Breast cancer was never on my radar. It was never even a consideration. In fact out of everyone that was in my circle of friends at the time I seemed like the most unlikely candidate to develop cancer. I breastfed both of my children, maintained a healthy weight, exercised regularly, ate a predominantly organic diet, used paraben-free cosmetics, and avoided sugar, alcohol, white flour and soy products.
I did not have a family history of breast cancer. Genetic testing revealed I do not carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic disposition to develop breast cancer. Ductal Carinoma In-Situ was caught on a mammogram when I was 33 – that is about twenty years sooner than most diagnoses between the ages of 50-69.
The entire journey from diagnosis to survivor changed everything about me and continues to affect my daily life. For two years I had surgery every six months and was in constant discomfort and pain. Because of that I lost a lot of muscle tone and endurance. Finally nearly three years later I am starting to feel like my normal self again.
However I still have physical limitations from my reconstruction. Nerves were severed during my reconstruction so I have no feeling across my chest except for a three inch strip between my implants. During surgery I had something called a sentinel node biopsy which removed a lymph node to check for cancer cells. Thankfully it was clear – which meant that the cancer was limited to my breast and had not spread to the rest of my body. Because of this procedure I have a lifelong risk of lymphedema.
Healthy female breasts are mounds of glands and fat that lay on top of the chest muscles, acting as insulation. Now that I have saline filled silicone implants instead of that warm body fat to insulate me I am almost always cold. I cannot lay on my stomach because it feels pretty gross and the risk of perforation and deflation are real. My neck, upper arms and shoulder muscles are now always stiff and sore because the gravity and weight of implants, which are placed beneath my pectoral muscles, pull everything out of place.
All of these physical limitations do not even speak a bit to the intense psychological challenges I have faced. Feeling less of a woman, feeling self conscious about my scars, feeling afraid of recurrence every time I get the smallest ache or pain, coming to terms with the new reflection of me in the mirror – I struggle with these things every day. I also deal with some post-traumatic stress, which is now under control, but from time to time it rears its head and makes simple things like getting out of bed a huge struggle.
In December I went for another six month check-up at Juravinski. As usual I checked in with my friends on an online support forum. We were all going through our mastectomies in June so we nicknamed ourselves the June Bugs. To this day we check in anytime one of us has an update. I connected strongly with one woman in particular. I never knew her first name, just her internet handle – “Curveball”. I hadn’t checked in for a very long time so after I got the all clear this last visit I logged in to give her an update.
Sadly I found out that she did have a recurrence – metastases in her liver. After August of 2014 her messages stopped. I don’t know what happened but regardless of the outcome I’ve thought a lot about her in the last month. She, like many of my other June Bug friends, remain thick in the struggles of cancer.
This week in honor of ‘Curveball’ and my other June Bug friends who continue the struggle I did what a lot of other women would think is insane: I shaved my head. It was significant. It was empowering. It was a new beginning, another level of me coming to terms with my new responsibility as a survivor. It was the best way I could think to honor Curveball and all the other women who helped carry me through the toughest ordeal of my life.
My ‘why’ for participating in the Healthy Roots Indigenous Wellness Challenge? I feel that as a cancer survivor it is my responsibility to dwell in wellness and fully embrace every living day the Creator has laid out for me. I pursue wellness to honor those who are fighting daily to make it through chronic illness. I pursue wellness to be a good role model to my children. I pursue wellness to honor the body, the life and the days that the Creator has so graciously given to me.