On November 23, 2011, I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. The malignant tumor was about two inches long and tucked into the inner curve of my right breast. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d had a biopsy several days earlier, prompted by an annual mammogram, but I was told most biopsies turn out to be benign. Instead, I got the call while shopping in Costco with my husband. In the dog food aisle, I discovered cancer wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t something that happened to other people. It was something that happened to me.
The following year and a half was a marathon of medical treatments. While my breast cancer was caught early, the kind I have is more aggressive. So my oncologist recommended we react aggressively to decrease the odds of recurrence. I underwent a lumpectomy, three months of chemotherapy, and thirty rounds of radiation. For a year, I returned to the hospital regularly for a special IV drug that targets my type of cancer.
Along the way, I lost my hair, most of my eyebrows, and all but a few eyelashes. I have a half-moon scar under my right armpit and another scar around my right nipple, which my surgeon opened up like a hatch door to get at the tumor. The Ã¢â‚¬Å“chemo fogÃ¢â‚¬Â I thought was imaginary slowed my brain to a traffic jam. Several fingernails and toenails turned black and fell off. In the end, I left the battlefield fatigued but alive. This January, I had another mammogram. It showed IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m cancer-free. The author (left) at the end of chemo in July 2012 and (right) five months after completing all treatments in September 2013
What they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t tell you about breast cancer is that the hardest part may come after it. As a lifelong risk-taker, hyper-competitive, and an admitted control freak, I met in cancer my most formidable opponent: myself. My own breasts had tried to kill me. My tits had turned traitorous. I could no longer pretend I was immortal; I was fallible, imperfect, vulnerable. During chemo, I wanted to pick up the beeping IV machine pumping toxic fluid into me and throw it against a wall. I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t. As much as I hate to admit it, cancer cowed me. It changed my cells, and it altered my sense of self, turning my bravery into anxiety, my recklessness into OCD, my braggadocio into silence.
Go back to living your life, the doctors told me at the end of treatment. Yet, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s more complex than that. I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t return to being the person I used to be because IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not that person anymore. So, who am I? IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m still figuring out the answer to that question. Following treatment, I wondered if the cancer would recur. For me, the trick is learning to ignore the anxiety. Every day, I push past the fear, telling myself thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s nothing left to lose. The disease invaded my body, and now itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s up to me to take back the territory. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s an ongoing process, with setbacks and steps forward. Some days, I feel stronger than ever. Other days, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m reminded of everything IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been through. Ultimately, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve come to understand that IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m far more vulnerable than I knew, but IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m also far more resilient than I ever believed.
Susannah Breslin is a freelance journalist.