By Debbie Cloud
My name is Debbie Cloud and I am a Breast Cancer Survivor. The month of October, Breast Cancer Awareness month, has become very personal to me. When I was a young adult in my early 30’s I lost two very close friends to Breast Cancer and became vigilant in staying aware of the disease, watching what I ate, performing monthly breast exams and having a yearly mammogram.
It just couldn’t happen to me… Then in January of 2005 my safe secure world came crashing down upon me. During the Christmas Holidays, I had been unusually tired and had noticed that my left breast was very sore. I didn’t have time to be worried. I had recently had my yearly mammogram in October. I felt sure that if there had been a problem, my mammogram would have shown it. Besides I had too much to accomplish in preparation for Christmas.
When the soreness became worse after Christmas, I decided I needed to call the doctor’s office, but felt it could wait until we were out of school for the MLK holiday. Then one morning in January I noticed a slight dimpling near the nipple. As I performed my self-examination I felt a small lump.
I still wasn’t that concerned because it had only been 3 months since my mammogram. How could a lump have formed so quickly? In my mind it was simply a fibroid cyst as I had problems with them all of my life. Still the soreness was persistent so I made an appointment with my ARNP to check it out. Little did I know at that point that my journey with breast cancer was just beginning?
I remember the look of concern as Gail Gunter, my ARNP, examined my breast and asked how long the dimpling and lump had been there. I would need another mammogram and an ultra sound as well. She felt that no matter what the mammogram and ultra sound showed, the lump would need to be removed. A knot began to form in my stomach and I had an uneasy feeling that something might not be right this time.
I didn’t want to worry my husband or my sons so I kept the worry to myself. I tried to reason with myself that it was probably another fibroid cyst since I had previously had one removed from the same breast. But that nagging feeling stayed with me as I went to the hospital for another mammogram. I knew something was wrong when the light, friendly conversation with the technician stopped and I was quietly ushered to the ultra sound room.
The results were confirmed and I was scheduled for a breast biopsy the following Thursday, January 27th. I called my two sons and told them that I would be having the lump removed just as a precaution and they should not worry. My oldest son, who lived in Birmingham at the time, asked if I needed to have this done in Birmingham. I reassured him that I would be fine having this done at home. My youngest son was a senior at FSU and wanted to come home. I told him it wasn’t necessary and that I would call him when the surgery was over. The nightmare had begun.
The lump was removed during out patient surgery. I was sore when I woke up. Dr. Brunner came in to talk to my husband Larry and me. He told me that he had removed the lump and had asked that the pathology report be phoned in to him the next day so that I would not have to wait all weekend to know the results. The knot in my stomach seemed to grow as somehow I already knew what the pathology report would confirm.
When Larry and I arrived at his office that Friday morning we never sat down in the waiting room. We were instead immediately taken to an exam room. Dr. Brunner confirmed what I had been expecting to hear – Breast Cancer! What followed was a blur. The word Cancer stops you dead in your tracks. It is hard to remember exactly what I felt. Cancer wasn’t in my plans. I had no family history of breast cancer. My youngest son, Jeremy, was about to graduate from college and was applying to Law School. My oldest son, Zack, was looking for a new home in Birmingham where he was successfully working as an investment banker.
I was looking forward to a future of retirement, traveling, weddings, and grandchildren. Breast Cancer was not in my life plan. How would I tell my sons? How would I explain to my mom, who has dementia, that I would not be able to visit her? Still in a daze I was told to prepare for a mastectomy.
Because of the location of the lump, the breast could not be saved. Dr. Brunner would need to take lymph nodes also to make sure that the cancer had not spread. I wanted to have the surgery immediately to get rid of the cancer as fast as I could but Dr. Brunner explained that I needed to process what he had told me. When I finally looked at Larry, I could see that he was devastated. As I scheduled my surgery, he went outside to call our sons. We left the Dr.’s office and went straight to our church. It seemed the black hole was getting deeper and I did not know how to climb out.
