As far as I can tell, the cultivation of gratitude is the best weapon you can sharpen when facing a beast like cancer. It is the things you feel grateful for that define your life and keep you alive. -Caitlin Marcoux
So I was told I had a small cancerous lesion in a milk duct in my right breast. It’s called ductal carcinoma in situ, DCIS for short, and at least according to one specialist with whom I consulted, if you’re going to get breast cancer, it’s the best one to get. My treatment options ranged from a fairly modest lumpectomy to a mastectomy with or without reconstruction.
As I’ve written before, I told my surgeon to just jump ahead and explain bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, because I wanted the most aggressive approach, the one that would increase my odds as much as possible. My thinking was that of course I would have the right breast removed; and then removing my unaffected left breast would be preventative – it would eliminate the concern of potentially developing cancer there, too, someday in the future. Kind of an Angelina Jolie approach to breast cancer risk.
Imagine my shock, then, when the pathology from my surgery was shown to me, and I learned that – surprise! – my left breast had contained a malignancy in it as well. Shock was followed quickly by surprise, anger [and more than a few choice f-bombs], and eventually – and somewhat more sweetly – by awe.
Awe, the noun, is defined as an overwhelming feeling of reverence produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like. . . .
I am awed that my instincts told me to do this. I am awed that I had the support of a surgeon who understood my desire to take an aggressive course. I am awed that only a few people questioned and forced me to answer why I voluntarily would remove a supposedly-healthy breast. I am awed that the Universe gave me the courage to make a decision that, without doubt, has made me more healthfully whole than I was before December 27, 2013, when I underwent my bilateral surgery.
Because, you see, although there was cancer in my supposedly-healthy left breast, it too was DCIS, and it was fully contained, so it is considered to be a Stage Zero cancer. Although it was almost three times as large as the DCIS lesion in my right breast, it was in hiding: not discovered on mammogram nor sonogram, not apparent in manual breast exams, either mine or those of the many physicians who’ve now treated me. But it was there – all 8 millimeters [about 1/3 inch] of it – and, eventually, had I chosen to keep my supposedly-healthy breast, it undoubtedly would have made itself known.
By then, though, there is no way to know whether it would’ve remained contained or as small as it was. The what-ifs are many and they induce an odd sense of gut-panic, the kind that makes bile rise in my throat, for if I had not been adamant, if I had not had the support of those closest to me, namely my two sisters and a couple friends who’d been there before, the left-sided devil would’ve remained inside, hidden for now, fooling me – fooling us all.
So, as I say, shock pretty quickly evolved into awe, as in AWESOME decision-making. Awesome vulnerability to take the steps I needed to take to protect myself.
And that’s why I believe that Caitlin Marcoux, a breast cancer warrior herself, is precisely correct when she says that gratitude is the very best weapon against this beast called cancer. Despite a bit of a bumpy post-surgical road [taking a nap is my newest and most favored pastime], I am so very grateful to learn that I’ve removed the cancer from my body by removing my breasts.
Grateful too that my post-surgery pathology revealed no cancer in any of my sentinel lymph nodes, grateful that my treatment course simply involves recuperation and finishing up the reconstruction, and that there’s no need for other therapeutic interventions like radiation or chemotherapy.
And I’m deeply grateful that I have the support of those around me to take this much-needed time to recover.
Shock? Sure, in the moment, it was present. Awe, however, remains.