December 2, 2014 was probably the worst day of my life – it was the day I learned that I had breast cancer. The details of the conversation with my physician are a bit foggy; I was in complete shock. I heard nothing after the word “cancer.” I couldn’t imagine how this could happen to me. I've had mammograms every year, and there is no history of breast cancer in my family.
My daughter Katie is a nurse at Mercy Medical Center. She was with me when I received the news, and she took in the information as I fought back tears and shook in fear. All I could think about was how to tell my husband and three other children. There were so many thoughts going through my mind, and I couldn’t face the reactions I knew they would have. As a mother, all you want to do is protect your children and see them happy. It broke my heart to see them so upset. It’s still hard for me to think about that day. I didn’t want to die – I want to be here to see my boys graduate from college, I want to be here for the weddings and grandchildren...and much, much longer. I couldn’t even speak the words that I had cancer.
The pathology reports from the biopsy came in the following week, and I learned that my tumor was intrusive ductal carcinoma, estrogen positive, and HER2 N1 negative – a very common form of breast cancer. However, the actual diagnosis really comes after the tumor is surgically removed and tested, and in my case, ultimately changed my original stage and grade diagnosis to a higher degree for both.
A very good friend gave me the name of a highly recommended surgeon here at Mercy Medical Center, Dr. Lisa Planeta. When I met with her, we immediately “clicked,” and she explained everything in terms that I understood. I finally had a treatment plan after a month of extreme worry: surgery, then chemo or radiation (or both).
The surgeon’s office then booked me with (in my opinion) the greatest medical oncologist in the world, Dr. Vatsala Kirtani, and the greatest radiation oncologist in the world, Dr. Maryann Lowen. I met all of them on the Mercy campus on the same day. This was fortunate, because the information I received was fresh in my mind, and I was able to retain it and ask questions, and I had a lot of questions.
Although my fear hadn’t diminished, the reality of what lay ahead of me finally sank in, and I had to face it. This is when I decided that I wasn't going to live with cancer; it had to live with ME. Surviving is a choice, not an option.
After my surgery was completed, I learned that I would need chemotherapy followed by radiation. The chemotherapy treatments lasted for 16 weeks. Everything you’ve heard about chemo is true – it’s exhausting, depressing, and complications can happen, which was the case for me. The next few months were a struggle. I was very weak and tired. And as hard as it was on me, I think it was worse for my husband and children as they took care of me. Even so, I continued to work, because, in my mind, if I stopped working, I would succumb to this terrible disease. I was having no part of that. In hindsight, this wasn’t a wise decision because it contributed to the three hospital admissions I had while on chemotherapy. My doctor, family and friends all told me I had to slow down – I just didn’t know how.
During my chemo, I also realized how many good friends I have. A group of ladies in East Longmeadow made dinners for my family every week for four months. Volunteers came forward to take me to my chemo appointments when my family wasn’t able to. (At one point, there was even a waiting list for this task!) And of course, my close-knit group of friends, who are like sisters, kept me smiling through it all. They also helped me enjoy my new “friends”... my wigs.
My new “friends” were each given a name: Fiona, Veronica, Ava, Marla, Penelope, and Carmela (because she had caramel highlights), to name a few. I was a redhead, a brunette, a blonde, an ombré – straight, curly, wavy, short, long and medium length, all something different from what my own natural hair had looked like. The wigs were a form of therapy for me. They helped me stay upbeat and laugh again. They also made the people around me laugh as well as they never knew what to expect.
I was determined to not look sick and somehow convinced myself that I would be one of the few women who would not lose their hair. Unfortunately, a day or two after my second treatment, my scalp became really painful. I just couldn't take the pain of the breakage, so I had my daughter chop off my braid. I went to my hairdresser the next day to have my scalp shaved. I was surprisingly okay with it. I could camouflage my baldness with a wig; it was sort of liberating to stop worrying about it.
Then, I lost my eyebrows and eyelashes. I was not prepared for this. Now, I didn’t look like Mary – I looked like I had cancer.
I remember one night I was vomiting, and I looked in the mirror and I did not know who was looking back at me. It was one of the low points of this journey. After my last hospitalization, I spent almost four weeks mostly bedridden. I couldn’t work. I could barely walk, and I had a tough time emotionally.
I eventually learned that I had to rest in a way I had never done before. I took six weeks off from work – another difficult task. It was hard to be home alone, especially in the summer, and I could do nothing but sleep. At one point, I came downstairs after showering and sat on the couch, trying to feel alive. One of my sons came in and hugged me and said, “It’s so good to see you out of bed, Mom.” His words made me realize how worried and sad my family must be. I knew I had to get better.
Eventually, I became stronger both physically and emotionally. I am getting to be Mary once again, slowly becoming my familiar self. My energy level is not what it used to be, but my spirit and love for life, family, and friends is enormous, including the doctors and nurses that I came to love seeing.
My journey through breast cancer has taught me many life lessons...
- Mammography saves lives.
- If you are diagnosed with cancer, take someone with you on appointments to take notes.
- Don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion.
- When friends offer well-intentioned advice, remember that every cancer case is different.
- Pick doctors you like, who communicate with each other. Most surgeons, medical oncologists and radiation oncologists work as a team.
- Listen to your body and pay attention to your symptoms.
- It’s okay to be sad and to have down days. (How can you not, while fighting for your life?)
This journey has been a process for everyone I know, and a hard one at that. I survived breast cancer with the help of love, prayers, friendships (quite a few), and grace. If wealth is measured by the number of friends you have, I’d say I’m a very wealthy woman.
My experience at Mercy Medical Center was beyond my expectations. My personal battle became the battle of a great care team whose members are now very dear to my heart.
I want to thank my team of doctors: Dr. Vatsala Kirtani and her assistant Maria, Dr. Lisa Planeta, and Dr. Mary Ann Lowen. Additionally, thank you to the oncology nurses at the infusion site in the Weldon building: Tracy, Kelly, Katie, Bev, Lisa, and Cindy, and my team of radiology techs: Tara, Carol, and Nancy, and nurse Peggy. You are very special ladies!
My words cannot express how appreciative I am. They saved my life, and I am eternally grateful. Thank you so much.
Fight like a girl!