed fingernails, and the fatigue take my energy and attention. An email from a friend, who had cancer and chemo a year prior helps me reframe my chemo experience. She wrote, “Chemo was my best friend. It saved my life.” My oncologist said to me at one of my many visits, “Just imagine what the cancer cells are saying to the chemo.” Although, I cannot view chemo as my best friend, I can appreciate the fact that the chemo is killing cancer cells in my body. With effort, I can push the symptoms out of my mind and focus on the healing that the chemo is creating in my body.
I am overwhelmed with the phone calls, emails, cards, and gifts that I received throughout my chemo treatments. Chemo isn’t as spectacular as breast surgery. To my amazement and delight, the support continued and unfolded in beautiful ways. My neighbor brought food after my chemo treatments, my sister cooked meals for me to put in my freezer, my brothers and sisters called and emailed me frequently, my colleague and friend painted and decorated casts my sisters made of my breasts prior to my bilateral mastectomy, another colleague and dear friend wrote an article about me detailing the courage that he observed me live, my husband continues to be faithful in his encouragement, holding and cradling me when needed, my grandson worried about me when he got a cold and washed his hands continually so his Nana wouldn’t get sick, my son calls me practically every day to make sure I am doing well, my daughter brings me my favorite pastry from where she works, my dear friend who had a double mastectomy six months prior sent me care packages and wore my name when she did the Walk for Cancer. I could go on and on. How can one
experience such outpouring of love and support and not feel intense appreciation for the many wonderful people in my life?
When life moves so fast, it is easy to become out of touch with feelings of appreciation. Chemo helps me reflect on many blessings in my life that in the past I overlooked. I notice the beautiful fall trees, the mist and smell of the rain, the full moon, the last of the roses and marigolds for the season, the delicious taste of the gazpacho that I make weekly from my garden bounty, the giggle of my granddaughter, the lame jokes of my grandson, the energy that I feel several weeks after my chemo treatments. After making many visits to the cancer center where I see and talk to other cancer patients, I appreciate how incredibly well I have and am doing with chemo. My oncologist smiled at me today and told me how delighted he is with my progress. I appreciate my health and healing. Each morning on my way to work I prepare myself for the day by saying my affirmations and singing “Spirit of the Living God”, and “All Is Well with My Soul”. Each night before I go to sleep, I reflect on my many, many blessings.
After sharing my reflection that I wrote prior to chemo treatment, “The Gifts of Cancer,” a colleague stopped by my office and said, “The gift that you missed is the biggest gift; yourself.” This was a foreign concept for me, as I tend to see gifts as what I receive to help me grow and learn, versus what I am. After re-reading, the numerous encouraging emails that I received, I realize that many other people also view my courage and positive outlook as a gift that I give to them. How can I read these emails and not acknowledge that I am a gift to those around me? The metaphor of my mission in life is cupped hands where I collect knowledge, skills, wisdom, and love to flow through me to others. Cancer and chemo add to my collection of gifts of knowledge, skills, wisdom, and love, but even more amazing, I am a gift. What a beautiful thought!
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