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Painful Blessings

Cindy Edgar
Summer 2009

painfulblessingsLet me begin by telling you that there is absolutely no history of breast cancer in my family. None. Not even with the aunts who married into the family. We do, however, have fibrocystic breast disease. I was first diagnosed with fibrocystic breast disease when I was twenty-three, told to cut out caffeine, and keep doing my self exams regularly. Lumps and bumps were normal and frequent. So, when I first noticed the lump in my left breast at the age of thirty-three, I wasn't too frightened. I made an appointment with my gynecologist, who checked it and sent me on to have a mammogram, just in case. The mammogram showed a tremendous amount of fibrocystic tissue in both breasts. The area of concern was determined to be benign. Probably just a fibroid cyst. Since I was so young and there was no history of breast cancer in my family, we were to check it again in three years. That was December 2004. The lump continued to grow, and we continued to think it was fibrocystic. In May 2007, it became very painful. You could see it through my skin, and it was excruciating for anything to touch it. Even the water from the shower would take my breath and bring me to tears. "Don't worry! As long as it hurts, it's fine! Breast cancer doesn't hurt. It's probably just a cyst of an infected duct." When I could stand it no longer, I made the appointment with my gynecologist. My doctor sent me on for a mammogram after he checked the lump. The mammogram led to an ultrasound, which led to the core needle biopsy. There was really no question of what we were looking at by now. I knew I had breast cancer, and that the size of the tumor was considerable. All we needed was the pathology report from the biopsy to confirm our initial diagnosis. My mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy were performed on a Friday. That meant I would not receive the results until the following Monday. My husband and I always take our children to the beach for a family vacation during the week of Independence Day, and all of these tests were performed on the day before we were to begin our trip. We decided that we would still go and opted to receive the pathology reports by phone. We were about to begin the fight of our life, and couldn't think of a better way to start than by making as many wonderful memories with our family as possible. There were tears at times, but we appreciated every laugh and every splash in ways we never had before. Time was suddenly a very precious commodity, and things that seemed so urgent only a week before were now back in perspective. Monday came too quickly, and with it the words we dreaded so much, "The biopsy is positive." So many decisions had to be made! We prayed that God would guide us as we began the first steps. And we thanked Him every day for the pain that drove me to have the lump checked. That pain saved my life. My family and friends rallied around me, covering me with love, support, and prayers. The parents of my son's classmates and the members of our church family provided meals. My parents put their lives on hold, spending more time at my home than they did at their own. They helped take care of my children, my home, and me! As awful as it is to have cancer, I think it is much easier than having a spouse or a child (no matter how old) with cancer. The patient, in my experience, is a least on the front lines of the battle. Everyone else is left standing on the sidelines, often feeling helpless.

My diagnosis was stage III invasive ductal carcinoma with axillary lymph node involvement. The main tumor was the size of my fist, 6cm x 8cm x 5cm. I had a lateral mastectomy on the left side, and the surgeon removed thirty-three lymph nodes, seven of which tested positive. Two weeks after my surgery I began an aggressive chemotherapy treatment, followed by thirty-three radiation treatments. Thankfully, my body tolerated the treatment well, and I experienced very few complications beyond the normal side effects. I lost my hair before the second chemo treatment. My wonderful husband was the one who shaved my head for me. My cousins, all of whom live a considerable distance away, decided to help to buy my wig. Help was never more than a phone call away. The greatest damage I received from breast cancer was not physical, although that was considerable. It was emotional. I was not devastated to lose my breast. By the time I had my mastectomy, my diseased breast had become a traitor to my body, a potential killer. I never thought twice about having it removed. I just never realized how much of my identity as a woman was tied in with my hair and my breasts! It took a little while to be able to look in the mirror in the morning and see a woman, instead of a science experiment gone horribly wrong! I found Women of Hope during this time. Interacting with my "sisters in pink", many of whom were also survivors, helped me to find balance. There was always someone I could call on to help overcome a bad day, or share a laugh. They showed up at several of my treatments to keep me company, or bring a cup of coffee, or even lunch! They understood without having to be told anything. A healthy sense of humor was the best medicine for me. I am the mother of three wonderful children, and a teacher, so I spend most of my days surrounded by children between the ages of three and fourteen. I continued to work throughout my treatment, never missed a ballgame for my son, and credit the contagious joy of "my babies" with keeping my spirits high and my self-esteem in place.

It has now been nearly two years since my diagnosis and surgery, and just a little more than a year since the end of my treatments. I will soon celebrate my thirty-eighth birthday, have a great prognosis, and am filled with hope for the future. I laugh everyday, and love every moment. I thank the Lord for never letting His will take me where His grace could not reach me. I am so blessed to have my husband, my children, my parents, my extended family, my friends, and all those who have been placed in my pathway along this journey.