…and Other Stuff I Learned from Breast Cancer
March is Women’s History Month, and I’m celebrating being alive and being a woman. For the past several months, I’ve battled an aggressive type of ductal breast cancer — with good results. And the past year rolled in packing more than one unexpected challenge. Last March, my husband experienced a stroke but beat all the odds, for which I am eternally grateful. He emerged from acute rehab walking, talking, playing piano, climbing up and downstairs with no problem, which was nothing short of miraculous considering the type of stroke and the area of the brain where it occurred. We caught it early, though, the medical staff told us, and that made a huge difference. Early detection and response, that’s the key.
A couple of days after my sweetie’s stroke and by accident — I wasn’t doing a self-exam — but anyway, I discovered a small, hard lump on my right breast that did not move. I know the warning signs for cancer and that’s one of them, but I still hoped it was a cyst. I delayed getting diagnostic imaging for a couple of months until he was stabilized and completely restored. I don’t recommend delaying; the consequences could have been disastrous. But the medical staff told me I caught it early. The long and short of it is that my treatment extended over several months, with some very difficult decisions and scary possibilities. Ultimately, I took the surgical option — a double mastectomy with reconstruction, and I’m really glad I did. I’m also taking an anti-cancer medication, Tamoxifen, for five years.
My cancer experience deepened and refreshed my perspective on life, and taught me many things. I’m a survivor — of sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, homelessness…so I know a thing or two about overcoming adversity and challenges. I applied all the practical knowledge I’ve gained from my life experience, things like mindfulness meditation, positive self-talk, and positive visualization. Gratitude is a surefire way to stay grounded, and health insurance was high on my medical gratitude list. Cancer showed up a couple of months after I’d gotten old enough for Medicare — a lucky break and a blessing after living for decades with a pre-existing condition that barred me being underwritten by any private insurance company. (In 2014, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I was able to buy insurance, but with an individual plan, the premiums and out-of-pocket minimums were daunting.) But this time I had health insurance through Medicare plus a low-cost private supplemental care plan, so I only needed to focus on healing.
Here are four of the things to keep in mind if you’re dealing with cancer:
Healthcare is a human right.
The World Health Organization has clearly stated that health care is a human right, in fact it is a fundamental human right. So has the American Bar Association.  Everyone deserves affordable health care. Not “access to healthcare,” but affordable, real benefits.
You always have time. Stand your ground and consider all the options.
From the initial diagnosis, health care professionals begin telling you to take immediate action, and you do, but you want to consider all the options and not panic. Then you begin the process. But the process can appear to be glacially slow-moving. Waiting for test results is nerve-wracking. Hang in there, advocate for yourself, seek and find ways to feel safe, soothed, and confident in your everyday life, no matter what. When you focus on the things that are highest priority in your life, time expands in the moment. Take time to savor the moments with loved ones, listen to your favorite music, appreciate every bit of life simply because you’re alive. Do not, I repeat, do not do internet searches for information, especially to find out about “possible side effects.” It’s like tossing gasoline onto the flames of your worst fears.
You are not alone.
Millions of people have recovered from cancer and the health care system is getting better and better at treatment. Remind yourself that you are surrounded by support. Cultivate good relationships with your treatment team, they’ve got your back. Some people tell everybody about their diagnosis, some keep it quiet. Either way, it’s up to you and what gives you comfort. I have a couple of friends who beat cancer in the past, and I contacted them for advice. They taught me many valuable things, and one big one is that you always have time to make your treatment decisions. Another is that regarding cancer, medical science is amazing in what it can do. Listen to people’s personal stories of victory and encouragement. Avoid people who tell you scare stories. Look for support groups in your area and make note of the ones that appeal to you. You may want to join up right away, or wait till later.
You always have time to make your treatment decisions.
Never give up — be assertive and persistent in self-advocacy.
Make yourself a priority at all times during treatment. Self-advocacy is key to navigating the healthcare system. Be vocal about your concerns, fears, and hopes. Just remember that most office visits are about fifteen minutes in duration. Make a written list of the things you want to address during your medical meetings. Whenever possible, take along a friend, relative, or other trusted witness to your medical appointments and procedures. They will provide emotional support and also can take notes and help you remember things later or even during the visit.
Have you or a loved one experienced cancer? I’d love to hear from you and learn your insights.
 https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/human-rights-and-health WHO, 112/29/17, Human Rights and Health
https://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/statements/fundamental-human-right/en/ WHO 12/10, Health is a fundamental human right