A Date to Remember: Breast Cancer Diagnosis

On this date, October 15, eight years ago I was diagnosed with early stage invasive breast cancer.  It was a day that changed my life, but I can’t say that my life is now so much better because of it.  I sometimes feel that is wrong of me, you know, not to believe that I am now stronger or more appreciative of life or kinder to others or more aware of all the real important things in life.

On that same day eight years ago my daily phone call from my sister came from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City where she had gone hoping to find a miracle treatment for the recurrence of her aggressive breast cancer she had been fighting for four years.

On April 1, 2005 my sister died leaving me with overwhelming survivor guilt and grief that has still not ended.

Today I often feel like a fraud because cancer was relatively easy for me compared to my sister’s experience.  Lumpectomy, radiation, what could be easier?

This much I do know.  Pay attention to your body in spite of what doctors may say to you.  I knew something was wrong, and after several doctors told me breast cancer did not cause pain and they could not feel a lump, I insisted one more time that something was wrong.  A few hours after a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy, I received the call informing me I had breast cancer.  My sister and I would be fighting this disease together.

I also know that early detection saved my life. Today a diagnosis of breast cancer doesn’t always mean mastectomy and chemotherapy.  I had a lumpectomy, radiation, and three years of an aromatase inhibitor.

I consider myself cured, although my oncologist says, “Well, with a cancer, you can never be sure.”  He is cautious and aggressive in his approach to cancer treatment, and that is definitely a good thing.  But today with targeted therapy and easier chemotherapy, with different drugs, better testing, and hopefully for most, better insurance coverage, a cancer diagnosis is not what it used to be in the past.

Here I am.  A cancer survivor.  I still think about it every day.  I wonder when I will stop thinking about it.  I think about my sister every day.  I miss her more than I ever imagined I would.  I miss her laughter, her jokes, her sense of adventure, her love of life, her support.  And I am angry that she did not survive.

If you are someone who has been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, I think you can be comforted by the advances in recent years.  I think you should be optimistic and hopeful.  I think you can look at all of the survivors today and realize that you will be one of them, are even one of them now.  If your diagnosis came late, if your tumor size was large, if your cancer has spread, you can still be hopeful because women are surviving longer today than in the past.

But today I am sad that there weren’t enough advances six years ago to save my sister.  And I want research to continue.  I want support to continue.  I want awareness to continue.  I want hope to continue.  I hope everyone will find a way to take a stand against breast cancer the way Americans of all ages and situations are fighting against the economical injustices in this country.  If people can stand in groups and fight for justice, I would hope also they can stand in groups and fight for a cure for breast cancer.

Today can never be a day of celebration for me.  Yes, I am alive after eight years.  Yes, I should have put it all behind me and moved on in my life to achieve something great.  Holding me back is the loss of my sister.  No celebration in my life has ever occurred without my sister, and so I am grateful to be alive and I am happy to provide hope and encouragement to women everywhere diagnosed with breast cancer, but I wish more than anything that I could do all of those things with my sister by my side.

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