Every June, I schedule my annual women’s exam, which includes a mammogram and an ultrasound. It might seem like an ordinary routine for a middle-aged woman. But it’s not for me.
I’m a breast cancer survivor, so there’s absolutely nothing that involves my breasts that will be ordinary or routine, ever again.
Four years ago, I unexpectedly felt a lump in my left breast while putting on a blouse.
It was the type of lump that anyone could find, even if you never give yourself routine checks. Every time I showered, it would send chills through my body.
Still, I didn’t worry about it being serious, because — I thought — breast cancer happened to other people, not me. I was still young and I had no family history of it.
In the weeks that followed, I became a self-proclaimed internet doctor and diagnosed myself with a benign breast fibroid. There was no need to rush to a real medical professional, I thought. This super mom with a demanding career had no time to be sidelined with tests.
I was shocked to hear the lump didn’t appear on the mammogram — apparently because I have dense breasts.
The ultrasound was less forgiving. After seeing the image, the radiologist ordered a breast biopsy. The biopsy revealed that the tumor was malignant and that I had stage 2 breast cancer.
So, four years ago, on June 27, 2014, my cancer journey began.
Making a huge decision while weakened by chemo
The diagnosis and accepting the fate I’d been given turned out to be the easy part. The real trauma began once I realized the magnitude of the decisions I had to make.
During a lumpectomy, a breast surgeon removes the cancer and a small portion or margin of the surrounding tissue, but not the breast itself. This option usually removes the least amount of breast tissue. Even though the lumpectomy is the least invasive breast cancer surgery, it can still be as effective as a mastectomy (removing the entire breast).
My oncologist advised that I was a great candidate for the lumpectomy because of various factors regarding my type of breast cancer.
My treatment plan began with grueling chemo combined with a targeted therapy for my hormone-positive breast cancer.
I had a complete response to the chemo, meaning the tumor was undetectable after treatment.
The chemo was a medical success, but it destroyed my body and a good part of my soul.
I was grateful that the tumor disintegrated, but my spirit was weary. I didn’t even recognize myself, and I was so physically and emotionally fatigued.
While necessary, it’s not the ideal time to be forced to decide which breast surgery to choose.
I had the option of going with my oncologist’s recommendation of the lumpectomy or a mastectomy of both breasts.
I wasn’t in the mental space to make the decision to assault my physical body any more than absolutely necessary.
I spoke with women who opted for the mastectomy, read articles across the internet, and read books on both procedures. The one resounding statement the women who chose a mastectomy shared was that they didn’t want the possibility of the breast cancer returning. I felt their passion and understood their decision.
I also spoke with women who chose to have a lumpectomy. They were equally as passionate about their decision and have been cancer free for more than a decade.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me to ask the women who opted for a lumpectomy if they questioned keeping their breasts, and they never shared any regrets that they may have experienced. Each woman was looking forward, believing and longing for an outcome free from the C word.
After careful consideration and a whole lot of leaning on my faith, I opted to undergo the lumpectomy surgery. I wasn’t in the mental space to make the decision to assault my physical body any more than absolutely necessary. I couldn’t imagine removing my breasts, my nipples, my womanhood.
Yes, my breasts were the very thing that betrayed me, but I couldn’t bear any more physical pain.
My breasts are a reminder of possible recurrence and of resilience
My breasts are still with me, as are my scars and the fear of recurrence. Every year as June approaches, I question my decision to save my breasts.
Each year, as I prepare to have my breasts squeezed, pressed, and crushed between the cold, sterile mammogram machine, my anxiety increases. As I brace myself to lay on the ultrasound table in a dark, solemn room where I experience deafening silence as the technician scans and prods every corner of my breasts and digs into my armpits, looking for signs of any cells that’ve conspired against me, I feel traumatized all over again.
As cancer survivors, thrivers, and warriors, we live with the fear of recurrence.
It’s a subtle fear that lies dormant most days but can be brought to the surface by many factors. For me, it’s bracing myself for yearly tests, feeling my breasts during self-exams, or having a cough that lingers too long.
If I’d chosen the mastectomy, my triggers would be different.
My breasts, the very thing I couldn’t bear to lose, have remained the reminder of a chapter I desperately wish I could close.
There’s no beating cancer. There’s just managing and processing my new life versus my old life.
My new life is more measured yet more free. It’s more fulfilling yet more deliberate. It’s more joyful yet more bittersweet.
I have physical scars from the lumpectomy and the port-a-cath, the device inserted to draw blood and receive treatments, and the radiation, but no scar runs as deep as the one hidden from the human eye. But just like any scars, over time they become less prominent.
When I’m reminded of the physical and emotional scars, I now choose to see them as proof of life, courage, and resilience.
I’ve embraced yoga and a vegan diet. I try to remain physically active (begrudgingly), and I work on reducing external factors that bring unwarranted stress into my life.
These changes have been encouraged by professionals who make a living telling people like me how to reduce a recurrence. I’ve accepted that my life won’t go back to the way it was before my cancer diagnosis, and that’s not such a bad thing.
As the date approaches to get my breasts checked, I wonder if I will always feel this angst. I wonder if it will ever become easier to prepare to have an image reveal my fate on a yearly basis.
If I continue to look back and second guess not having the mastectomy, then I’m going to be stuck in an abyss of what ifs.
Given the chance to choose again, I’d stick with my initial decision. I was longing for joy and serenity, and that’s what the lumpectomy offered me at that time, in the emotional space I was in.
Yes, I’m nervous. Yes, I’m scared. But I won’t let the fear of recurrence rob me of today’s happiness and the belief in a positive outcome. This fall, I’ll be four years cancer free, and I choose to believe my breasts will be too.
Kai McGee, JD, is a writer whose work has appeared on Hello Giggles, Motherwell, and My Brown Baby, among others. When she’s not writing, she enjoys photography and lazy mornings in bed watching the Food Network. Connect with her on Instagram.