Michelle Ardito-Barnes, Contributor
It was a Tuesday … July 10, 2012 to be exact. I had done my annual mammogram the prior week and my doctor had called a few days later to say they wanted me to do a biopsy. Not my first biopsy, so I wasn't concerned. After all, I had always been told I had fibrocystic breasts and, additionally, I had removed a benign lump when I was 27 and that had left some scar tissue. This always came up, so I ensured that all my mammograms over the last several years were done at the same facility so they could always compare the prior year's films to verify that it was " … just the usual".
So back to Tuesday. I had done the biopsy the day before and my physician said she would call on Wednesday because the results took 48 hours. I was in the office, and saw my phone vibrate with my physician's number on the caller ID. Why was she calling, I wondered? Doctors barely meet their own deadlines, much more beat them. I allowed the phone to go to voicemail and immediately retrieved the message she left - "… please call as soon as you have a chance" she said. I quickly got up from my desk and headed for the door. My heart immediately assumed a new rhythm, a really fast one, I smelled fear rising up from the core of my insides. My doctor came on the line and it went something like this " … you have tested positive for breast cancer and …" she continued to talk and I heard nothing more. Nothing.
I looked up to the sky and I began a weird nonsensical conversation with God. My doctor said "Hello?". I said " … yes, what stage is it?"
Fifteen years before, I had asked the same question of another physician when he told me my mother had breast cancer. The answer at that time was stage 4 . Within 4 months of that date, my 5' 10", 180-lb vivacious, 51-year-old mother was dead. Just like that.
I am still on the phone with my doctor. She said I have stage 0 cancer. "What?" ... I thought while still having this subconscious conversation with God, " … I didn't even know cancer came in a 0 stage!" My doctor explained that the cancer appeared to be in the duct of the left breast, but, to determine any treatment plan, I needed to do an MRI as soon as possible. They arranged the MRI within 48 hours. I was then called in to my doctor's office to discuss 'the' treatment plan because I still couldn't own it as 'my' treatment plan, I still didn't know for sure if this was really happening to me. My husband took the day off from work. I didn't. That would give me too much time to think.
My doctor, in a nutshell, said, based on the results of the MRI and the extent of the area affected, she would recommend that I do a left breast mastectomy with reconstructive surgery. I immediately asked whether this meant I would still have to continuously monitor the right breast and she advised yes. And that answer brought about my 'aha' moment. I was not going to be held prisoner by this disease. If my life had been in such turmoil in only one week, I could not imagine what looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life would do to me. I told her no and it appears she misunderstood, no - I was not going to remove one breast, I was going to remove both. My breasts were now officially the enemy and I was about to wage war.
I had prayed long and hard, I had done the research and I stayed up many nights thinking about it. I was sure. After meetings with my breast surgeon, plastic surgeon and the oncologist, a date was set. It was the longest three weeks of my life.
The thoughts and emotions you go through after a breast cancer diagnosis are commonplace in some respects, and they set you apart in others. Yes, I did think of my 12-year-old and 2-year-old boys, my husband, and I thought about a woman I had loved so much, my mother. But in a weird way, this disease demonstrated an inner power that could only have come through my faith, a faith that provides spiritual fortitude when all your other strengths are gone.
All my physicians walked me through what was to come, my oncologist told me that there were no guarantees, the stage could go up once pathology tested the tissue they would remove. I was given options of chemotherapy, radiation and/or medication, but nothing could be finalised until he received my pathology report. My breast surgeon explained that they would remove all the tissue completely from both breasts, the entire left nipple and areola as well as lymph nodes for testing . Only the skin would remain. My plastic surgeon explained that he would come in immediately after and place an 'expander' under the skin then close me up. The expander was a device that would allow for healing while creating room for future implants.
Two days before my surgery, I walked into a store and looked at a low-cut dress, was on my way to the cashier to pay for it and remembered that in 2 days I would not have breasts, and broke down crying.
I did the surgery. The physical healing is tough, but love and support from family and friends will make you forget that. I went back to work after 2 weeks. A few days before, I went to see my oncologist. The 'good report' I prayed for was awaiting my arrival. The cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes, it was confined to the breast duct and, because of my radical decision to do the bilateral mastectomy, I would not have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation or take medication. God surely got tired of hearing me say thanks!
My road to recovery is by no means over. I will be undergoing two more surgeries as part of the reconstructive process. One to place implants, the other to remove skin from my belly which will be used to build an areola and nipple.
I am grateful for this journey. I have grown immeasurably and I know my experience could easily have been like my mother's and like so many other women before and since her untimely death. I know in many ways I am special and in so many ways I am no different from other women, because cancer chose me. I did not have a say in that choice, but I certainly had a say in whether breast cancer or the threat of breast cancer would continue to haunt me.
I am here and I am strong and I … am a survivor!