Tuesday, April 30, 2013

All Is Well! ...

“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.” ~William Shakespeare

Growing up living by 'The Golden Rule' that my grandfather instilled in me when I was three years old, I’ve always looked for the best in people and also have always been very forgiving. However, thinking people would treat me as I treated them left me open to a lot of hurt.

When the people in your life that are supposed to be there to take care of you—the ones that you trust to have your back and hold you down—drop the ball and disappoint you multiple times throughout your life, you come to expect everyone to let you down. Disappointment becomes routine. For the most part, that has been true all of my life. Trusting someone will be there when I really need them has always been a struggle.
When I got my diagnosis, I was told to “get ready to find out who your true friends are.” I was somewhat prepared but still surprised at and hurt by the people that were nowhere to be found, even after I reached out. Ouch! It really did hurt...

On the flip side, I learned that the friends who were there are the most amazing friends on the planet! (I mean amazing!!) Not just because they stand by my side but because they actually accept me for who I am. They don't judge me, and they give without expectation. They do all of this without thinking about it, because that's what true friends do. My friends know that when I walk into a room full of people I get quiet because I'm very cautious. They know I'm just taking in my environment. My friends know I try to do everything and sometimes I may go a little harder than I should without asking for help even though I need it. They understand that I put pressure on myself, and I often feel like everything falls on me.

Days before my surgery, I sat down at our regular monthly brunch with my girlfriends. I knew I couldn't do this alone. I had accepted this as fact. I looked at the same faces that I have seen for the past 15 to 20 years. We have had our ups and downs. We have weathered storms. We have celebrated good times and have been there for each other in bad. None of us are perfect, but we are there for each other. Even as I write this, words can't explain the amount of love I have for these women who are not just my friends. They are my sisters and my angels. I looked them in their eyesthey know how strong I am (and I don't like to cry!). I said, "I don't want any tears!" I didn't want a pity party. As I explained my situation, I watched my friends look at me with glassy eyes fighting back the urge to cry because that was what I said I wanted. I said, "I am scared and I need you all. I choose to walk in faith. I choose to be strong, and I choose to win. If anyone asks you how I'm doing you tell them 'All is well!'” The looks in their eyes told me they were proud. (I knew my announcement was a lot to take in). I allowed the weight I was carrying to be lifted. It felt as if each of my angels each took a piece to carry. They all sent me a message without words that said, "Don't worry! We got you!" We hugged and smiled, and it was done. I felt light as if God were answering prayers as we sat and continued on with brunch. In two days, my friends (headed by the best project manager in the world!!) set up a schedule to make sure someone was at my home to help me morning, noon and night. They helped with laundry, the kids, cleaning the house and doing the dishes. There's always the friend who steps up and says, “Sit down! We got this!” They just showed up and did what had to be done. It was such a blessing. They knew what I needed without even asking. My dear friend who told me, "The fake friends won't show up!," put together a meal train which had a calendar for people to sign up to bring me breakfast, lunch and dinner. My children stayed on their schedule and had everything they needed. All I had to do was recover. (This is still hard to talk about because my friends were there every step of the way. They never missed a beat.)

My amazing friends are the reason my recovery went so well. They are the reason I look at life so differently now. They are my true friends, and I love them dearly. My mom always says, “Now those are your friends!” I don't use the term ‘friend’ loosely (anymore). They keep telling me to stop thanking them because they said I would do the same for them, and they are right...I love you guys so much!!
“All is Well!”  

(to be continued…)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

There Is A ‘Perk’ After All!!

The time came to face the music. I recall reading an interview of a friend who is also a survivor. She said she went home and had a pity party after being given her cancer diagnosis. When no one showed up for the party, she had to get up and face reality. My friend decided to make lemonade out of lemons. Personally, I am no fan of pity parties; I do, however, happen to love lemonade. I was not nervous on the way to the appointment. It always helps when someone who cares about you calls at the right time and gives some encouraging words. My friend’s positive words gave me strength. I found myself feeling ready for whatever ‘He’ had in store for me. 

