Today I read that someone had taken a poll asking breast cancer patients, “When Do You Become a Breast Cancer Survivor?” The poll takers were offered options: at diagnosis, after surgery, at the end of treatment, after your 5-year checkup, or whenever you say you are a survivor. More than half of all responses favored the idea that You are a survivor when you say you are – not based on the opinion of others, not measured by medical milestones, not determined by your culture – but based solely on your own declaration.
On October 10, 2011 my family doctor of 32 years, who has been part friend, all doctor, called to tell me the results of my breast biopsy. Her words were, “Denise, it isn’t good.” She didn’t use those words lightly, even though her words might not have sounded very scholarly. Through the years, she has called me countless times to give me test results. Her voice was full of emotion this time, on the verge of tears. I asked her if I was Stage IV. She said, “I don’t know as yet” which meant it was a very real possibility. From that moment on, I knew I was in for a rough ride and that I would be fighting for my life.
A few days later, and two days before I went to the University of Michigan for my official diagnosis, I went to our family cottage to close it up for the winter. When I arrived, even more emotion gripped me as I remembered my father being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer also in October and by the time we reopened the cottage in the Spring, he was gone. It was a horrible time for my family to reopen the cottage without my beloved dad present.
So through the years, I have taken my dad’s place and became the person to close the cottage. Thinking of my own cancer diagnosis, I wrote notes to my family members so they would know what to do in the Spring if I wasn’t there to do it — turn on the electrical breakers, test the air conditioner, turn on the dishwasher switch. Through every note, I sobbed. Many times I would have to start the note over because it had gotten ruined from my tears. By the time I was finished, I had notes all over the house. And in one last note, I told my family how much I loved all of them and was sorry I had to leave them.
After diagnosis with Stage III Breast Cancer, going through surgery and now still going through Chemotherapy, I forgot about the notes left at the cottage. A few weeks ago, on a beautiful, sunny Spring day, my sister asked if I wanted to take a drive to the cottage. When we arrived, I unlocked the front door, walked in, and saw the notes. My sister followed behind me. She took one look at the notes and started to cry. We hugged full of gratitude that I was still here!
I now realize the day my sister and I visited the cottage on that Spring afternoon was the day I became a Breast Cancer Survivor because I say I am. I didn’t think I would make it through the winter, but I did! Rejoice with me!