I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer during Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2010. One year later I've completed aggressive treatment and, although my doctors won't say for certain that I am cancer-free, we agree that I should live as though I am - and I do.
BREAST CANCER? WHO ... ME?
I was never a "who me?" kind of person because anything can happen to anybody. But I was definitely in the low risk category.
Then I found that ominous lump while changing my bra. It was quite big and it couldn't have been there long or I would have noticed it. It's got to be a blocked duct or infection of some kind, I thought. The next day my family doctor felt it and the alarm bells went off. It had been 13 months since my last mammogram and a new one showed drastic changes. An ultrasound made it real. A biopsy confirmed that this lump was, indeed, a force to be reckoned with.
THERE ARE DIFFERENT KINDS OF BREAST CANCER?
So who knew that there are different kinds of breast cancer that respond to different treatments? Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) represents 15-20 percent of all breast cancers. TNBC tumors test negative for estrogen and progesterone and are HER-2 negative. They don't need these hormones to grow and do not respond to hormonal-based therapies, so there are fewer treatment options. TNBC is also more aggressive. It's fast-growing and has a higher rate of recurrence in the first five years than other breast cancers. With TNBC, time is of the essence, and aggressive treatment is the general rule.
Breast cancer, like most diseases, varies from one individual to another. The type of cancer, stage at diagnosis, and location and grade of tumor result in a wide variety of treatments and outcomes. Some women have less-invasive, short-term treatment; others require a full out blitzkrieg.
FEMININITY IS ALL IN YOUR HEAD
Society places a great deal of emphasis on breasts. Healthy women with perfectly lovely breasts opt for surgery to enhance what nature gave them. And where would the advertising industry be without breasts? Our society has yet to embrace breastfeeding as a natural and wholesome act. Is it any wonder that our breasts are an emotionally charged topic?
Nobody wants to lose a breast. But when that perfect storm of circumstances blows in and your life is at stake, it's not a hard decision. It can be emotionally devastating, but I quickly learned a few facts of life. Femininity is all in your head. Or rather, in your brain. So is your sexuality. If you choose breast reconstruction, prosthetic breasts, or to remain just as you are, you are still you.
The same goes for hair. If you go bald due to chemotherapy, wear a hat or a wig, or never regain your former luscious locks, take a good look in the mirror - I mean really look into your own lash-less eyes and you'll see the truth. Your feminine spirit is untouched by physical changes, and that's a mighty powerful feeling.
OF FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES
It's fascinating, this cancer thing. It brings out the best and the worst in people. You receive good wishes and prayers from people you hardly know while some you thought were friends fade right out of your life. Even though you can be uplifted or crushed by other people's actions, they don't say a thing about you as a human being. It says something about them, and that's not your problem.
WHAT TO SAY AND DO FOR SOMEONE WITH CANCER
A simple acknowledgement of the situation goes a long way. A phone call. A hug. A well-timed joke. A smile.
They'll probably never take you up on a blanket statement like, "Let me know if you need anything." If you truly want to help, make a specific offer to do something tangible like running an errand, babysitting, cooking, cleaning, etc.
Don't forget about them after the initial shock and the first few months of treatment. Sometimes it's a long haul, so let them know you're still a friend, no matter where the road leads.
WHAT NOT TO SAY AND DO FOR SOMEONE WITH CANCER
Don't stay away because you don't know what to say. The awkwardness is temporary.
Don't tell them to be grateful they don't have a more lethal form or stage of cancer. They are grateful and a statement like that belittles their situation.
Don't tell them they can beat cancer if they make the decision to beat it. Don't imply that a positive attitude is the cure - it only serves to make them feel that they can't be honest with you without appearing to have a bad attitude.
Simply talking about negative feelings can help them focus on the positive.Don't make everything about cancer.
Know your own body. When something doesn't seem quite right, have it checked out.If you are diagnosed with cancer, do some research and become your own patient advocate. Take notes because there's an awful lot to digest. If you are not in a position to advocate for yourself, ask a trusted family member or friend to assist.Understand your own unique circumstances. Other than in the most general sense, don't compare your cancer, treatment, or prognosis to other cases because you most likely are not privy to all the specifics.Whatever treatment you choose, remain as active and sociable as you can manage. It's good medicine. As long as you're alive, choose to live!
October's Breast Cancer Awareness Month has been tremendously successful in raising funds and awareness of a disease that was once a rather taboo subject. On the other hand, the annual display of all things pink and talk of "ta-tas" and "boobies" sometimes trivializes the seriousness of breast cancer. I'm here to tell you that it's not all about breasts - it's about lives.
October is the month I was born; it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month; it is the month I was diagnosed with breast cancer; it is the anniversary of my survival. It is a good month.
Ann Pietrangelo is the author of "No More Secs! Living, Laughing & Loving Despite Multiple Sclerosis," She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and writes for sites around the web.