I walked into the plastic surgeon’s office, and it looked amazing. From the one-of-a-kind art pieces on the wall to the high-end lingerie store in the waiting area. It felt like an office right out of Beverly Hills. It didn’t feel like I was at the doctor. (That certainly helped!) The furniture was beautiful. It appeared as if no cost was spared. From the chandeliers and marble floors to the end tables, elegance surrounded me. The wait was not long, and I was fortunate to have my sister was right by my side. I scanned the room and noticed no one looked like me although everyone was pretty young. My name was called. My sister and I both went back, and the consultation began. The first thing I said after introductions was, “Ok, I’m still so young, and I’m single--and I may want to have another baby.” I don’t even know why I was saying those things. The words just burst out of me in a blurt. My doctor gave me the nicest smile and said with such excitement, “Don’t worry, you’re going to love your boobs! They’re going to be beautiful!!” Her smile was contagious, and it put me at ease. My worry faded. I was confident I was in good hands. 

I had several questions. I wanted to know every detail about what I was getting into with this surgery. My doctor was not only warm, she was also personable and compassionate. (This made a big difference!) She answered every question I had and them some. We talked for two hours. I had to know every possible scenario that could happen. Fortunately, she didn’t mind. It felt as if she would have sat for five hours if that was what I had needed. By the end of the consultation, I felt like I could trust her. I had seen pictures of her work, and it did look amazing!! At the end of the consultation, she asked me to take my shirt off, and when I did her reaction was, “They are beautiful!” I laughed and said, “I know! I love them!” She responded, “Don’t worry, they will be even more amazing. You will love them even more!” I said, “Whew! So there is a perk to this whole thing?” Still excited she said, “Absolutely!  Don’t worry!”

I learned that the young patients in the waiting area were her breast cancer patients as well, and most of her patients were in the twenties and thirties. That information blew me away!! I had no idea how prevalent this cancer was in young women. Today, I know that breast cancer does not discriminate with race or age. I still can’t help but wonder why women aren’t told to start getting mammograms until they’re age 40. (That seems so crazy to me now, especially having two daughters to think about). 

I left the doctor thinking, “I’m going to loooove my boobs!” My experience at the plastic surgeon’s office had been such a positive one. This guided my outlook on the surgery and allowed me to stay focused on my healing and the recovery. It also gave me the strength to block any negative thoughts from entering my mind. Everything seemed to be happening so fast and now I was ready to get past this. However, I knew I couldn’t—go through this alone. I needed a team of support. It was time to tell my loved ones…

(to be continued…) 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Escape To A Happy Place …

I wear so many hats every day. Sometimes, I wonder how I do it all—how I manage to get everything accomplished. I promise I don’t do it alone. Up until this point in my life, I had been able to handle every situation that had been thrown at me. As much as I wanted to say, “I’m ready. I can handle this. I can beat this. I am strong,” this was simply too much!! It was emotional. It was scary. I couldn’t even talk about my diagnosis or the next steps. I just wasn’t ready…

Everyone close to me knows that I truly believe that in any situation, you have the right, the power and the ability to choose your experience. At this moment, I was choosing to run away from it all! I chose to escape … just for a little while anyway. I needed to laugh.  Laughter is contagious—it’s healing, and it’s good for the soul. I needed to have some fun!

Even during this dark time, light shone through in so many ways. A blessing appeared in the form of a dear friend. Years ago he introduced me to a special place as an adult where I had the time of my life... DISNEY WORLD!! It now qualifies as one of my “happy places.” It was exactly what I needed at that time. I let loose, become a big kid again and laugh—a lot! This was during the holidays, and seeing my children happy always makes me happy—especially around Christmas. Anyone who has been to Disney during the holidays knows just how amazing it is. I decided to surprise them…

