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Monday, September 05, 2016

A year of living with cancer

My husband tried to get me to open up. We had a long weekend ahead of us to wait to learn the "official" results of my biopsy. It seemed I was doomed to have all diagnostics on Fridays when the delay in getting results would be excruciating.

I kept telling myself, "You can deal with anything once you know what it is."

But over the Labor Day Weekend in 2015, no amount of self-talk was working on my psyche. I knew I had breast cancer. I didn't yet know what kind or what stage. I knew I was facing surgery, chemotherapy, radiation. Though I did not yet know in what order. Very few people in my life knew what was happening at this point.

When you're inside your head and afraid, you feel utterly alone.

My three sons were away for the weekend. We had no plans and in retrospect, we should have crammed our weekend full of fun stuff. "Let's take a drive," my husband said. We wound up at the Rocky River Marina, watching boats gliding up and down the river. As we sat on a picnic table, I confessed that I felt alone.

While I was at my lowest emotional point, no tears would come.

I just kept cycling through a series of questions. How would the boys handle my weakness? How would my husband? Could I work? What if I couldn't? How would we pay the bills? Will I feel sick? Will I look sick? Will I die? How will my family go on without me?

Speaking the fear always makes it seem less scary.

"You have to tell people," my husband said. "Give them a chance to care for you." Of course he was right. Virgos have a tough time depending on people or even sharing their innermost thoughts. We like to go along as if everything is fine and under control. But I knew I would need the support and love of others to carry me through. So I sent my first email on Labor Day evening 2015:
 I need to share some news. I've been diagnosed with breast cancer.
There. I typed the words. It would become easier the more I said it, but that first time on September 7 was difficult. Everyone asks the obvious:
Did you find it yourself or on mammogram? Found it myself and had been ignoring for long time. I'll write about that another time. 
What kind and what stage is it? I have estrogen positive, ductal carcinoma. My opinion on stage was that I didn't care to know. It would have no bearing on how I would face this. 
What's the prognosis? Really?!!! This is not a question you ask someone who was recently diagnosed with cancer. Because here's my response: I'm gonna fight with everything I've got and I'm going to recover. What other prognosis is there?
 After 3 p.m. on Tuesday after Labor Day I was in my car in a downtown parking garage leaving a meeting. I called the surgeon's office to get the biopsy results.


"Wendy Hoke."



"Wow, that's..."

"Today, yeah."

"Happy Birthday. OK, doctor will give you a call back."

The mid-morning sun filters through the trees
to illuminate this statue I see on my daily walks.
As it turned out the results weren't ready until the next day. The lab was delayed because of the Monday holiday. But once I had the official results, I was relieved and then anxious to get started on treatment. I would have a series of scans--bone, heart, PET, CT--all to confirm it had not spread anywhere else and that my heart was healthy enough to get blasted with chemo.

"Wendy, you cannot hold your breath in the scan and hope it doesn't find cancer," my mom, a 17-year survivor of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma advised. "Go into the scanner, close your eyes, give it up to God and let the machines do their job."

So while I would not sleep the night before these tests, I did as my mom so wisely counseled. A good friend had given me bracelets, one with the Virgin Mary and the other a Shamrock. As my hands were clasped above my head, I would hold the charms and recite the Hail Mary. It helped to calm me down and I'm sure it kept my blood pressure normal.

On the morning of Wednesday, September 30th, I got a call from my oncologist saying the cancer had not spread and in a change of plans she wanted to get chemo started that day. I was at work, heading into a management meeting....literally standing in the hallway when I got the call. In retrospect, it was a good thing. I didn't have time to think or worry. I just said, OK.

"Before we begin, I need you to sign this consent to treat form," my oncologist said.

I read it over and the box was checked, "I consent to this treatment to cure my cancer." (bold is mine)
"Cure? We use that word?" I asked. She nodded. "It's an aggressive treatment plan, but yes."

"I'll gladly sign that and I'd like a copy for my records."

It's a year of your life and then it's over or so goes the traditional thinking. But my cancer was stage 3 and nothing about my treatment was traditional. I started with chemo and thought I'd have surgery after. Instead, I was put on Tamoxifen to help further shrink the tumor. I had mastectomy six weeks ago and tomorrow I head back to work AND begin radiation, my final stage of treatment.

We're at the year mark and the active treatment end is in sight. But I'll be on anti-estrogen medication for five years. And the process of reconstruction following mastectomy probably won't happen until next summer. But as my plastic surgeon said the day after surgery:

"Once you finish with radiation, you can start to reclaim your life."

I'm not waiting until after radiation. I reclaimed my life once I realized what was at stake a year ago. I notice things more acutely -- colors, smells, sounds. I smile easily, which is something I've always done. I give hugs freely. And I count every day as a blessing.

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