You’d think that ‘living without breast cancer’ wouldn’t actually be a thing, especially for someone who hasn’t ever had breast cancer. But oddly enough, it is. At least, for me.
When my mom passed away, she was 29 years old. I was just shy of four. In my early years, this didn’t really phase me. Even if the same cancerous fate awaited me, 29 was a long way off — until suddenly it wasn’t. Entering my twenties was a total game changer. The countdown had suddenly begun. Rational or not, I waited for breast cancer to show up. I didn’t live in fear. The prospect of cancer didn’t make me sad. I wasn’t remotely dramatic about it. It just seemed obvious that it would come and get me, as it had come to get my mother.
I took comfort in knowing how far science had come since my mom had been diagnosed. I talked openly with friends about how I’d fight the battle as best I could. And I joked about how I’d gladly trade in my modestly sized breasts for a more substantial serving if a double mastectomy was ever in order. (I’m a firm believer in seeking out the silver lining.) I also acknowledged very pragmatically that I might never live to see 40, and I was ok with that, too. Until I became a mother.
Breast cancer isn’t for moms. Or anyone, for that matter.
I was 35 when I brought Lucy into this world; six years older than my own mom had been when she passed away, but not old enough to consider myself out of the woods. Cancer wasn’t an option. I mean, as moms, we have an essential role to play. Now, instead of cancer being the ‘given’ that I had come to terms with, it was something I lived in constant fear of.
Because of my family history, my family doctor referred me to an excellent breast cancer clinic when I was in my mid-twenties. Twice a year, I would visit this clinic for hands-on examinations. Once a year, I’d go for mammograms and/or ultrasounds. While one would have thought that this diligent monitoring would have put my mind at rest, it actually heightened my anxiety. Twice a year, I anticipated ‘getting the news.’ Worse, I anticipated having to share that news with those I loved. It was always a relief when the bad news didn’t come, but no sooner had relief set in, it would start to build in anticipation of the next appointment.
In 2003, I nearly had breast cancer.
Following some less than perfect imaging of my right breast, I was called in for a needle biopsy. Just a precaution, they said, to make sure that what they were seeing wasn’t cancer. A couple of weeks later I got a call from my doctor. The biopsy had revealed atypical ductal hyperplasia (ADH). In a nutshell, ADH refers to abnormal cell growth. While this abnormality itself doesn’t mean breast cancer is present, it does have some traits that are commonly found in pre-cancer and it is therefore linked to an increased risk of getting breast cancer later on.
I was petrified. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing preliminary about this investigation. They were simply going through the motions so that they could confirm I did indeed have cancer and begin my treatment plan. Here we go, I thought. They scheduled a lumpectomy. ADH was once again detected, reaffirming that I was at high risk for breast cancer. My doctor recommended that I take Tamoxifin but I was paralyzed with fear.
Tamoxifen can help lower a high-risk woman’s chance of developing breast cancer.
A drug that can help stave off cancer. That’s gotta be good, right? You’d think, but still, it took me five years to fill my prescription. Why? I understood that five years of consistent drug use could potentially buy me 10 cancer-free years. Based on this information, I made some calculations. If I were to start taking Tamoxifen right away, Lucy would be eight by the time I was done. I’d enjoy reduced risk until she turned 18 and then BOOM. Cancer would come and get me. She’d be neither child nor adult. This wouldn’t be a good time to get cancer.
If, however, I was to wait until she was nine, I’d be done with Tamoxifen by the time she turned 14, and she could more or less count on me to see her through to 24. A much better alternative, so that’s what I opted for.
Living without breast cancer is way better than living with it, but it’s still one helluva ride.
For me, it appears this ride is finally over. Today, I went to see my breast cancer specialist. It turns out I’m not very special any more, and I couldn’t be happier. I have outlived my mother by 22 years. She was pre-menopausal when she was diagnosed. As for me, I am now post-menopausal. I am not my mother and I am no longer waiting for her fate to play out in my life. Furthermore, it’s been 14 years since those atypical cells showed up in my right breast. They’ve had plenty of time to turn into cancer, and they’ve chosen not to. I am thankful for that.
I am no longer living without cancer. I’m just living. Period. I am healthy, happy and optimistic. And hey, my paternal grandmother lived until she was 103, so why not me?
Have you lost a parent?
Are you afraid that their destiny may become yours? If so, I hope this story encourages you to park your fear. Be in this moment. Live your best life. And put away lots of money for your retirement. Plan to be here for a very, very long time because it may just happen. x
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