I called up a friend and said lets go to Florida and take the kids.  After about ten minutes of convincing she agreed after approving the house I chose to rent.  We left for the trip and had the time of our lives.  A really good friend came through and made sure we had everything we needed for the trip!  There was no sleeping on this getaway.  We all went hard!!   It was all about being in the moment and enjoying life!!  Everyday was a new adventure.  My friend didn’t know how hard I could go.  The kids had a blast.  We hit the parks and rode everything possible, we did the dinner murder mystery, and even made time for some adult fun in the night-life after putting the kids to bed and leaving them with a sitter.  It was the perfect escape!  I put my diagnosis out of my mind the entire trip until the last day.  On that day I had to tell my friend why this trip had been so important.  She was shocked and didn’t know what to say.  She almost didn’t take me serious at first, but knew I would never joke about anything so serious.  She asked me did the kids or my mom know and I let her know they didn’t.  I told her I had to get ready to get back to the real world because my Doctor appointments would start back as soon as we returned for the new year.  My trip had come to an end. :(   Time to leave my happy place and go back home to put back on the vest with the ‘S’ on my chest.   I was ready!  At least that’s what I told myself.  It was time to be strong and face this thing head on.  I prayed for strength and I prayed for courage.  I also knew I could not fight this alone. It was time to tell my friends (the friends (my angels) who would be there for me every step of the way …. But First, I had my first appointment with the plastic surgeon…

(to be continued…)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

I'm Glad Oprah interviewed Christina Applegate...

I patiently sat in the quiet waiting area and noticed that no one looked like me. I didn't see any other young women, and I didn't see any black women. I had always heard that breast cancer was more prevalent in older white women. Then I read that more white women are diagnosed with breast cancer but more African American women are dying from the disease...
I heard my name called, and it was time to go back. I sat on the table in the doctor's office nervously listening to the details of my diagnosis. I have a short attention span, so I tried my best to stay with what she was saying in her non-emotional, monotone voice. "You have ductal carcinoma.” This was a term I had never heard before. "The good news is that we caught it early and it’s enclosed inside your milk duct." My attention faded. 
My thoughts went from giving natural childbirth holding on to the rail screaming at the doctor, "Get this baby out of me!" Then my thoughts traveled to breast-feeding and the sensation of the milk letting down at the sound of my baby's cry. Images of my daughters' birthday parties and sounds of their laughs danced in my head.  Images of the people I love and care about raced through my mind.  Suddenly, my thoughts jumped to sitting in the recliner for hours right next to my mom as she was getting her chemotherapy treatment. She always feigned a beautiful smile when I would visit and force myself to act unaffected at the site of her bald head. (The first time was the hardest). 
My focus snapped back to what the doctor was saying. "You only have two options at this point because of your family history. You can have a lumpectomy, and they can just go in and remove the cancer from the site, or you can have a bilateral mastectomy." The sound of it was jarring. They were two totally different options. The second sounded so extreme. I really knew nothing about either option. She then added, "If you choose the lumpectomy, which is what most people choose in your situation, you will have to do radiation and get tested every six months for the rest of your life.  If you go with the bilateral mastectomy, you won't have to do chemotherapy or radiation and there's a less than 1% chance of you getting cancer again." Then I thought, "I don't know anyone personally who had a double mastectomy at my age."  At that moment, I had nothing to help me with this critical decision. However, it really seemed like a no brainer to me.  Just the thought of waiting on a phone call every six months to find out if I had cancer again or not made me cringe.  I said, "I'm sure you know what I'm going to do. I have small kids, and I don't want to ever be in this position again." Even though I was scared, I felt confident in my decision. Maybe it was that inner voice that God blessed women with, the one we tend to pick and choose when to listen. At that moment I was listening without doubt or fear. My doctor told me not to be so hasty in my decision and to go home and think about it, but added that I shouldn't take too long because I would have to get an appointment with the plastic surgeon soon. She told me that I would also have to go for genetic testing for the BRCA gene (breast cancer gene). “The good news is it has not spread anywhere else at this point,” she said. I had undergone an MRI that confirmed this. I was looking for her to give me advice or her opinion or maybe even a hug. She gave me neither. I told her to go ahead and make the appointment with the plastic surgeon. I took a deep breath and walked out still having no doubts.

