In September, I was searching for an inexpensive but cheerful welcome mat. My daughter was about to celebrate her 12th birthday, and I sought a quick fix to spruce up our small front step.
Some outdoor items were on sale at Aldi, and I picked up a mat that read: “Thankful.” Thinking the mat had a Thanksgiving theme – which was more than two months away at the time – I considered returning it to the shelf. The word on the sturdy rug in my hands resonated with me. Overwhelmingly, I was feeling just that – “Thankful.”
It had only been a couple of weeks since I had been told I had breast cancer. The diagnosis occupied my thoughts. Right away, I was thankful to my ob-gyn for catching it early. I felt like I owed her so much. A routine mammogram just six months earlier hadn’t picked up anything, offering me the false peace of mind that I would be free and clear for a while.
I generally feel as if I have so much to be grateful for, but during this season more than ever, these feelings of thankfulness are rising to the surface. Focusing on what I’m thankful for also helps me to cope.
After receiving the diagnosis, I didn’t feel like I was hit with a ton of bricks all at once; rather, I felt like a load of bricks was hanging over my head and one or two would fall on me every other day or so. I had a list of questions. Some of them took weeks to answer after a long string of tests and meetings with doctors and health professionals – and some questions I’m still waiting to have answered. Medical appointments fill my calendar. I am sure many of you can relate. Our lives, without notice, can be turned upside down whether it’s from a serious health issue, or another life experience.
Everyone deals with these personal situations differently. At first, I couldn’t talk about it without fighting back tears, and I wanted to maintain a sense of normalcy for my family as much as possible. So, I dealt with it best by keeping the news to a tight circle of close family members and friends. I was grateful for their immediate support.
Now that I have had more time to absorb the information, I am discovering that I feel a sense of relief as I share the information with people I care about. Everyone has been touched by cancer in some way. Still, I am surprised when people tell me about a close family member who has battled the disease. I was taken aback when at least a couple of people shared with me that they, too, have been treated for cancer – even when they were quite young. I had no idea the number of people all around me who are bravely, quietly fighting the disease. Their stories have made my situation feel less frightening to me, and they have given me much hope.
Approximately 38.4 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute at www.cancer.gov.
Sadly, over the years I have lost friends and family members to cancer, and I have interviewed and written about local residents fighting the disease. I have always been in awe of their tenacity and strength, and had a difficult time trying to imagine myself in their position.
Since the end of August, I have braced myself every time a number from the hospital shows up on my cellphone’s caller ID. The news is rarely good.
The week before my 42nd birthday, during my regular annual checkup, my ob-gyn, Dr. Indira Nannapaneni, discovered a little lump in my left breast. I was shaken by the unexpected news. But I was optimistic that it would turn out to be nothing, and I could get on with my life. Surely, the mass was benign. We had just returned from vacation, I had a list of things I needed to get done, and we were getting the kids ready to start a new school year that week – cancer was the farthest thing from my mind.
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women, except for skin cancers. The average risk of a woman in the United States developing breast cancer sometime in her life is about 13 percent, according to the website at www.cancer.org. This means there is a one-in-eight chance a woman will develop breast cancer. It’s rare, but about one in a thousand men will be diagnosed with breast cancer, according to www.nationalbreastcancer.org.
As in many families, cancer runs in my family. My beloved grandmother and adventurous great-aunt, as well as my great-grandmother and many others on my mother’s side of the family tree all died after valiantly fighting cancer. My grandmother, whom I never had a chance to meet, and my sweet energetic aunt on my father’s side died from cancer. They both were diagnosed with cancer in their late 40s.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long for the results of a mammogram and ultrasound of my left breast that my ob-gyn ordered. I was told before leaving the office that the tumor, as well as an enlarged lymph node in my armpit, were concerns. I cried on the kind nurse who delivered the news. The next step was biopsies of both. A phone call two days afterward confirmed the tumor was cancerous. I didn’t cry. My kids were within earshot, and I didn’t want to worry them.
After more tests, I received a phone call telling me I carried the BRCA1 gene mutation that my Aunt Dree on my dad’s side also had carried. She died of ovarian cancer just a few years ago at 57. The gene mutation does not guarantee cancer, but it means there’s a higher risk.
The next phone call I answered was the news that the MRI showed the tumor was larger than they thought and there were smaller satellite tumors around it. That meant I was facing a mastectomy instead of the previously discussed breast-conserving lumpectomy. I cried on my husband after that call.
I didn’t want to answer the phone ever again.
