I found the lump on my birthday, October 25th, 2014. It wasn't a happy 43rd. August 2014 I had my routine mammogram and a week later the letter from the hospital arrived; everything was "normal." Apparently, I have dense tissue in my breasts so the mammogram didn't detect the lump. (Ladies, if you have dense tissue in your breasts – ask your radiologist - don't stop at just a mammogram!) As soon as I felt it, I knew the mass didn't belong in my body; fear enveloped me.
A mammogram, an ultrasound, an MRI, a chest and abdomen CT scan, a bone scan and a few biopsies later, I received the diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer, stage three. Triple negative means my cancer is not fueled by any hormones: estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors or human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2); it is fast growing and has a higher percentage of reoccurring in other parts of my body.
The thread throughout my cancer diagnosis was fear. It gripped me tightly in its hands and whirled me around until I was dizzy and exhausted. I felt alone in my terror; friends and family would try and ease the pain by saying "There's a cure!" "Breast cancer is the best kind of cancer to have!" and "You'll be fine, my sister/cousin/hairdresser had it and she survived!" I politely nodded my head, thinking to myself, "You're not God, you don't know if I will be that small percentage of women that die from breast cancer – it happens!" I was being realistic. I wanted my fear to be acknowledged; I longed to be heard, and held, not patronized.
The steps I took that got me through my cancer diagnosis and treatment:
- I clearly asked for what I wanted, whether it was lentil soup, a foot massage, silently being held on the couch or phone calls from friends; I didn't assume people knew what I wanted.
- I was my own health advocate, making the necessary phone calls to my insurance and doctors: I scheduled many appointments, second and sometimes third opinions.
- I accepted offers from friends, family and acquaintances for accompaniment to appointments; if no one offered, I asked. Even if it was a simple test I could clearly go to by myself, I needed their company to distract me from my catastrophic thinking.
- I got a copy of every medical report, scan, test, x-ray, etc. that was done to me. I made sure I understood what was happening, asking my doctor questions along the way.
- I kept a diary of all of my appointments; what was done, where, and who was the ordering doctor.
- During chemo, I relied heavily on the nurses – they provide all the caring and a wealth of knowledge and tips.
- I threw cancer parties: a "Fuck Cancer" party after I received my diagnosis, and a "Boob-bye" party the night before my mastectomy. I'm the kind of person that needs support from my friends, so I made it happen.
- I wore my natural looking wig when I wanted, and replaced it with hats towards the end; the wig was annoying. I did have fun at one point and bought an array of different colored wigs: I felt like a rock star when I wore them and got many compliments.
- I posted on Facebook (that's my way of communicating to many people, but there's also www.caringbridge.org) that I encouraged phone calls and visits, and then I received them - that made me happy.
- I made sure to get out every day, whether to run an errand, have a meal with a friend or see a movie with one, getting out and hearing people talk about their lives was refreshing.
- I watched a lot of television, which is unnatural for me. It took my mind off of myself, and during chemo, it helped me to relax; I stuck to comedy and romance.
- I watched Kris Carr's Crazy Sexy Cancer movie. It scared me, but it also made me feel like I am not alone.
- I spoke to other survivors I knew and met up with them for coffee. When I felt overwhelmed, I took a break.
- I made my cancer accessible: I answered people's questions about my health and diagnosis then I'd change the subject.
- I bought several breast cancer books and flipped through them, with a friend, when I had a specific question; reading them alone was too scary.
- I joined Facebook groups for triple negative breast cancer and the likes, and when I got overwhelmed or scared, I stopped reading the posts.
- I limited googling information about my type of cancer.
- I brought the same friend with me to each important appointment; she took notes and learned the breast cancer vocabulary alongside me. I turned to her during my decision-making process.
- I called a cancer support hotline in New York City, SHARE, and spoke at length to a survivor on the phone. I was relieved - I finally felt heard, understood and supported! I keep in close contact with SHARE and still go to their cancer support groups.
- Cancer support groups are monumental in my recovery: I learn a lot from the facilitators and the survivors, and I can speak my mind in a safe environment, where I am unconditionally loved and understood.
- I was afraid to attend support groups for fear of hearing horror stories. When I was ready, I gave it a try. I listened to each woman and learned, reminding myself that every woman is different and her story will not necessarily be mine.
- I attended breast cancer support groups in various different locations, and only returned to those that have a well-trained facilitator; some are too big or disorganized.
- I found a local, reputable hospital that offers free classes to cancer patients and attended their weekly Mindful Meditation class, Stress Management class, Art Therapy class and Chi Gong class. I could relate to the people and I benefitted from learning techniques to relax my body and mind.
- I attended weekly therapy sessions with my therapist, sometimes more than once a week.
- I spoke to the oncology social worker at my hospital as often as needed.
- I saw a psychiatrist and got on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills; at first I felt ashamed, but once the pills took effect, I was relieved.
- I cried when I felt like it – for me, it came out all at once when I arrived home from the hospital, post-mastectomy: a breakdown.
- I visited a holistic healer weekly, the energy healing was nurturing. I yearned for healing hands on my body, not those that poked or prodded me.
- I got massages or facials regularly. At the time, someone was helping me financially, but massage and Reiki can be found free for cancer patients at your hospital.
- I rested when I was tired, sleeping as much as needed, guilt-free.
- I accepted help and asked for it when wanted (not just needed.)
- I aimed to walk an hour a day; it felt therapeutic to breathe fresh air and circulate the blood in my body.
- I drank a lot of Fiji water.
- I ate healthy- lots of protein, greens and fruit, limited sugar and dairy intake.
- I posted on Facebook that I wanted soup, and got containers of delicious homemade soups delivered to my door for weeks!
- I learned which family, friends and acquaintances are there for me and which aren't. I was shocked in both good and bad ways, accepting the results.
- I did a lot of journaling.
- I created a cancer fashion blog, www.beautythroughthebeast.com and blog regularly.
- I'm now giving back and reaching out to women who are being diagnosed.
- I surround my self with positive affirmations.
- I rid myself of toxic people and environments.
- When I want to do something and hear a doubting voice in my head, I take action anyway! Today, I go for it. I don't know what tomorrow will bring, so I make the most of today.
Chiara is a triple negative breast cancer survivor.
She blogs at Beautythroughthebeast.com