I left the doctor’s office and walked to the car. I was afraid to google anything. I thought, "I'm only in my thirties. I work out three days a week. I eat healthy. I don't eat fast food, and I don't drink sodas. God is this really happening?".  Suddenly, I remembered Oprah's interview with Christina Applegate! I remember watching the show at home a few years ago, unknowing how I would later be affected. She was thirty-six with a husband, small kids and a nice career. She said she just told them to "F--- it!  Take them both!"  Forced to tell her story after her privacy had been invaded, she had chosen to have the lumpectomy first and then chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. I just know that I saw her talk about going through the surgery, and when she recovered she returned to her life with her family and her career. She survived and looked amazing!  Who knew, after watching 'Married With Children' so many years ago… I sat in the car scrolling through her articles on my phone. That interview was my only reference point at that moment. Reading her story gave me reassurance. My decision had been made. "I have two beautiful little girls to be here for...", I thought. I was having a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, and there was nothing to think about. I just needed to get all the details of what this entailed. To this day I'm still afraid to google bilateral mastectomy. It's still so hard to even say. 
My next thought:  Now, how do I tell my seven and nine year old daughters about all of this?...

(To be continued...)

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Call That Changed My Life ...

When you think about a flower that’s in bloom, you think about its beauty, fresh scent and new life. It all appears to be so perfect… At no point do you stop and focus on a broken branch or torn leaf or even the dirt it came from before the beautiful bloom. When reflecting on the past few months of my life, ‘Beneath the Petals’ came to mind through a friend. As a writer, it has always been healing to open up through words to paper. I decided to start this blog to share my story of a journey that I had no choice but to take. This is scary for me to open up and let people in, but if my story saves one life, then this weekly blog will have served its purpose as I use it to continue to heal and move forward.  

Everyone who knows me knows that I’m extremely private with what goes on in my personal life, but on December 19, 2012 I received some news that rocked my world. I was diagnosed with breast cancer… (for a while I couldn’t say it)  On that day, I couldn’t deal with it myself let alone share it with the world. (baby steps). It was the last day of my Perfect Peach Journey Workshops with teens for 2012, and that was the only thing on my mind. I was in my room preparing for the last session when the phone rang. The doctor who had given me a mammogram and a biopsy as a precaution for something really small that appeared strange was calling me with results.  I thought back to a call I received when I was waiting get the biopsy.  A close friend called and I told them what I was doing and they said, “Whatever happens.  It’s going to be okay.”

Now it’s two days later and ‘whatever happens’ is happening now.  When the voice on the other end of the call said who she was, I had no worries. She sounded as if everything was okay. She calmly said, “We got your results from the biopsy and it was cancerous.” I stopped breathing for a minute. Time stood still as I let the words sink in. Only the people closest to me know that I don’t immediately react to things that are painful. The more painful or difficult it is to digest, the longer it takes me to react—so you can only imagine how long it took me to react to this. I was waiting for her to say something else—as if there were something else to say. I was hoping for a brief moment that it was some kind of mistake. My sister, who is one year older, had just gotten a mammogram a few weeks earlier, and her results came back fine. We both decided to go get mammograms last year after my mom recovered from her second bout with breast cancer. (We all went through it together!) It was supposed to be a routine visit. Wait, they just calmly tell you this over the phone. Why is she so calm? My response was (in my I can handle this voice), “Okay, what’s next?” In her calm, monotone voice she said, “I need you to come to my office tomorrow. Will that work for you?” I thought, ‘How could it not work for me? How can any of this work for me? Is this a trick question?’ I reluctantly said, “Of course.” I ended the call as if it never happened. I just wasn’t ready. I shared the news with no one, and I finished preparing for my last workshop and headed out the door to Families First Non-Profit main office in downtown Atlanta. My life went according to my plan for the rest of that day.  The news was put out of my mind.

I eventually called my sister, the only person I could bring myself to tell. As soon as I started talking, I began to cry. At that moment, I grew really scared, and I felt helpless. She told me to calm down and tell her what was going on. After telling her the news, she calmly took control (as she normally does) and said, “It’s going to be okay. I’ll take you to the doctor. Stop crying and don’t worry. It’s going to be okay.” My sister has always been the stronger, outspoken one of the two of us. We both agreed that we could not tell our Mom…  

(to be continued …)