My husband keeps giving me great advice to just take it day by day and deal with one thing at a time. I can’t even think of an adjective that would properly describe my unfailingly patient, strong and understanding husband who has been at my side every step of the way. When we pledged “in sickness and in health,” Robert had no idea he would have to live up to the “in sickness” part so soon. But he has. Unwaveringly. I literally could not get through this without him. The pen is mighty, but words cannot thank him enough. He will have to read my heart.
I also am so thankful to all the health professionals who have all made time for me and all of my questions. My plastic surgeon, Dr. Stephen Lopez, noted he had never been asked so many questions by a patient before. Maybe he says that to all of his patients. My husband explained to him I was a journalist. I just felt better arming myself with as much knowledge and information as I could.
October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Robert heard an interview with an author on National Public Radio one morning during his long commute to work in Cleveland. He immediately texted me and recommended a recently released book by Kate Pickert, “Radical: The Science, Cuture and History of Breast Cancer in America.” I ordered it and devoured it. The book written by a health-care journalist satisfied some of my “why” and “how” questions.
According to the American Cancer Society, the death rate from cancer in the United States has declined steadily over the past 25 years. As of 2016, the cancer death rate for men and women combined had fallen 27 percent from its peak in 1991. The drop in cancer mortality is mostly due to steady reductions in smoking and advances in early detection and treatment.
When I awoke from surgery the evening of Oct. 21, I learned from my husband the reason the single mastectomy took longer than expected was because cancer had been found in my lymph nodes. I am so thankful to Dr. Sabrina Shilad, my talented surgeon and director of the Aultman Hospital breast program, for doing an outstanding job and for taking it upon herself to be updated on the latest procedures. Even though the MRI didn’t show cancer in the lymph nodes, we knew there was still a chance. Eight were removed from my arm pit. Thankfully, we found out later that only three nodes showed cancer.
So, along with being thankful for so much, I am hopeful. Modern medicine has come a long way and research continues to advance. So much has changed in just a few years. I didn’t know I would have the option of breast reconstruction. I never thought in a million years I would walk into a doctor’s office under a sign reading “Plastic Surgery.”
At the end of last month, my 15-year-old son and I sat on our little front stoop on a pleasant October day waiting for little trick-or-treaters to trickle through the neighborhood while my husband took my daughter around. It’s not collecting Halloween candy that she cares about the most. She is crafty and enjoys the challenge of making some or most of her costume and seeing everyone else’s costumes. Brandon and I played “Hangman” and other games on the porch. The large plastic bowl of candy was placed in front of us on the “Thankful” mat I had purchased the month before. I was thankful my son never looked at me once any differently. I had been home almost a week since the surgery. A giant pink “Comfy” blanket sweater that my husband bought me enveloped me on the porch chair. Part of the purchase benefits Susan G. Komen.
Telltale signs of my recent surgery were hidden fairly well thanks to the bulky sweater. This included the bulb drain attached to 24 inches of tubing that poked out from my left side, and an ostrich egg-sized motor I carried around that was attached to more tubing. Talk about technology. Get this – the motor provided a vacuum seal for the newfangled dressing taped securely over my chest. As I said, technology, medicine and aspects of detection, surgery, treatment and recovery have come a long way.
I also appreciate where I live. My mom, who is a nurse in Canada, has texted me words of support every single day. She is amazed and impressed at how quickly appointments have been set up and I have completed procedures. It scares me to think that if I lived in another country I may still be on a waiting list for surgery and tests.
Neither of my kids nor my husband have let on that they’re overly concerned or fearful for my prognosis. I am extremely thankful for that. I want life to continue on as normally as it possibly can. My sweet and smart family seems to be 100 percent confident I’m going to beat this and I’m going to get past it. They are fine talking about it as well. But when tears begin to prick my eyes and I voice some of my fears for treatments and more surgery I’m facing in the upcoming months, Anna says resolutely but with affection, “Oh Mom, it could be worse.” I smile and instantly feel better. She is absolutely right.
We all are battling something. That’s why it’s so important to always be patient and kind with everyone. I am praying for strength and a sense of relief and calmness for everyone out there working hard to overcome something that may seem insurmountable. I find it helps to stay focused. It helps to take everything day by day (yes, my husband gives the best advice). It helps to write things down. It helps to share what I’m going through and learn about what others are going through. Most of all, it helps to count my blessings – at the end of every day. I have an outstanding medical team and supportive family and friends. I can’t say enough how grateful I am to work for Kurt and Heather Immler who never fail to be understanding. I have an awesome job working for an amazing growing newspaper in this corner of Wayne County. I didn’t grow up here but I have fallen in love with the communities of Dalton and Kidron. I have the honor to write about people with passion and heart who do remarkable inspiring things every day.
For all of this and more during this week of Thanksgiving and every week, I am thankful.
Christina McCune is managing editor of The Dalton Gazette & Kidron News