A retired book editor, publisher and writer, Thalia was accustomed to being in control of her life. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she worked to find ways to get through treatment and manage the other aspects of her life that she could still control.
My actual diagnosis was a roller coaster. I had been going for mammograms every six months for a couple of years. When they ask you to wait afterwards, you know it’s not good. They told me what they had been watching on my left breast was fine, but I needed an immediately biopsy in right breast. Based on what she saw, my primary care physician told me that if I had to have breast cancer, mine was the kind you should have. But, the moment of diagnosis was a numbing experience, a shock. I knew as soon as the doctor was on the phone what the answer was.
I thought it would be fairly simple. Then the situation flipped. First, they told me I might have cancer in my liver, then no, not in my liver, but stage 3 cancer. The period of time from needing the biopsy to final diagnosis was about two weeks; I had an MRI, then an MRI-guided biopsy, which was the worst of it, mentally. My case was referred to tumor board, so I knew I was getting a good second opinion, and the breast surgeon laid out the treatment: five months of chemo, a mastectomy, and then radiation. The care that I got, the expertise, it was so much better than anticipated.
But, during that roller coaster period I faced mortality issues. When they thought cancer was in my liver, I remember thinking it was very possible that I was going to die. That was OK, as we’re all going to die, but I didn’t feel ready to die yet. I was surprised that I had cancer; I still think of myself as 26, still invulnerable. I’d had broken bones, an appendectomy, and bouts of colitis, but never anything serious. It was surprising to learn I was not invulnerable, which added to the numbness.
As soon as a treatment plan was in place, I was fine. It was my number one priority to get over it. I completely settled down mentally; my objective for the next year was to just get through it so I took control of everything I could, knowing that my life was about to be out of control in very important ways. As I told my breast surgeon at one point, “I am doing this, I am going to get through it, but I am never doing it again.” So, I started working intensely with a personal trainer, met with a dietician to deal with pre-existing intestinal issues, saw an acupuncturist, and took supplements.
I had some bad days when symptoms would flair and I’d feel sorry for myself, but they were generally light, and would pass and I was able to push through. I still lived my life. My oncologist encouraged me to be active if I thought I could. My friends would ask why I wasn’t resting, but I knew I would only have a bad day or two after treatment, but the rest of the week I was perfectly fine.
I was revising a book and had deadlines to meet. I had a great ability to compartmentalize and push off the worry to focus on what was in front of me. It was important to go on with my life and do the things I said I would do. I had one episode of chemo brain while working with my editor. I was convinced something had happened, which hadn’t, and I got angry and ranted, which was not in character for me. My book got me through chemo; it was an obligation that kept me busy.
After chemo, I had a mastectomy, which was fairly easy as these things go. Then radiation, followed by reconstruction about six months later. At first, I didn’t want to have reconstruction, but the doctor insisted I learn more before making the decision, so I watched a bunch of videos and met with two different surgeons. Ultimately I decided to do it. Even though I wasn’t repulsed by the scar, I didn’t want to look in the mirror every morning and see it. I’m very glad that I did it, as I don’t think about the cancer anymore—maybe once in a while if the neuropathy in my feet is bad—but when I get out of the shower, I don’t think about it.
Another Great Day
I didn’t know how long the chemo side effects would last; the neuropathy persists after six years, and it may be 10–12 years before it goes away completely. I still don’t have all of my toenails back, and I’m numb in the reconstructed breast, which I didn’t think to ask about. My surgeon was very good about managing side effects after the breast surgery—I had a lot of PT and have full range of motion—but the reconstruction surgeon didn’t help me understand that I would be numb; these are not horrible things, but I didn’t ask enough questions.
I never felt like the cancer challenged my sense of self. All of my cousins with breast cancer were fine, which reinforced my belief that treatment would work and I would be fine. Do I worry on a daily basis? No. Do I think about it from time to time? Yes. I’ve passed the five-year mark, which is a good thing, but whether the cancer is going to come back or not, Lord knows. But now I’m 72, and am in that stage of life where friends are dying. My personal belief is that I have another 18–20 years; that’s how I live my life, with the belief that I still have many years. Something is going to get me but I am living a very active life. I wake up in the morning and my first thought is usually “it’s another great day.”