I began to prepare myself for surgery. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t want to think what might be ahead of me. My sons came home. I didn’t know what to say to them. They attempted to reassure me that everything was going to be okay.
I didn’t wake them when I left for the hospital early on the morning of the surgery, for fear that I would break down. Larry and I couldn’t talk. The lump in my throat and the knot in my stomach continued to grow. Then my breast was removed.
I awoke to find my hospital room full of family and friends. I don’t remember being in very much pain. I just remember an overwhelming sense of loss and wondering what would happen next.
We returned to Dr. Brunner’s office the next week. The report was in. The Cancer was Stage 2 and had reached one lymph node. The good news was that my cancer was caught in an early stage. The bad news was that I would need to have chemotherapy and before the chemotherapy could begin I would need to have a third surgery to have a port inserted in my chest so that the drugs used in chemotherapy could be injected.
Dr. Dunn, my oncologist, soon became a good friend. His office staff provided answers to many questions and concerns as I prepared for 6 rounds of chemotherapy. I was told to expect to lose all of my hair, experience extreme fatigue and cautioned about foods that I would no longer be able to eat. I would need to buy a wig and make plans to be out of work at school for several days after each treatment. My life would begin to revolve around Doctor visits and chemotherapy treatments. I would no longer be able to sleep at night without medication. The days following treatments would be spent trying to deal with nausea, fatigue, ulcers in my mouth and throat, and hair falling out by the handfuls. I would have my head shaved and lose my eyelashes and toe nails. I became very self-conscious about my head, always being covered with a scarf or a hat, and never letting my two sons see me bald. Oh how I would yearn for days to be normal again!
Throughout my treatments the loving warmth of family and friends surrounded me. My sons would call every day. Meals would appear at my door. Cards would come from people that I had not seen or heard from in years. Simple acts of kindness would help me to make it through each day. It all meant so much to me in my time of need.
I learned what to expect from the treatments. Larry and I would enjoy the good days when I could keep a Popsicle down. He would hold my head and tell me that tomorrow would be a better day when I would be so sick. He quietly cooked all of the meals. He learned to load the dishwasher and wash clothes.
I scheduled my treatments so that I would be well when my son Jeremy graduated from college. We took a family trip to Las Vegas to celebrate. In August we celebrated with our friends that the chemotherapy was finally over and Larry would surprise me by booking a cruise for our family for Christmas.
One out of every 8 women will be diagnosed with Breast Cancer. Every 15 minutes a woman dies of Breast Cancer. Now that I have been diagnosed with Breast Cancer my two sisters are now in a high-risk group of developing breast cancer. These are the cold statistics. Medical services, surgery, chemicals and therapy help women and men to get through this terrible disease, and extend the lives of those that it affects.
Breast cancer is a merciless killer. It can leave survivors devastated and hopeless. Women face many challenges when they suffer from breast cancer. The most traumatic side effect for me was the loss of my hair. It is a great challenge to focus on getting well when you are faced with an onslaught of information that instills fear and doubt about your treatment.
You hear through the media about the latest survival treatments or new treatments that you didn’t receive. You pick up the newspaper or a magazine and read about someone who died of breast cancer and you wonder if that will be you one of these days. Well meaning friends tell you about someone whose cancer has come back. A simple headache or fever will send you to the doctor. You feel like you are on a roller coaster and your emotions are in a constant tailspin…… but you get through it.
My journey with Breast Cancer isn’t over. I consider myself lucky. My cancer was diagnosed early, but I live with a reminder of how precious life is. Every day I take the oral chemotherapy that I hope will continue to keep the cancer from reoccurring. Every day is a blessing for me. I treasure every moment that life brings, the good and the bad. I relish in being able to wash my hair and celebrate each month that I am cancer free. I cherish time spent with family and friends. I am more aware of the beauty around me. I could have chosen to wonder why me – why did I have to have cancer? Instead I have chosen to take this bump in my road of life as God’s plan for what he wants me to do with the rest of my life.