Saturday, January 9, 2016

Cancer is too real to be ignored

I am a breast cancer survivor. It's been eighteen years since the day of that discovery when I found myself having to take it all in then to find myself in the midst of a number of surgeries, radiation treatments,a prolonged chemotherapy  regime, hair loss, nausea, and a plethora of diagnostic tests and biopsies to follow with the threat that my invasive cancer would return with a vengeance. I also came to realize we don't go through these times alone, for everything about our lives affect the lives of others. 
Even though years have passed since my first cancer revelation, the concern and fears for a return or a new cancer is in the back of both the doctors' minds as well as we who go through it. It has not been an easy time for me, for my husband, or for my family. We, unfortunately, continue to live with the possibility that mom and wife might once again have to go through the difficult experience and that other members of our family might be about to go through the same. If it wasn't for God and His grace I know it would have been much more difficult for us all. 
Recently, I discovered I am also a BRCA 1+ mutant.  It suggests that because of the numerous other members of my family both near and far who have gone through their own cancer experiences, I am not the  only one who carries this gene mutation. It appears to be rampant in my family's history.
We all carry the BRCA gene, I don't know if you knew. The gene itself is a normal thing, but the BRCA 1+ and 2+ mutations are not. The list of mutations that are related to BRCA add to the abnormalities we have to face. These particular ones run in high risk families including my own. The mutation along with a list of those others that surround it puts a woman and a man at very high risk for future cancers --  breast cancers, ovarian cancers, pancreatic cancers, several other forms of cancer. 
Learning of this has made me realize I have more likely than not passed along this mutation to my children, My children, in turn, could have passed it along to theirs. I've put my children and children's children at the same risk as me. I have put my daughter at risk for I have recently learned, she, too, has discovered she has also joined the BRCA1+ family.
Because I carry the BRCA mutation, and I've already had cancer once, I made a choice I thought I would never have to make. After going through my last open biopsy this previous Summer (I've lost count of how many I've gone through over the last several years -- Really there are too many to count), I finally decided enough was enough. It was then I decided to be tested; it was then I chose to get a (survivor) prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction as well as the prophylactic hysterectomy that would lower my risk for ovarian cancer and be necessary regardless of the difficulties i might have by going through the experiences. (Reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy is something completely different from augmentive surgery which is more for the purpose of aesthetics' sake).  
I knew this wouldn't be easy for me or for my husband. I knew there might be difficulties for me during this process, and indeed I was correct about that. I'm no spring chicken anymore. I have this uncanny way of catching all the side effects one might catch in the process of cancer elimination. Because of past radiation and chemotherapy, infections abound inside my body (fun) but that's another story.
I will get through this and I am blessed to have a husband whose care for me has shown itself in the ways he's cared for me through this trying time. And for the sake oft my family  I know this is right. At least this can be one area of my life that will remove the fear my family has that I might get breast cancer again or ovarian cancer as has happened to so many others in this family of mine through the last several decades. This experience will take one step of worry off the table. 
With the prayers of loved ones, God can deal with the rest as it comes. He always has and always will.
For my family and likely for yours, I'm sure you will agree, cancer is too real to be ignored. 
My author friend Claire Fullerton has written a timely feature which deals with the very cancer of which I speak. I believe her feature is appropriate for anyone reading this now who've experienced cancer in their families. I hope it will minister to you as it has today to me. 

One of Us Has Breast Cancer
by Claire Fullerton

After a year and three months, we're just now coming up for air.  Surprisingly, it has taken this long to rise to the top, for we have been overwhelmed ever since we got the news that one of us has breast cancer.  I come from the south and grew up in a tight-knit circle of friends that can best be likened to the workings of a bee hive, so when something happens to one of us, in many ways, it happens to us all. 

It's funny the way the unexpected presents itself, how you never see it coming and how you can be going along with your life, making your plans and assume that they're going to be a certainty by virtue of the fact that you've made them.  That's exactly where things stood when we got the news about Tama.

One of us from our enclave in the South now lives in Sun Valley, Idaho.  Her name is Louise and she's the larger than life, funny one.  Louise has a sense of humor that literally reduces her to tears, and it tends to be contagious. She's also the organizer and plan maker who got it in her head one day to have Tama and me fly out to her home in the mountains for an extended weekend.  Tama and I immediately fell in line: our husbands were alerted, our dates were set, and our plane tickets were secured. Tama and I were on our way; she from her home in Memphis and I from mine in L.A.  Eight days before our scheduled departure, my phone rang.  I looked at the display illuminating Louise's name and thought, "No doubt some sort of instruction is coming," but it turned out that wasn't the case.  When I picked up the phone, Louise was crying.

