On September 16, 2013, I received the phone call no one would want. It started me on a journey no one would choose. It made me a member of a club no one would join. A calm, soothing voice delivered these core-shaking words, “you have cancer.” Many other words followed. I didn’t really hear them. All I could think was my 16-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son. My parents. My siblings. How was I going to tell them? Then my thoughts rushed back to the caller. The poor man – I wonder how many times he’d made this dreadful phone call.
My nagging gut feelings now made sense. After my annual mammogram, the radiologist wanted to talk to me. That had never happened, even though I experienced a few scary recalls. This time they also ordered an ultrasound and then a biopsy. And the wonderful breast care staff I knew, acted a bit different…and distant.
A whirlwind of appointments followed the call: consultation with the surgeon (Captain of “Team Margaret”), MRIs, a second biopsy, an EKG, bloodwork and a lymphoscintigraphy. Followed by “The Surgery”, just 10 days after the phone call. The post-surgical reports measured the success: clear margins and no lymph involvement. I was blessed.
I returned to work in a week. I had a port implanted in preparation for the chemotherapy that started the first week in October. I went through 12 rounds (once a week) of really strong stuff, followed by 25 rounds (every 3 weeks) of less toxic chemo. My hair fell out after the 3rd week and was a matted mess. While we were all home for Veterans Day, my daughter said, “Don’t stress, Mom, let’s just cut it.” The two of them had way too much fun cutting that mess and shaving me bald. I cherish those memories! My kids were both amazing.
I also had 25 radiation treatments from February through the first week of March of 2014 that left me with painful burns. That year was a blur. I rarely missed a day of work. I was so determined to make it in my “new normal, I earned the title, “Sturdy Girl.” A nurse named Katie called me frequently to check on me, answer questions, and inform me of other support in the community. She always mentioned the Livestrong program at the YMCA. I listened, thanked her and hung up. Sturdy Girl was doing just fine on her own!
In the summer of 2015, Katie called as I was putting dinner on the table. I went in another room to talk. When she asked me how I was, I completely fell apart. I wasn’t fine. To most people, my cancer “journey” was in the rearview mirror…but not for me. She gently reminded me I hadn’t availed myself of any of the community supports. She told me it was time to take care of me. She likened it to an adult on the airplane instructed to place the oxygen mask over her own face before attending to anyone else. This time I wrote down all the resources she mentioned, including the number for Livestrong. When I finally called, I was told they would be starting a class in October. They added me to the list. In the meantime, I attended other survivor events.
During the Livestrong in-take I was introduced to our group leader; I liked him right away. I met the other members of the class, 4 women and a man, during orientation. We talked about why we chose Livestrong. Though our stories differed, we were a supportive group. We met twice a week for 12 weeks. We usually started out in the Wellness Center. We made each other laugh through our workouts. At the end of each session, we went into the Land Aerobics room to stretch. That’s where we really got to know each other. We talked about our journeys and comforted each other. We just GOT it.
Every day reminds me of where I have been. I also have many “what if” moments. We talked about them in our Livestrong. It felt so good to know I wasn’t alone. I never missed a session and didn’t want it to end. So, after it was over, I joined the Y. I enjoy seeing some from my Livestrong group while I am there.
As part of my new normal, “taking care of me” decision, I now participate in as many YMCA classes as possible after work. The long-term maintenance drug I take for another year and a half causes side effects. I found the YMCA water fitness classes less stressful on my back (one of the side effects). The instructors are so great and the class members are always fun and welcoming.