Thriving, Part 2. How I Went From Feeling Like a Victim of Breast Cancer to a Thrivor

Cynthia Bailey, MD|October 4, 2016

This is the first week of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October. And this blog article is Part 2 of the Thriving Series, our 5-part series sharing Dr. Bailey's tips for going beyond surviving cancer, to thriving.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been fundamentally and wholly afraid of getting breast cancer.  My family tells the story of my paternal great grandmother who died tragically of it at 32, leaving a ranch family with 6 kids to fend for themselves without a mother to do what mothers do. Despite my awareness, fears, and good medical care, I got breast cancer anyway – and shockingly, breast cancer changed my life for the better. 

Would I do it again given the choice?  Well, I’m not going to ask myself that question - it’s pointless.  It happened to me, and "The Breast Cancer Year" often felt like an avalanche of lemons burying me. Bad news after wave of bad news hit me because I ended up having much more than JUST breast cancer, which I will explain later. Yet, I made lemonade out of this lemon abundance. 

I was so afraid of breast cancer that I can’t believe I could get lemonade out of a lemon like this, but it did happen.  And it wasn’t intentional.  It just happened as I navigated the process.  A diagnosis like this can be a wholly horrible experience - like I initially expected - or it can be something else.  For anyone about to go through a health crisis such as cancer, I wish I had known some of this when I started my journey.  It would have saved me a lot of suffering (and the need to live on Ativan for the first few months).  It also would have gotten me to that lemonade a whole lot faster.  Telling my story is worth it if it can help even just one person get there faster.

My Breast Cancer Story

I think I intuitively knew I could get breast cancer, because throughout my life I did everything possible in order to NEVER get THAT diagnosis.  With magical thinking and a ton of optimism I planned (hoped) I would dodge the bullet in spite of the frightening statistics that 1 in 8 women get breast cancer, and that my family history is riddled with cancer, including breast cancer. Breast cancer was the one that scared me the most. Any time I’d start to worry I would soothe my fears with an inventory of my risk-reducing factors: my healthy lifestyle, having kids relatively young and breast feeding them, exercising regularly, eating extremely well, avoiding hormones of any sort because I had a hunch they were “bad”. Nevertheless, in August 2013 I became that "1 in 8" women that no one wants to be.

It started when I found a small hard lump in my left breast while doing my breast self-exam.  (By the way, that breast exam probably saved my life – please girls and boys, do yours every month, really!) I scheduled a mammogram, and was lucky to get an appointment quickly.  I went in to my mammogram thinking this would be just another false alarm, a quick in and out. For the past 30 years I’ve had many breast cancer false alarms due to my type of breast tissue. So much so, that as I aged I feared the annual mammo's less and less - silly me! 

Like I always did, as the technician checked my films I looked over her shoulder.  My little lump looked bad, and I knew it.  My doctor was in the building so she called him and he came to look.  I could see the serious look in his eyes.  Trying to dance around the impending disaster, I said “but I can’t have cancer, I just bought 4 really pretty bras this summer in Italy on my 30th wedding anniversary trip, and I’m planning on enjoying them!”  I swear I saw tears in the corner of his eyes.

From that moment time became a blur. The news left me a complete emotional train wreck.  Even with all of the Breast Cancer worrying I had done in my life, I wasn't prepared. At the time this hit, things in my life were going well. I was nearly 55.  Like many people, I’ve had phases in my life that were filled with stress, living on an adrenaline edge. This was not one of those. The bad news blindsided me.  And it kept getting worse.  At first it was cancer; then it was the dreaded and very aggressive high grade triple negative cancer; then it was one in each breast (meaning my prognosis and statistics were doubly bad - note that the 2nd cancer did not show up on the mammogram, so girls and boys just remember how important your breast self-exams are!); then it was having the BRCA gene mutation and needing to worry about cancer in my ovaries too...  It was an avalanche of bad news. The lemon avalanche was burying me.

