As you probably know by now, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. If you’ve been following my blog, you may remember that last year my 86-year-old grandmother underwent her second mastectomy. Talk about being a #bosslady! Well, today is her one-year cancer-versary and I’m happy to report that she is healthy…and as sassy as ever!
Her recurrence of cancer (she underwent her first mastectomy at age 69), coupled with my own battle with thyroid cancer has served as an important reminder for me about how fragile your health can be. I remember going to countless doctors and surgeons last year with her, and hearing every diagnosis from “we don’t see anything suspicious on the mammogram,” to “this is Paget’s Disease of the breast.” She had three mammograms and countless biopsies before we had a definitive diagnosis…a test to her strength even at her age. The official diagnosis was Paget’s Disease, a rare type of breast cancer that accounts for less than 5% of all breast cancer cases. I had never heard of Paget’s Disease before my grandmother’s diagnosis, and although it’s rare and slow growing, it still warranted swift action.
I remember my grandmother’s unwavering decision to undergo a mastectomy, even when the surgeon suggested a course of radiation totaling a few times a week for many months. I recall thinking how brave she was and admiring her strength during this difficult time.
Even after all of the consultations, and testing, she remained upbeat and positive — making friends with the nurses both before and after her surgery.
Her journey reminded me of a few lessons I witnessed as her caregiver:
1. You are always a survivor. Unfortunately, cancer can return at any time and it’s best to stay vigilant about your health. My grandmother remarked (along with the doctors) at how surprised she was to receive another breast cancer diagnosis, after almost twenty years of follow-up care. As annoying as all of those follow-ups may be, it’s critical to keep your doctors involved in your progress…and go for any routine testing that they recommend, like mammograms and sonograms.
2. Stay on top of your health. If something doesn’t feel right to you, get it checked. And don’t be afraid to go for second…or third opinions if you aren’t satisfied with the outcome. My grandmother’s diagnosis came about not through any testing or doctor’s visit, but because she knew something wasn’t right with her body. Despite a few doctors dismissing her claims, others immediately recognized her symptoms.
3. Keep a positive attitude. My grandmother was a testament to the power of staying positive. Every time we went to the hospital for testing it was like palling around with a celebrity. She knew many nurses by name and she would always chat with them. Some would even seek us out just to say hello. Being positive about your diagnosis and outcome can aid in recovery time and have beneficial effects on your overall health.
4. Have someone with you. At any age, a mastectomy is a major operation. Prior to surgery, there is lots of pre-testing and it can get confusing to keep it all straight…especially for the patient. Having someone with you at appointments can be helpful when trying to precisely recall the doctor’s orders — whether or not you should take your normal medicine before surgery, what time you should arrive at the hospital, and when to stop eating and drinking.
5. Take it easy on yourself. I remember the morning after my grandmother had her surgery she was already itching to get out of the hospital. She thought she had regained her energy and was going to bounce back immediately to her old self. But there is significant follow-up care after a mastectomy (not to get too graphic here), with temperatures being routinely taken to check for infection and bandages that need to be cleaned and changed. Your body needs as much rest as it can get so it can recoup and keep you healthy.
According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, it is estimated that there will be 231,840 cases of invasive breast cancer in 2015. And approximately 40,290 people will die from breast cancer.
To all those battling breast cancer — survivors — and caregivers — breast cancer may be tough, but you are tougher. Stay strong and warrior on!