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Elizabeth Edwards And Us: Lessons In Resilience

06/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Elizabeth Edwards' new memoir, Resilience, is about to be released in a few days. Her publisher, Broadway Books, says Edwards has written "an unsentimental and ultimately inspirational meditation on the gifts we can find among life's biggest challenges."

If anyone is qualified to write on life's biggest challenges, it's Elizabeth. Her life has been filled with them: the loss of her 16-year-old son, Wade, in a tragic car accident, her long battle with metastatic breast cancer, now terminal, and the tearing apart of her 32-year-marriage to former presidential candidate, John Edwards, after he admitted an extra-marital affair with Rielle Hunter while still denying paternity of Hunter's child.

According to her memoir, John's admission of the affair "made her cry, scream and throw up." She appears on Oprah tomorrow to discuss her book and their life together since the affair.

Elizabeth Edwards is more than just a victim in this story. She's also a powerful champion for women's health care and cancer issues and reforming the health care system. This is where my story intersects with hers. I just became one of the 200,000 women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

Last week, in my post: 100 Day Plan For Creating Extraordinary Results, I left out one important detail, one that we can never quite plan for. It arrived on my plate later in the week though, to remind me: there are the plans we make for our lives and then there's life's plan for us. It's the latter that we can never quite know or be sure of, which is what makes this place so tricky to navigate.

My yearly mammogram, done a couple of weeks ago, produced something "suspicious", which warranted a second look. The second look warranted a biopsy. And then the wait for the phone call.

The call came last Monday, "Well the good news is, you don't have invasive cancer," the doctor said. I waited for the "but" I knew was coming next. "You do have non-invasive "abnormal cells" (she didn't use the "C" word), which could become invasive, and will need to be treated." She then went on to describe my options for treatment and gave me the phone numbers of an oncologist and breast surgeon and told me to schedule consultations.

Wait! An oncologist? That's a cancer doc. This was not in my plan! Let me see, for the Health category, I did not include a visit to the oncologist nor did I plan to see a breast surgeon. Surely, this must be somebody else's biopsy that got mixed up with mine. Cancer was definitely not in my 100 Day Plan.

I began a dialogue with Big Mama. "Look", I said. "She didn't actually use the word "cancer", so maybe this is a false positive. I shouldn't worry, right?"

Big Mama was silent. She was probably busy handling other things, like the swine flu pandemic, and global warming. Guess I was going to have to figure this one out for myself. Google. That's it. I'll Google this puppy and find out what we're talking about.

I wrote in the letters "DCIS" in the search window. I'd never heard of this condition before. Perhaps some of you have had it or know of someone who has, but it was new to me. A search produced 609,000 results, all of them cancer related. Sites like the Mayo Clinic, National Institute of Health, Breastcancer.org all came up. Thus began my journey down a turn in the road I didn't anticipate or plan for in my 100 Day Plan.

DCIS - Ductal Carcinoma In Situ- for those of you, especially the females reading this, who haven't heard of this before, is a form of breast cancer. "In Situ" means encapsulated. These guys are stuck in the lactation ducts and not going anywhere. Yet.

I've been told by numerous people, including my doctors regarding this diagnosis, "If you have to have cancer, this is the kind to have." Apparently, I'm one of the lucky ones. We've caught it early and it's very treatable. Sounds simple, right? Not quite. The options for treatment are varied, each carrying significant factors to be weighed.

A visit to the oncologist, Dr. Usha Sunkara, produced more information. The jury is out whether or not all breast cancer begins "in situ" and then morphs into metastatic cancer, or whether it's in a category all by itself. But for sure, the guys stuck in my ducts could become restless, stage a jail-break and start roaming around looking for new territory to inhabit.

We discussed treatment options, none of which sounded like a walk in the park. Most often, depending on the size of the area to be excised and whether or not the surgeon can get a one inch "clear margin" all the way around the area, lumpectomy followed by radiation and tamoxifen therapy is the standard protocol for treating DCIS.

I'd already done my research and knew the radiation path involved six weeks of treatment, five times a week. That alone sounded daunting to me.

My mind wandered while she explained my options. Good thing my friend was with me to take notes. I envisioned myself on the daily trek to the hospital for radiation treatments. The visit to the oncologist's office was depressing enough. I still hadn't quite grokked what was happening to me. Sitting in the waiting room with all the really old, sick people, it felt like I was watching a movie about someone else's life.

My attention snapped back when I heard the oncologist say, "In addition to the radiation, you'll need to take tamoxifen for five years." Tamoxifen, I learned, is an anti-estrogen hormone, designed to suppress the estrogen receptor cells and safe guard against the cancer returning or migrating to the other breast.

Then began the litany of potential side effects: clotting and elevated risk for strokes and heart disease, vaginal bleeding, hot flashes, mood swings, leg pain, worst of all, uterine cancer. I was liking this scenario less and less.

"So, doc," I asked this 40-year-old, stunningly beautiful Indian woman, "What are the other options? I'm not excited about what you've laid out so far."

"Well," she said. "You can have a simple mastectomy, uni-lateral or bi-lateral, with or without breast reconstruction and be done with it." My mind was now fast-forwarding, picturing myself with no breasts, or ones that don't remotely resemble the ones I've lived with for 67 years. Maybe I'd end up with ones I liked better, but getting from here to there didn't sound like it was going to be a picnic.

Then I asked her the $64,000 question. "If you were faced with my exact diagnosis, knowing what you know about the treatment options available, what would you choose for yourself?"

Her answer stunned me. "I'd have the bi-lateral mastectomies and be done with it," she replied without hesitation. Turns out many other female health care professionals I've spoken with since share her opinion.

Obviously, there are a lot of things to weigh and consider in deciding what to do next, and the jury is still out for me. Treating cancer is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Every women who faces this diagnosis needs to do her homework, get informed, listen to her own inner wisdom and decide what course of action is right for her.

If nothing else, this event is a reminder that life occurs on its own terms. We have very little control over what happens. My job is surrender to what is, accept it, make the best informed choices I can make, and go on with my life.

I do not believe this is a random event. This chapter is here for a reason, so I embrace it. I trust it will change me in ways I cannot see or imagine and that experience will bring me to a place I couldn't' have gotten to without it. I have a new teacher now, come to call forth something new in me.

Every moment of life is grist for the mill. I imagine our lives as being like a big stew. Our job is to take what comes, the sweet and the sour, throw it all into the pot and render it into something magnificent. That's what I intend to do with this chapter called cancer. It's another ingredient for the stew.

That's what resilience is all about. Take what comes, learn from it, and turn it into something that contributes to all who journey along the path. I expect to be just fine on the other side of all this. What's that old saying? "What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger". I'm being diverted down a side road or maybe I'm being transferred onto a whole new highway that will forever change the course of my life.

I am blessed to walk this path accompanied by the love of my family and friends. I know that where Love is, fear cannot abide.

Elizabeth Edwards faces far greater challenges than I. But life eventually delivers everyone to what will seem daunting at times, so that we can grow. We're far more capable of bouncing forwards than we give ourselves credit for. So let's all take a healthy dose of resilience, offer our prayers for Elizabeth and welcome all that come our way.

This video speaks volumes about who Elizabeth Edwards is and what she'll be remembered for. She's joined by Linda Ellerbee, another breast cancer survivor, in a powerful moment towards the end. For all the women especially, and the men who love them, please enjoy:

I'd love to hear from readers who have gone through breast cancer treatment or have a woman in their life who has. What's your experience? What helped you decide your course of treatment and if you had it to do over again, would you make the same choice? What did you learn from your experience?

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Be well and stay strong!