Dr. Cynthia Bailey with her son days after the diagnosis

As if all of that wasn’t traumatic enough, the treatment plan became yet another avalanche of lemons. What my doctors were telling me was one of my worst nightmares! I needed 4 months of especially strong chemo, with really toxic and old fashioned drugs.  These were drugs that I had used on patients way back in the 80s.  They were dangerous, damaging and I had watched them make patients terribly sick when I was in medical school.  For my type of cancer they were not recommending new fancy miracle drugs. No, apparently the type of cancer I had is resistant to the “smart bomb” drugs and only responds to high doses of the old fashioned “nuclear bomb” drugs.  I was facing one of my worst fears!  Even my really amazing and experienced breast cancer surgeon said to me:

“Chemo is your only hope with this kind of cancer.  I’m going to be honest with you, this is really bad cancer.  If it comes back we can’t cure it, which means it’s a matter of time before it kills.  Most people only last at most 5 years if it comes back.  I’m going to be honest with you again, don’t take this wrong, but you’re stupid if you don’t do chemo. Surgery alone won’t beat this one.” 

To top it all off, I needed a double mastectomy.  Taking my breasts off was necessary to see how the chemo worked, and if I would need more.  Plus with the BRCA gene my breasts were cancer time bombs. They needed to get off my body before they blew up again.  With BRCA1 mutation I had an almost 90% chance of breast cancer in my life - which can include new cancer occurrences if they were left on.  My mom had this happen to her.

Additionally, my surgeon also needed to take lymph nodes from both sides of my arms - which would mean that my arms would always be more vulnerable to serious infection - for the rest of my life.  He continued, “if there is still cancer in your breasts or lymph nodes when we remove them, then you will need radiation and more chemo, and your prognosis will be dire.” 

He went on to explain that after he was done treating the breast cancer, we would need to tackle my ovaries.  If there was cancer there, I would need a gynecologic oncology specialist for more surgery AND I would need more chemo.  He said we wouldn’t know what my future looked like until we were done with all this. And if all went well, I needed to plan on a minimum of a year.  

My head was swirling. I have 2 kids and this nightmare is hereditary – I could have given my nightmare to them too.  That felt even worse!  I was buried.

It was an avalanche of bad news - an avalanche of lemons upon lemons. I was absolutely devastated, and it had all happened so fast…

...But then so did the lemonade...

The Beginning of Lemonade

I’ve always had a deep spiritual belief that there is a reason behind what happens in life. As I mentioned in Thriving, Part 1, I asked myself:

Did this happen in my life for a reason? Is there something I’m supposed to do or change?  IS THERE A MESSAGE IN THIS FOR ME THAT I SHOULD TRY TO HEAR?

Whether it’s God’s will, a guardian angel, the law of karma, or whatever, I just believed deep down that THERE WAS a reason for something like this.  So, I started to look for the reason. And this tiny change in my outlook dramatically impacted how I felt about my situation, which ultimately changed the situation. 

Regardless of the outcome, I realized that this was where I was in my life right now. I quit worrying about the future and regretting things from the past. I became fully present in this moment. And strangely, the moment started feeling like slow motion.  I focused singularly on things like: how to cope with the treatments; how to support my health through this process; what I was experiencing in the moment. Good things started happening. And when they did I was present for them too. These became the fond memories from “The Breast Cancer Year" - the sweet lemonade that came from this lemon abundance. 

In celebration and honor of all those touched by Breast Cancer, for this Breast Cancer Awareness Month I will share some of my experiences from my Cancer Year.  Particularly, how I went from an emotional train wreck to a full-on thrivor - in the midst of it all.  I will tell you how I got my “anchor” so that I could move forward positively, feeling tranquil in the midst of an uncertain future and treatments that frightened me, hurt me, and made me ill. My story is about how an avalanche of lemons became an opportunity for an abundance of lemonade. By sharing my story I hope to help those embarking on similar journeys.

Stay tuned for more of Dr. Bailey’s series on Thriving With Breast Cancer - beyond surviving to thriving. 

How have you learned to Thrive in the face of cancer or other health disasters? We love to hear from you. Please share your story in the comments below.

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