As another cancer anniversary comes around, I find I am taking inventory of what I have given myself permission to do since my first primary cancer and my second primary cancer 10 years later.
First and foremost, I’ve learned that going back to life as it was before breast cancer was not an option. Finding a new beginning was critical to my getting on with my life as a survivor. Permission was and continues to be the key to each new beginning I have chosen since my first cancer, almost 16 years ago.
I owe my survival, not once, but twice, to mammograms that found my breast cancers before they could be felt in comprehensive breast exams, before they required chemo, and before they spread beyond my breasts.
In 1999, my annual mammography showed something suspicious. My path report confirmed a Stage 1, estrogen-positive, early cancer. In addition to the lumpectomy, I had 36 radiation treatments and took Tamoxifen daily for five years to prevent a recurrence.
The hardest part of my first breast cancer was managing my fears and not allowing them to rob me of getting on with my life. I joined a support group. I came to realize that besides the love of friends and family, the only commodity that matters to me is time; not money, not recognition, or how I look, just time and how I use it. I began building on this awareness to identify how I wanted to spend my time both personally and professionally. I began to give my self permission to do the things I had been putting off.
Initially, I gave myself permission to leave my full-time position as director of a nonprofit health care organization. I was terrified to give up the security of full time employment and health insurance and take a chance on myself. I took a part-time position as a grant writer, which gave me the time and the income to try my hand at something I always wanted to do- write for publication. With every rejection notice, I had, once again, to give myself permission to stick with my new beginning. My first published article led to many more.
A few years after my treatment ended, I gave myself permission to have a relationship. It was hard. Getting past my self-consciousness about changes in my body image from surgery, radiation and weight gain from hormonal therapy was very difficult. Eleven years later, we are still together. His support continues to make my new beginnings easier.
When another new beginning was presented to me, I gave myself permission to get out from behind my computer, and the safety of a writing business, to get back into direct service once again. My four years as a navigator for the American Cancer Society put me in direct touch with thousands of persons seeking treatment for cancer in NYC’s public hospitals. What I learned about the needs of most women and a few men who presented with breast cancer became the basis for what NBAI now offers …a neighborhood approach to breast cancer awareness in NYC. By bringing awareness about breast cancer risks to senior centers, post-secondary schools, and community organizations NBAI hopes to reduce the numbers of persons waiting to seek care until their cancers are advanced, their treatment needs extensive, and their prognosis poor.
The longer I was breast cancer free, the better I thought my chances were that my breast cancer experience was behind me forever. Then, in September of 2009, ten years after the cancer in my right breast, another routine mammography discovered a lump in my left.
The cancer in my left breast was a Stage 1, early cancer. I didn’t have a recurrence; I had a brand new cancer, unrelated to my first.
I wanted my breasts off. I didn’t want another lumpectomy, radiation and annual mammograms that had to be followed up with needle aspirations and surgical biopsies to check out something suspicious.
So I did it. In 2009 I got a double mastectomy. Breast cancer was easier the second time around.
As a result of second cancer, I started, No Boobs About It, (NBAI) that began as a blog site. Today, it is a nonprofit organization that focuses on raising awareness of breast cancer in the communities of New York City. The weekly blog continues to bring information on research, new treatments and practical suggestions for getting through treatment and successfully transitioning from active treatment to survivorship. Theses days the NBAI website averages over 30,000 +visits per month from persons in 37 countries.
It is hard to believe it has been almost 16 years since my first breast cancer and five years since my second. Breast cancer’s lesson was and continues to be about permission to do life my way.