Surviving Breast Cancer: 24 Years Later

“The good news is, you’re a candidate for a lumpectomy!” With those ten words, my surgeon told me I had breast cancer. I didn’t understand the “good news” part. But he cheerfully handed me a brochure filled with pictures of lumpectomies, mastectomies and reconstructed breasts. Then he told me to go home and come back in five days for my surgery.

I spent the weekend moving the couch around my living room, convinced that Death was lurking in the corner. I shook with terror. Why me? I was in my early 30s, and back in those days (24 years ago) that was very young for breast cancer. It isn’t any longer.

My mother had breast cancer. My mother’s sister had breast cancer. At the age of 20-something I became conscious of my own risk. I stopped eating meat, kept extremely active and made my doctor palpate my breasts because I knew I didn’t do it well.

I always liked my breasts. I had given them a good time, and I felt there was something cruel about looking at my breasts as potential killers after all the fun we had had together. But one day it happened. I was diagnosed and treated with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

Flash forward 24 years. I am alive and well. I am no longer angry at my breasts for betraying me. I was left mostly intact (the lumpectomy was on my larger breast; we all have one larger and one smaller breast.) This caused my surgeon to rock out with another witticism; “Well now your breasts will be the same size.”

I have some thoughts I want to share with anybody going through breast cancer.

You will very probably survive. Survival rates are way up from when I was diagnosed, and under normal circumstances, 89 percent of breast cancer patients will be fine [PDF].

You did not get breast cancer because you did something wrong. The old crappola about getting cancer from “being depressed” or “being negative” has been pretty much debunked. Susan Sontag eloquently pointed out that breast cancer is a disease, not a punishment, and not contagious.

It is likely that it is environmentally related. When I was diagnosed, I was told at the time that 1 in 15 women were expected to get it in their lifetime. The figure is now 1 in 8. This isn’t because all those women are grouchy or unhappy. It is because of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the foods we eat. Knowing the environment is causing some cancers can be a good thing: there’s a lot of information about simple ways to eat better that don’t mean you can’t have chocolate ever again. You don’t need to be perfect or go to a mountain top. But you can eat more healthy foods.

And read labels. If your dairy products and meat have bovine growth hormone (BGH) in it, you don’t want it in your body. You’re not a cow. And if the cow had a choice, she wouldn’t want it in her body either! The best way to stay healthy is to be aware of the reality, and not let it scare you too much.

How did I survive? I went to a Yoruba priestess who “read” me and told me I would be fine. I chose to believe her. I went to an acupuncturist to re-build my ch’i. He treated me once and told me my ch’i was strong and healthy. I believed  him. I wrote a play and made sure it was funny and mysterious, because life is funny and mysterious. Thousands of women got to see the play–many at no cost. Helping other women helped me. My life partner and my mother told me every day that I was going to survive. I believed them. I found sources of strength, especially my cats, who never doubted for a minute that I would still be their mom. I definitely believed them. Animals don’t lie.

Photo from Flickr user twodolla under Creative Commons 2.0.

Comments

  1. I was diagnosed 15 years ago at 29 and had a reoccurrence at 35. My 44th birthday is next month and I just had my second chid, a daughter. I was surprised to live to 30 but have made my peace with cancer. I too believe in believing in life and putting one foot in front of the other. I had bilateral mastectomies and reconstructions and have come to view my new breasts as normal. I can't say that I am happy to have had cancer but I can say I cannot imagine my life without it.

  2. Thank you. One year and counting!

  3. I am a three-year survivor. I really needed to hear this from another survivor: "You did not get breast cancer because you did something wrong." Thanks. Your 24 years give me hope.

  4. Way to go, Susan! You are a tremendous positive influence in the world of cancer/music/writing/healing. I am happy to see this very personal blog! You turned a frightening experience into something beautiful. Which takes me to one of my favorite quotes by the poet, Walt Whiman, “And I will show you that there is no imperfection in the present, and can be none in the future. And I will show you that whatever happens to anybody, it may be turned to beautiful results.” Thank you!

  5. I just had my 5-year follow-up for ovarian cancer (I'm not cut loose from oncology appointments) and it's been 3 years since my own lumpectomy (not cancer). Woo hoo! Every day is a blessing. We are not defined by cancer, but it is life-changing.

  6. Thank you, Susan, for your refreshingly clear-eyed and surprisingly humorous take on the ironies of the breast cancer journey, the well-documented influence of the mind-body connection and the importance of a strong support system — of both the two-legged and four-legged, furry variety — in the making of a survivor. As a recent survivor myself, I too have found many occasions for laughter on this long and winding road, sometimes to my doctors' chagrin. (Me: "I've been felt up by more people since my diagnosis than in all my prior years combined." Cue pained grin from my male, kind, but very old-fashioned surgeon. Me: "Hello? Is this thing on?"). I consider it the best medicine.

