As I write this, I'm dressed in a very baggy, much-washed pink cotton gown, sitting in the imaging center waiting room at my doctor's office. I'm here for my every-six-months follow-up exam and an ultrasound. On the outside, I look completely calm.
On the inside, it's a different story. Though it's been nearly six years since my breast cancer diagnosis, I always get a little flutter in my stomach when I come in for diagnostic testing. I try not to worry unnecessarily, but it's hard not to. I remember what it felt like being told I had cancer in December of 2006. I don't ever want to go through that again, particularly now that I'm a new mom with a 3-month-old baby.
I feel good. I think I'm okay. I'd hate to believe my body would betray me now when I have a child to care for. But I felt good back in 2006, too, better than I had in my whole life. Cancer is sneaky like that. It doesn't always make you hurt. In fact, as my boob doctor says, "if it hurts, it's probably nothing bad."
I have always had dense, cyst-prone breasts, so I didn't think much of it when my OB/GYN discovered a lump on a routine physical exam in August of 2006. "It's a cyst," she assured me, and I believed her. Several weeks after, I had a negative mammogram, which should have reassured me.
Only something felt wrong about this particular lump. It seemed hard, like a marble, and it wouldn't resolve no matter how many times I rubbed it in the shower and chanted, "Go away, go away." I even had my then-boyfriend (now husband) check it out, asking, "Does it feel bigger to you?" Since that's a little like asking, "Do I look fat," he merely grumbled, "I don't know." Finally, three months after the negative mammogram, I called my OB and insisted on an ultrasound. I needed peace of mind if nothing else. What I got was anything but peace. The "cyst" required a biopsy that confirmed I had cancer.
At the time, I was 42 years old and in a serious relationship with a man nine years younger. We had just bought a home together and had picked out my engagement ring (yeah, he wanted to be sure it was something I liked!). I had two pending book deadlines and everything to live for.
Was I scared? Hell, yes. I was petrified.
Did I believe for a moment that this "alien" that had invaded my body would beat me? Okay, I panicked for a moment, asking my doctor, "Am I going to die?" But when she said, "No, but you need to see a breast surgeon ASAP," I pushed forward, determined to get through the crap and reclaim my life as I knew it.
I would go through two surgeries and 34 radiation treatments before my treatment was done. I did not end up having chemo. Yes, I was worn out both mentally and physically. No, I didn't lose my hair but my boob had the worst sunburn of its life, and I had sharp pains in my chest, like I was having a heart attack (oh, the delightful side effects of radiation!). Still, I couldn't dwell on the bad stuff. I could only stand throwing myself so many pity parties. I didn't want to look back. I only wanted to look forward, and I did everything in my power to regain my good health and feel like myself again.
Less than a year after my last radiation session, Ed and I got married, celebrating so much more than our relationship. Our wedding -- complete with pink cake! -- was about life and survival and being with the people we loved most. We figured we'd made it through the "for worse" part already. Surely we were in for a whole lot of "for better."
I'm not sure anyone goes through a cancer scare unchanged. I know it changed me in so many ways. But I was fortunate to have had a rare cancer that's slow-growing and one that allowed me to skip the chemical cocktails that would have put me into early menopause. Because as it turned out, at age 46, I found myself pregnant, which had Ed and me -- and our moms -- tickled pink! Then eight weeks into the pregnancy, I miscarried. I was devastated, so it didn't help when a friend emailed to say, "I was worried that might happen because of your age." Yipes. I guess she'd read the stats that less than 1 percent of women over 45 can get pregnant using their own eggs.
But as I learned from my cancer experience, I'm not a statistic. I'm an individual, not a sheep (sometimes I think we forget that in the urgency to "get cured"). Amazingly, at 47, I found myself pregnant again. And this time, the pregnancy stuck! In late June of this year, I gave birth to a healthy, 8-pound baby girl. Her astrological sign? Cancer. I figure the universe got a good chuckle out of that one.
So sitting here in this ill-fitting pink gown, still waiting for my ultrasound, I marvel at how much has happened these past six years and how different I feel: wiser in so many ways and stronger.
Will I ever take my health for granted again? No. That's why I get nervous every six months when I have my regular boobal check-ups and why I see my doctors whenever anything feels the slightest bit wonky. I know full-well how precarious it is to be a human being with millions of cells that can self-destruct at the worst possible moments.
Will I go nuts every time I hear a woman, especially another mother, say, "Oh, gosh, I haven't had a mammogram in years! Maybe I should go, huh?" Um, YES. And if you have dense breasts, you might want to have an ultrasound, too. Like I said before, cancer is sneaky. You have to be diligent. You have to head it off at the pass, not put off tests that catch it early and give you the best chance to beat it.
Will I ever again doubt that miracles exist? Not after giving birth to my daughter at 47 without fertility treatments, after surviving breast cancer.
So my message to all of you -- my hope for everyone this October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is that you'll stop putting off taking care of yourself. Don't be afraid to get a little squashed. Let me tell you, it's a lot less painful than what you'll go through if you end up with an "alien" in your boob, particularly one you've ignored for months. The goal, after all, is not merely surviving but thriving... and staying in the pink for the rest of our lives!
P.S. My ultrasound and six-month boobal check-up were normal. Now those butterflies in my stomach can go away, until the next time!
For more inspiring breast cancer stories, check out the celebrities in the slideshow below.
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