I just passed the five-year mark since my diagnosis of Stage 3 Her 2 Positive breast cancer– over 6 cm tumor the size of a tennis ball, with 9 positive lymph nodes, and a heart attack from chemo thrown in for good measure. I ponder how I got to this point. Was it because of the mastectomy, the chemotherapy, the drug Herceptin, the radiation, or the Aromatase Inhibitor drugs? Of course. But coupled with the great medical care that I received, were the hopeful words of my physicians. Those words are still played over in my head as a mantra every single day, but especially when the fears of recurrence voices start screaming at me. Their words of hope were the greatest gifts given to me.
My first experience with this power of words was on the day of my diagnosis. Dr. Tara Breslin, a surgical oncologist then at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Breast Care Center delivered all the bad news to me: mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, Herceptin and more. Then she looked me in the eye with great compassion and said in a positive manner: “We can cure you.” I must say, I did not believe her. But her words were the only thing I had to cling to as I began to comprehend all that faced me. I had those words permanently adhered to my dining room wall in 10 inch high letters which I can see from the majority of rooms in my home. During the darkest days of wanting to die and give up during treatment, I would just sit at my dining room table and stare up at those words. Now, five years later, I still look at them countless times a day, read them, and ponder their meaning. Those words have become part of my home, a part of me, and an ongoing prayer.
The next words were from my Oncologist, Dr. Daniel F. Hayes, also at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Breast Care Center. Dr. Hayes honestly told me that my cancer was a tough cancer. He did not mince words or pull any punches with me. I have always been grateful for that as well. But his words that play through my head every day since he spoke them to me are these:
- The cold, snowy February day I told Dr. Hayes I wanted to quit Adriamycin Cytoxan Chemo as it was too hard for me, and I would rather die is etched in my memory. Dr. Hayes held my hand in a doctorly fashion, told me he did not have firsthand knowledge of what I was experiencing, but told me an inspirational story about a former patient. He then told me that “I won’t let you quit.” I then blurted out “I don’t have any control over my life” which was a huge issue for me because I like control. He responded, “Don’t worry about it. I am in control of your life.” At that moment I let go of the need to control, and I knew I would complete treatment and somehow gather the courage to get through it. I thank God every day I did not quit chemo.
- Because of Herceptin, I had permanent heart valve damage from the drug. My Ejection Fraction dropped from a normal 65 to a very low 29. My EF never improved, and Dr. Hayes had to tell me that I would not be able to resume Herceptin which should have been for 12 months, and I only had 3 months of the proven miracle drug for Her 2 Positive Breast Cancer patients. Dr. Hayes then said the words that have played over and over in my head since the day he spoke them to me: “I do not want you to spend one minute worrying that you did not have enough Herceptin. God did not say exact the dosage that you needed. I believe you have had enough and will survive this.” I remember the words like they were spoken to me yesterday because not only did I write them down sitting in the parking lot before I left the cancer center, I repeat them to myself like a prayer every day.
- After my diagnosis, my 80 year old mom was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer, then my only sibling, my sister, was also diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Of course, we went through genetic testing. On the appointment with Dr. Hayes reviewing the results of those tests that I had a genetic mutation called Chek 2, Dr. Hayes said: “I believe you are cured. We just have to keep it that way.”
The moral of my story is — choose your physicians carefully. Their words of hope play an integral part in your healing and surviving cancer. I cannot begin to tell you the number of cancer survivors I have had a conversation with while sitting in the cancer center that told me the same thing: “I was told I had months to live after my cancer diagnosis and to get my affairs in order. I switched doctors. My new doctors gave me hope and treated me. Now I am 5, 10, 15, 20 years out and cancer free.”
We all know of those miraculous stories. You play a role in it! Make sure you have the right physicians for you! It is worth every mile driven and every sacrifice you and your family have to make to find them!
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