  7. Thank you so much for this Susan. As a woman with a breast cancer in her family, it's never far from my mind. Thank you for your insights, your compassion and your strength. I'm sure they touch the women who see your work!

  8. Nancy Mikelsons says:

    Susan: as a cancer free (I hope forever) person I can only say that the comments above are the most wonderful, human, feminine tribute to this blog. I have seen performances of your "breast cancer" play and wish there could be funding it keep it on a permanent road show status. It is the single most accessible, moving and funny piece of theatre on a serious subject that has been written yet. Here's wishing you and all the commenters who took the time to write another twenty-four years of good health and great spirit and courage.

  9. I'm sorry to be the party pooper here, but the actual statistics are not as upbeat. Twenty percent of women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer will experience a metastasis. There are 160,000 women in the U.S. living with advanced breast cancer. Articles like these don't help the cause. Women should be frightened! We are not children. We don't need pink ribbons and constant reassurance. We need to get activated and angry so that we push researchers to figure out why so many women are getting breast cancer and so many women are dying! Let's not forget that 40,000 women a year are dying of breast cancer. These are women of all ages, women in their 30s and 40s and fifties and sixties. Women with toddlers and teenagers and women with grandchildren. Single mothers who leave behind orphans. Where is the anger or sense of emergency? Why are there articles like this once again saying that all is OK, I survived, you will too. Check the stats. Younger women tend to have more aggressive breast cancer than older women, and thus their survival chances are a bit lower. You were extremely lucky. But I know many many women who were diagnosed in their thirties who did not make it 24 years. And it wasn't because they didn't do all they could to survive. You need to back your sisters who are dying not gloat that you were lucky to survive. We cannot ignore those who are dying! Nothing will be done to stop these deaths if people like you who have the energy do not help and live with the illusion that a breast cancer diagnosis is not a call to action. Don't forget that no one knows why YOU survived and others died. No one can tell a woman for sure that they will not experience a metastasis. We don't know how to stop the increase in breast cancer diagnoses and we still have pretty primitive treatments that we are not sure work. So much is still unknown about breast cancer, we need to work real hard to push researchers into answering the essential questions of breast cancer. Stop being part of this odd conspiracy to lull women into a false sense of comfort, so that they do not protest and stop buying makeup and hair dye and stop buying vegetables leaden with insecticide and protest in the streets demanding a cure. If women who have survived breast cancer don't do this, we're all in trouble.

    • Dear kvolpe,
      Early breast cancer survivors shouldn’t be constantly made to feel responsible for lobbying. Not all the time. I might live for another 5 years, I might live for another 50. I like to read the stories from long term survivors. It gives me hope.

  10. I am so glad that so many of your commentors saw your positive attitude as a good thing. it does not take away from the need for more funds into research, and yes, the numbers are still appalling, but positive, upbeat reports are still welcome by those going through an unimaginable horror as well as by those of us lucky enough to escape (at least, so far, for me). I have lost friends and relatives to this, and seen others survive. I know you are not just telling everyone 'don't worry' that they too will be ok. You continue to fight to get the word out for the need for more funding so that more of our sisters will, in fact, be free from this life-threatening disease.

  11. The play Susan refers to was “Club Termina”. I saw it many times and was moved not only by the play itself but by how the audience reacted afterward. It was cathartic and healing. Cheers, Brian

  12. Qigong—Chinese mind/body exercises–helped me immensely in my successful battles with four bouts of supposedly terminal bone lymphoma cancer in the early nineties. I practiced standing post meditation, one of the most powerful forms of qigong–as an adjunct to chemotherapy, which is how it should always be used.
    Qigong kept me strong in many ways: it calmed my mind–taking me out of the fight-or-flight syndrome, which pumps adrenal hormones into the system that could interfere with healing. The deep abdominal breathing pumped my lymphatic system—a vital component of the immune system. In addition, qigong energized and strengthened my body at a time when I couldn't do Western exercise such as weight-lifting or jogging–the chemo was too fatiguing. And it empowered my will and reinforced it every day with regular practice. In other words, I contributed to the healing process, instead of just depending solely on the chemo and the doctors. Clear 14 years and still practicing!

    Bob Ellal
    Author, ‘Confronting Cancer with the Qigong Edge’

  13. Thanks for your hopeful and informative article, Susan!

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