The experience of having cancer has made us aware of the difficulties other people may be facing behind their brave smiles and has taught us to return the kindness we were shown to everyone we meet.
Just 1 month after undergoing a mammogram that was deemed normal with some dense tissue in my left breast, my gynecologist felt a mass in that breast about the size of a cherry tomato during a routine well visit. After watching the lump for a month to see if it was cyclical, she sent me for another mammogram and then an ultrasound. The results were so suspicious, my doctor scheduled an appointment the next day with a surgeon for a biopsy of the mass. But even before the surgeon got back the biopsy results, she said she could tell by looking at the ultrasound that I had breast cancer. The biopsy report showed the cancer was stage IIB ductal carcinoma.
Cancer Is a Family Disease
All along the way to the diagnosis, I wasn’t expecting to hear that I had breast cancer. My family and I had just moved to Vermont and were just becoming established in the community when I got the news. The diagnosis was especially daunting because I home school my three daughters, ages 14, 12, and 8, and now I had to adapt their curriculum and lesson schedule around my cancer treatment.
Although my oncologist assured me that my prognosis was excellent, going through treatment—a lumpectomy, four rounds of combination chemotherapy of cyclophosphamide and docetaxel, and 28 radiation treatments—was no easy feat, especially for my daughters. I think it was my hair loss that was most frightening for them because it is such a hallmark of having a life-threatening disease.
Putting on a Brave Face
What helped us get through the last year and a half is our close-knit community and the incredible kindness of my medical team. Everyone, from my oncologist (who told me I was in a place of healing and that I would be fine) to the nurses who administered my chemotherapy and the radiation therapists who directed my radiotherapy, showed me such caring, it made all the difference in how well I coped with having breast cancer.
I often think we cancer survivors put on a brave face, but on the inside we are so fragile, we can break apart at any moment. At my first radiation appointment, I started to shake so uncontrollably—either from fear or being cold, I’m not sure which—several radiation therapists rushed over to reassure me that I would be okay and that what I was experiencing was normal.
They covered me in warm blankets, talked about their families, and asked me about mine. They even let my daughters visit the radiation therapy room so they could see the machine that was helping to cure me. On the day of my last treatment, the therapists presented me with a photo a friend had taken of them and me after one of my treatments, which they had signed with well-wishes.
It was those many acts of kindness that made my experience with cancer less frightening for my family and for me.
Life Lessons Learned
To give back to the community that has given so much to us, last spring my husband, daughters, and I participated in a Breast Cancer Walkathon, the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and the Komen Race for the Cure to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research. Being involved in these events was comforting to my children, to see so many people thriving after cancer, and it was empowering for them to see how their efforts were making a difference in the lives of cancer survivors, including their mother’s.
The experience of having cancer has also made us aware of the difficulties other people may be facing behind their brave smiles and has taught us to return the kindness we were shown to everyone we meet.
Having cancer has been an important life lesson for all of us. ■
Karey Edele lives in Franklin, Vermont.