Forty-five was my number! It was the age I had planned it would all come together for me. I set several goals for myself when I turned 40, and everything was falling into place. I was coming into my own and feeling amazing. My children were happy, my career was on the fast track and my health was excellent. And then the phone call came. That tiny little pea-sized lump in my left breast discovered during my annual mammogram had been biopsied a week prior. I was sure it was nothing. Then my doctor called a few days before my birthday.
Life would never be the same. Certainly not the way I had planned my 45th year. But as they say, we make plans, and God laughs. I was completely blind-sided with a breast-cancer diagnosis, a 2.5.cm ductal carcinoma to be exact. With no history of breast cancer in my family and no previous pain or feelings of illness, to say I was shocked and devastated is an understatement. I recall collapsing in my living room and screaming, “Not now!” As if there’s ever a good time to get cancer.
I called my mother first and broke the news to her. Like all things in my life good or bad, nothing is truly real until I tell my mother. Her reaction was total devastation. And like all great moms, she wanted to take it from me and make it better. But also like all great moms, her resolve was immediately evident.
WE were going to beat this...period. My mother is exceptional at planning and organizing. She mobilized the family and gave everyone their assignments. My very large family would not converge on south Florida and overwhelm me. Each would be assigned a week to spend with me to help me get through the journey ahead. With eight siblings, I would have plenty of company for a really long time.
However, the hardest moments of that journey were right in front of me. How did I explain cancer to my 13-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter? The hardest conversation I knew would be with Zach. Marley was so young, and I knew would not fully understand. But Zach had recently lost a favorite uncle, and fathers of two childhood friends had suddenly passed away. Death was looming so large in his little world. How could I reassure him that Mom was not going to die? And how could I say it convincingly when there were no guarantees?
The morning after my diagnosis, we were out in the yard just hanging out. I knew better than to not be direct or waver. Zach is an old soul, and I knew he would see right through me. He slowly took it all in at first. Then he reminded me of the women he met at the prior year's Relay for Life. He started to tell me that both women chose to remove their breasts, so they would not get cancer–then he suddenly stopped talking. There was a long pause, and he looked at me and said, “Mom, if someone would make that choice without even having cancer then this must be serious.” The look of fear on his face as he realized that he could lose me is one that will stay with me forever. I decided to tell Marley later if at all. She was too young, and it was totally unnecessary at this point. “Mommy’s sick and I’ll get better.” That was enough for her.
So, with the support and encouragement of my family, I dove head first into my journey. Within 24 hours of my diagnosis, a wonderful friend connected me with the surgeons who removed my cancer and reconstructed my breasts. Very close friends from graduate school connected me with oncologists and researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to quickly get answers. I was also referred to an oncologist, Dr. Rohan Faria, who was an absolute Godsend.
Breaking down the problem
My mental model is to always intellectualize a difficult situation or problem. When we remove the unknown and the fear and break the problem down into manageable pieces, then we can drive to results, versus being overcome by doubt and indecision. So, armed with my background in operations and engineering, I decided to simply make cancer another project. There would be a project plan, milestones and hopefully positive outcomes on this journey.
The first milestone was to get smart. I read everything I could find and consulted with survivors. Battling cancer is personal. Every journey is unique. However, this was going to be my story. Every word and every decision would be my own. And there would be no regrets. Too much was at stake. And besides, I’m paid to have an opinion.
Now was not the time to defer to anyone, not even my trusted team of doctors. First decision…REMOVE IT...NOW! I needed this foreign, rapidly growing mass out of my body. My breasts have never defined me. I nursed both my children, was done having children, and at that point in my life it was all about survival. So making the decision to have them removed was not something I agonized over. I immediately scheduled a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction.
Next would be insertion of a port in my chest to receive my chemotherapy meds twice as fast as intravenously. There was no way I was going to sit for eight hours taking meds through my arm when I could do it in four. Project efficiency! Life did not stop just because I got cancer. My children still needed me and time was precious. I needed to get done with this horrible part of my journey and get back to living.
It would take four months of some of the strongest chemotherapy to treat my Stage ll Grade 3, hormone negative cancer. I can recall being so ill the day after my first infusion that I completely gave up. I was never going back for round two, let alone eight infusions. Nope, I was done. I’ll take my chances. Bone-melting pain is the only way to describe it. But then my children walked into my bedroom. OK, I’ve got this.
Eight infusions, two weeks apart, of four different medicines. By infusion number three, I had dropped 30 pounds and was totally bald. However, shaving my own head before I lost my hair to chemo was also my decision. Again my story, my journey. On a side note, I’m sure I was asked 100 times about whether or not I was worried about losing my hair. It’s hair, people. It grows back, albeit very curly, but it does grow back. I recall a day when I was well enough to pick Marley up from pre-school. She ran up to me on the playground and said, “Mommy, take off your hat and show everyone your head! Let them touch your head, Mommy.” She thought it was the coolest thing that I was bald. It’s one of the very few times I’ve been the cool Mom.
I was given the official word of remission in May of 2012. Certainly a lot to go through in such a relatively short period of time, but there was so much to live for, there was no other option. Phase two of the project plan would be final reconstruction and then back to living.
Looking back, emotionally l was holding up very well. Not only for my children and those around me whom I loved so fiercely, but also for myself. Breaking down was not an option. While I certainly had my moments, I gave into those feelings in the quiet and comfort of my bed, where l spent countess days being extremely ill. Chemo sucks; having your breasts removed takes courage; but the thought of not watching my children grow up, missing out on time with my parents, best friend and siblings who happen to be the most loving brothers and sisters in the world; the thought of leaving all that…not in the project plan!
Self-breast exams helped save my life, along with early detection. I’m forever grateful to my incredible team of doctors, whom I continue to see a few times a year, and for the love and support of family and friends.
This illness was not going to define me, so I insisted on working during treatment. I’m incredibly grateful to my employer, global professional services company Accenture, and its leadership for supporting me, and also to my amazing co-workers who offered their vacation time should I need it.
Cancer can be so scary, but it's also become my greatest teacher. It taught me how strong I am. It taught me to live, love and play with a higher degree of abandon. My faith guides me, so I’m confident cancer is in my rearview mirror. In hindsight, surviving was the minimum. Longevity is mine; therefore, now I need to not just survive but to thrive. I must. It’s that simple. My plan, my journey.