In August of 2000 I did my first triathlon, an event that involves a swim, a bike and a run, all at varying distances. My husband (Jaime’s Dad) and I have completed probably close to 100 tri events since then, including my first Half Ironman distance in May of 2005. The Half Iron distance is a 1.2 mile swim (this particular event was an ocean swim in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City Beach), a 56 mile bike, and a half marathon which is a 13.1 mile run. I remember laughing while standing at the 7 a.m. start telling our friends, “see you for lunch!!” Five and one half hours later, indeed lunchtime, I crossed the finish line, happy to have completed this distance and saying “never again!!”
Two weeks later I was sitting in a radiologist’s office being told after a screening mammogram I had “calcifications that appear to be cancerous” and which probably needed to be biopsied. In complete disbelief and trying to put on a brave face, I called my husband and, in my usual caretaker way, tried to convince him it was nothing – just routine, probably nothing. I also remember thinking, “how can I be in the best shape of my life, having just completed a Half Ironman, and now have breast cancer?”
This Isn't Happening
The biopsy was not just nothing. It did indeed show the cells were cancerous.
To go from aggressively training for and competing in a Half Ironman event to sitting in a breast surgeon’s office being told about your options for breast cancer treatment is beyond imaginable. I do recall listening with half my mind saying “this isn’t happening, this can’t be happening” and the other half trying to focus on what was being said.
“Do you want to consider a lumpectomy? If so, radiation and chemotherapy will need to follow the initial procedure.” (Oh my God, this isn’t happening.) “A regimen of radiation therapy will require you to present for treatment five days a week for six weeks.” (Oh my God, this isn’t happening. I can’t do that. I have work and small children and playing the piano for the Church choirs, and, and, and).
“If however you consider a mastectomy and the cancer has not spread, you will likely not need radiation or chemotherapy.”
I remember leaving the surgeon’s office completely overwhelmed and immediately dissolving into tears. There was no way I was going to survive this.
Reasons To Live
But . . . I had a lot of reasons to live. I have an amazing husband who never once left my side during this entire ordeal. And there were many, many days when it was an extraordinary ordeal. And I have two beautiful daughters, 12 and 13 at the time, who needed me to not only survive but to be there for them long after this ordeal had ended.
I remember when we broke the news to Jaime and Jennifer. They started crying, saying “Oh my God, you’re going to die!” We had recently lost a neighbor, the Mother of a friend of theirs, to leukemia, and so there only experience with cancer was the ultimate outcome was to die.
“No, no, I’m not going to die,” I said, totally not knowing if I was lying to them or telling the truth.
I did ultimately choose a mastectomy and reconstruction which brought with it its own distress and anguish. And I will tell you breast cancer is a never-ending diagnosis. And it is certainly a “one day at a time” disease. It took one entire year to complete all of the surgeries and procedures that were the result of my decision and I remember thinking at the end of that year, had you told me what I would have to live through, I would have quit before I started.
But I did start. And I didn’t quit. And I survived.
Six months after my initial diagnosis following a screening mammogram, I was told I had “calcifications that appeared to be benign” in the other breast and the horror began again. The radiologist recommended just watching and waiting but I was much too panicked and insisted on another biopsy. The calcifications were benign this time.
They tell you after five years from diagnosis the likelihood of more cancer is remote. But I never stop wondering. And each mammogram or MRI that comes back “clean” is cause for celebration.
The good news for all of us in this room is that efforts such as the one you are undertaking this weekend through ZTA’s Race to Live give us reason to celebrate. By bringing attention to breast cancer and to early detection, you are not only raising money and awareness, you are actually saving lives. Screening mammograms are now done on women such as me who have absolutely no symptoms in order to find the disease early. And early detection leads to far more successful treatments. Research shows the five-year survival rate for localized breast cancer that is detected and treated early, which is what I had, is 98%.
You Are Stronger Than You Think
According to the American Cancer Society, almost 300,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and over 40,000 will die just in this year alone.
So now they call me a survivor. And yes, by the Grace of God, I am still here. And I have not let cancer define who I am. But I have learned a few things.
I have learned we are all much stronger than we think we are. Looking back on that year of diagnoses and biopsies and surgeries and procedures and more surgeries – I wonder now, how did I ever make it through? I know now I made it through by taking each day as it comes, one by one, and by looking for the positive moments in each and every day. We may think it’s the grand events in our lives that make them meaningful but I tend to think it is the series of much smaller moments that define us.
And those defining moments hopefully allow us to make connections with those around us as I believe our connections with others is what makes us human and is what sustains us. At first, we were reluctant to let any friends or neighbors know I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. But had we not, we would have missed out on many defining moments and on all the warmth and love that came flooding our way. I have a very gracious boss and employer who also provided amazing support every step of the way, who happens to also be one of your corporate sponsors. I believe those around us want to connect, especially in the moments when we most need the help and support.
Our neighbors organized the delivery of dinners every night, a gesture that was an unbelievable salvation. And it brought happiness to the girls who eagerly anticipated what would be in the cooler on the front porch each evening. I almost think they regretted when the dinners ended and it was back to Mom’s cooking!
And finally, we are not defined by our physical appearance. This is what has perhaps taken me the longest – realizing I am not damaged goods but am still the same person I was before being diagnosed . . . and maybe, just maybe I am an even better person.
Six years after completing treatment, my husband and I embarked on the greatest physical challenge we have ever attempted – The Ironman. The Ironman is a 2.4 mile swim (our event was again in the ocean off Panama City Beach), a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run which is a marathon. Contemplating the event the night before was, to say the least, overwhelming. We had never put all of these events together in one day – how in the world was this going to happen? But happen it did and we survived, both successfully completing the race. Completed it just the way I survived breast cancer – one swim buoy at a time, one aid station on the bike course at a time, and one mile at a time on the run course.
I would like to close with a quote from David Letterman who said
“There’s only one requirement of any of us, and that is to be courageous. Because courage, as you might know, defines all other human behavior. And, I believe – because I’ve done a little of this myself – pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing.”