 "What is it?" I asked. 

"Tama has breast cancer," Louise said without preamble.

"What?" I questioned again, only this time, with an entirely different inflection.  This time, I meant two things: Did I hear you correctly?  How in the world could this possibly be true?

I'll say this about all of us reared in the South: we know how to do. We know how to step up, we know the perfect gesture for everything, no matter what you're talking about, and we know how to meet all of life's emergencies. We pretty much slide into an automated code of proper behavior because that's what our Southern mothers passed down to us. We don't talk about it amongst ourselves, it's all just the way things are because it was expected of us while growing up, and now we expect it from each other.

"What should we do? "I asked Louise, because it was the first thing that sprang to mind.

"I think we should call off ya'll coming out here," Louise said.

"Alright, is that what Tama wants to do?" I asked.

"Tama doesn't know what she wants to do. Her family is freaking out," Louise reported.

"I'm not going to call her today- when did she find out?"

"Yesterday," Louise interjected. "They called with her mammogram results, said they found a mass and wanted to do a biopsy, which Tama didn't bother to tell us, and now they're telling her it's cancer. Now she's telling us."

"I don't even know what to say," I exhaled.

"Call Tama tomorrow anyway," Louise directed. 

You have to know Tama. I spent many years thinking Tama was the quiet sort but now I know better; Tama just doesn't let on.  What she is, is a woman of few words.  She's not one of those superfluous talkers; she simply contributes to a conversation with as few words as possible and leaves the floor to everybody else.  She doesn't feel the need to position herself front and center, and this is exactly why Louise and I have always deferred to her. 

"Hey Tama, Louise called me," I said to her on the phone the next day.

"It's always something," Tama said. 

"Seriously, is there anything I can do?"

"Yes, come over here and tell my kids I'm not dead yet," Tama said, deflecting the gravity of the moment. 

The three of us went on that way for days, backing and forthing over the telephone, vacillating between drama and sarcasm, comparing thoughts and notes and ideas and stories of who has gone through something similar and achieved a happy outcome, until Tama's doctors presented her with a concrete, step-by-step agenda that would begin within the month.

For somebody handed a rule book on conduct at birth, I was still uncertain of what to say or do for my childhood friend. One has to have a frame of reference in some things and I just didn't have one for breast cancer, or any other serious illness that came down the pike for one of us. 

"We need to get a plan," Louise declared over the phone.

"Good idea," I said.

"I think ya'll should still come out here," she said. "Tama says she may as well wait out here for the inevitable."

"Alright, let's airlift Tama on outta there, we may as well," I agreed.

I've found out that it's the little things you do in support of a friend who has breast cancer that end up truly mattering.  For four unscheduled days, we followed Tama's lead, monitoring the understandable, yet unpredictable fluidity of her emotions and finding the delicate balance between activity and restorative reprieve.   We had lunch with Louise's friends in Sun Valley, went shopping and took long walks on the mountain trails. When Tama teared up, we teared up ( Ya'll, let me cry now because I'm not going to cry in front of my husband or my kids when I get home," Tama said) and when the look on her otherwise stoic face suggested she was overwhelmed, we simply retreated to Louise's house and took a nap, no matter the time of day.  We spent a lot of time talking about our intertwined childhoods, our histories and our families, yet oddly enough, we didn't spend a lot of time dwelling on what was to come for Tama in the following months.  For whatever reason, Tama just wanted to be, and Louise and I had the unspoken graciousness to just be right alongside her. 

It's been a year and three months now, and in that time, the harrowing, incremental dynamic of Tama's breast cancer has included multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, hair loss, on-going hives and reconstructive surgery.  As friends in support, Louise and I kept vigil by demanding blow-by-blow details, sending presents, making phone calls and hanging on every twist and turn of her progress.  It appears that the worst is behind her, as there is no sign of the cancer's return, Tama's hair has grown back beautifully and she looks and feels like a glowing million dollars.  

In my heart of hearts, I believe that Tama will forever be one of the fortunate breast cancer survivors, and although there were times during her travails when I questioned whether anything I could do would ever be enough, since then I have realized that it is enough just to try and it is enough just to be there in support and camaraderie alongside your friend.


With God's grace, we can survive these difficult times with the help of one another. How important it is to be an encouragement to a friend or loved one when he or she needs it most. I hope you will make yourself available to those you care about when they need you the most.  i pray they will be there for you.  


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