Understanding cancer as a professional is one thing, but once you go through the journey it takes on a whole different understanding.
I like to call myself a triple threat, but not in the way that you think. First, I am a registered nurse, having practiced oncology nursing for ten years and I currently work at a cancer center.Second, I am a survivorship program coordinator/nurse navigator, meaning I provide ongoing support and resources to cancer survivors through the survivorship program that I have led for the past three and half years. Third, I am a breast Cancer survivor.
Diagnosed in 2019 and am currently having a treatment free interval of one year and three months. To say that I thought I knew about cancer would be an understatement; I always thought I knew what patients went through from diagnosis to surveillance, but I had no idea, until I went through my own cancer journey.
Even though I had never experienced cancer on a personal level, I always knew working in oncology was for me as my love and compassion for people led me to this field. Healthwise, my family has issues with hypertension, heart disease, kidney disease but not cancer. However, that all changed on Valentine’s Day 2019 when I had my yearly mammogram, which was clean; one health screening ticked off my mental checklist for the year. Two months later, in April 2019, I had my yearly gynecology appointment, my second health screening mentally checked off. As my gynecologist proceeded to examine me, he asked if I was doing my breast self-exams.
“Oh no,” I replied smugly, “I wait for you all to do it,” meaning I rely on my yearly mammograms and gynecology breast exams to determine if cancer was in my future. As he moved from one breast to the other, he lingered, and then turned to the nurse, giving her a verbal order, “We need to get a referral for a left breast ultrasound.”
He turned to me and said I had a lump in my outer quadrant of my left breast, but “it was probably nothing” and to take Vitamin E, which would help reduce the inflammation that it probably was, because as he put it, my mammogram was “clean.”This was on a Friday, so of course I worried all weekend, just “knowing” it was cancer…my fingers kept lingering over the “lump” in my breast; mentally thinking how could I have missed this, why wasn’t I doing my breast self-exams, and how did the mammogram miss this two months prior?
One biopsy, two surgeries, radiation therapy, a Tamoxifen tablet daily for 5 years later and I am a breast cancer survivor. Sure, I am still dealing with treatment side effects, such as breast swelling, axillary web syndrome or “cording,” intermittent hot flashes, depression, and anxiety, but I believe in the power of positive thinking, and have a prayer of gratitude.
In addition to being a breast cancer survivor, I am also a wife to my husband of 31 years, mother to two daughters, grandmother to two granddaughters and one grandson, identical twin to my sister Cindy, and sister to my two brothers. But of course, I am also a daughter, granddaughter, college student in a Nurse Practitioner Program, and a friend to many. I identify with all these things and they all identify with who I am, especially the cancer. However, I do not define my life by having had cancer but it has definitely changed who I am for the better.
As a result, I am an advocate for women to become familiar with their breasts; it’s important to do a breast self-exam. It is also important to know if you have dense breasts, because not all breast cancers show up in mammograms. Therefore, ask your healthcare provider, if you need 3D Mammography (Tomosynthesis) or additional imaging. Life is a gift, not to be taken for granted.
Did I do this prior to my diagnosis? I sure did. I took my health and family for granted and did not fully understand the depth of what cancer patients faced. However, now I face each new day grateful for my health, grateful to still be with my family and grateful to be able to connect with my patients in a more meaningful way.