Ever since I was diagnosed with breast cancer a number of years ago, October has even more meaning for me. Not for the fall foliage—which I love—but because I believe in the mission of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Sponsored by national public service organizations, professional medical associations, and government agencies, it aims to make sure women all across America have the information they need to identify breast cancer early and take all of the steps needed to fight it.
This year, Harvard Health Publishing, where I am the Chief Editor of Books, offers a unique contribution to Breast Cancer Awareness Month: our newest book, Hope and Healing for Your Breast Cancer Journey. This book, part of the Chicken Soup for the Soul Health series, weaves the stories of more than 25 women diagnosed with breast cancer and their family members with practical information about managing a support team, getting through treatment, healing body and soul, and more. I was honored to have been asked to provide the medical information for this book.
To promote health and healing, Harvard Health Publishing is giving away five copies of our books about breast cancer every Friday in October on Twitter, using the hashtag #BreastCancerAwareness. Today’s giveaway book is Hope and Healing for Your Breast Cancer Journey on Twitter. In future weeks, the titles will be Living Through Breast Cancer, The Breast Cancer Survivors Fitness Plan, and You Can Heal Yourself.
To give you an idea of the stories in Hope and Healing for Your Breast Cancer Journey, here is a moving one from Linda A. Fiorenzano, a project and risk management professional who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36.
I Miss My Breasts
by Linda A. Fiorenzano
Wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around my head, I stared at my body in the mirror and realized how much I missed my breasts. I always wondered if this day might come. After being diagnosed with Stage 1 invasive breast cancer six years earlier, I opted for a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. The decision was a difficult one to accept and it made me angry, but at the same time, I felt clear about it after seeing what happened to my mother and my sister.
Cancer had always plagued my family. My mother had a single mastectomy only to die three years after her breast cancer metastasized to her bones. After a nine-year illness, my dad died of lymphoma. My sister — who was also my best friend — chose a lumpectomy and her breast cancer metastasized to her liver and lungs a year later. As if not to be left out, my own cancer diagnosis came along — and by that time I had seen enough. When confronting my own treatment options, I chose to be aggressive. I wanted to survive for a very long time.
Not everyone agreed with my choice. I went to see one plastic surgeon used by some of the women in my support group because, as they said, “He makes breasts perfect enough for naked models.” We discussed my family history and I told him my desire for bi-lateral reconstruction.
“Cancer on the left side only, right?” he asked as he read my chart.
“Yes, but my mother died after a single mastectomy and my sister…”
“You know breasts are important to men, don’t you?” he interrupted.
What an insensitive jerk! I mean, right? I sobbed as I told this story to my significant other. Michael agreed. “Yeah, the guy’s a jerk. Everything’s going to be okay. You’ll find another surgeon.”
I did find another surgeon I trusted. My strong family history gave me the strength and courage to follow an aggressive treatment plan when I received my own breast cancer diagnosis. I refused to believe medical journals and doctors’ opinions that stated a lumpectomy, radiation and chemotherapy offered the same survival rate as a bi-lateral mastectomy. I only believed removing my breasts and enduring extra chemotherapy meant no more breast cancer. What I didn’t know was that while I would remain cancer-free for the next six years, what I believed to be a committed relationship with a loving and compassionate man would disintegrate. I never considered — nor would I have believed — that my decision to remove my breasts would tear us apart.
I dried my hair and got dressed in a brown velour sweat suit and soft white T-shirt. I stared through the sliding doors beyond my balcony overlooking the city. As I sat on my sofa in my new home, single and alone, I wondered if I made the biggest mistake of my life. Could that arrogant plastic surgeon have been right? Would I ever find a man to love me? Without natural breasts? Even after breast reconstruction, I never felt sexy. And yet, I still believed I made the best decision to increase my chances of survival. I slept better every night knowing I had decreased my chances of breast cancer coming back. I didn’t know if I would ever have an intimate relationship with a man again… but I was well-rested.
I fixed a hot cup of tea with honey, and opened my laptop to work on my Match.com profile. I needed a byline, so I chose something I honestly believed: I am a work in process. I still believe that: I have the potential to learn at least one new thing every single day and my life will change in some way because of it. I have often wondered if the concept of “making a mistake” even makes sense when talking about life decisions. If it is such a mistake, then how come I have always learned something from it? If a situation is such a negative event, how come it is teaching me a positive lesson?
After losing three members of my immediate family within a seven-year period, instead of living in a state of depression and feeling defeated, I found a way to be optimistic. I found a way to survive. My philosophy crystallized: everything in life happens for a reason, we’re just not always given the reason at the same time as the thing.
Philosophies don’t have to be complex to work. In fact, the simpler they are, the easier they may be to follow. If I had insight into the end result of all of my possible options when faced with a decision, then I could choose the one with the best outcome for me. But that isn’t going to happen, so I do my best. I gather up all the relevant data, process it using my own brainpower — which is constantly being fueled by everything in my past and present experiences — and I make the decision I believe will provide me with the best outcome… and a lesson for the next decision. I try to make the decision that I won’t regret.
The best advice I can give to anyone is, “Choose the option that you won’t regret.”
Nine years after my original breast cancer diagnosis, I scheduled surgery to replace my original and expired saline breast implants with silicone ones. Before the surgery, my doctor ordered a breast MRI as part of a routine oncology appointment. The results of the MRI showed enlarged lymph nodes and prompted a PET scan. If you’ve ever endured a PET scan, you must know the exact feeling I had and the thoughts that swirled around in my brain. I thought about my family history and all the places in my body where the cancer could be lurking.
One week later, with sweaty palms and my heart racing, I sat in the exam room waiting for the results of the PET scan. The doctor entered the room followed by a resident and I thought, today must be the “how to deliver bad news” lesson. The doctor smiled and blurted out, “You’re fine. The scan is perfectly negative. In fact, it’s the most boring scan I have ever seen.”
I let out an elephant-sized sigh and shook my head from side to side in disbelief. I didn’t believe him at first and then it all made perfect sense. I stared at Pete, the man who just six months earlier had gotten down on one knee overlooking the Tuscan hillside and asked me to marry him, and I finally realized the reason why all the painful things had to happen. I lost my mother to spend more time with my father and I lost my father to get closer to my sister. I lost my sister so I’d learn that my previous boyfriend never really loved me. I lost my breasts to understand the meaning of unconditional love — because after losing my parents and my sister, unconditional love is what I had finally found again, with Pete.
Reprinted with permission of Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC. Copyright 2012.