Imagine being 33 years old, single, living in one of the greatest cities in the world, with two N.Y.C. Marathons under your belt, a gym membership card that's worn out from over-use, and a health history that involves one halfway decent cold or flu per year, but nothing more serious than chicken pox in your medical past. Add to that a size 32A bra (don't laugh!) and no family history of breast cancer.
Now imagine, one day when tugging on your bra you feel a little twinge of pain. At first it felt like a bruise, but on further inspection it appears to be a small lump. Hmmmm...a lump? You wait two days, thinking it might go away, but being a smart, savvy woman, you wise up and call your gynecologist. Thankfully and reassuringly she tells you there's no need to worry about a lump like that, but a sonogram is needed to see if it is filled with fluid (if it is, she can easily drain it).
Speeding the story up a bit, I find that sonogram appointments are apparently hard to come by unless the doctor calls for me. After three phone calls to my doctor's office requesting her assistance go unanswered, I take an appointment six months away.
It's sonogram day. I'm a little nervous, but only because I have never had a sonogram before. Surprisingly, they ask me to stay for a mammogram and a needle biopsy. I am calm -- curious, but calm. They tell me they just "want to be sure" and I appreciate their thoroughness. It's a day of "firsts" -- after my first sonogram, I get my first mammogram (a little tricky with 32As!) and my first needle biopsy. It was one hell of a day (I passed out during the mammogram! Apparently I wasn't as calm as I thought!). They told me I should have the lump removed because over the six months I had waited for my appointment, it had gotten bigger. I could see it, I could feel it, and I agreed with them -- I wanted it out.
Fast forward a couple months to yet another "first." I have my first surgery, a lumpectomy, to remove the lump. The surgery goes smoothly, my recovery is easy and Little Lefty (as I came to call my left breast) was doing well and on the mend! A quick trip to the surgeon a week later revealed the incision was healing nicely. With a clean bill of health, I head to North Carolina for my sister's baby shower. After ignoring the first two messages left by my doctor's office (I was busy with shower preparations!), I finally pick up.
Nurse: "We have your pathology report. Can you come into the office today?"
Me: "Well no. I'm in another state at the moment!"
Nurse: "How about Monday?"
Me: "No, I'll be back Tuesday."
Nurse: "Ok can you come in on Tuesday?"
Is anyone else sensing some urgency here? I tell the nurse this sounds concerning but she tells me she hasn't even seen my report yet and just needs to make the appointment. Slightly reassured by her comment, I hang up and try not to think about it.
I swing by the doctor's office on Tuesday, January 25, 2005, on my way to work and she says:
"We thought it was nothing. But you have breast cancer."
Well, that was unexpected. Excuse me people, what the hell happened to "this isn't the kind of lump you have to worry about?" My eyes well up, I start to panic, and then suddenly realize that my surgeon is saying something important. She's explaining the type of cancer they found and then it hits me that I will have to call my parents and explain this to them. So I shake off the panic and do my best to absorb at least a fraction of what she is tell me.
And so began my life as a breast cancer survivor. There were long conversations with other survivors, there were countless hours spent in doctor waiting rooms. There were life-changing, potentially disfiguring decisions to make, and a whole new medical language to learn. There were second opinions, and third opinions. There were a total of five surgeries (bye bye, Little Lefty) and four months of chemotherapy. There was a drastic haircut from elbow-length to chin-length (followed by tears), then hair falling out like a dog shedding its coat (more tears), a head shaving (bless the lovely stylist who kept talking endlessly about himself to distract me), and then ultimately a wig (which oddly and thankfully served as a source of humor rather than tears). There was incredible support from family and friends and lots of love, so much love.
As the chemo drugs worked their way out of my system and my hair started to grow back, I started to think about all that I'd been through and how lucky I was to be diagnosed early and survive. It was time for some changes. Perhaps one more N.Y.C. Marathon to prove that I still had it in me, despite all my body had been through (and hell yes, I did finish!). And I wanted to find a more rewarding career -- one that I could feel really good about at the end of the day.
Fast forward to 2008 when I start my job at the Avon Foundation for Women. What could be more rewarding than taking the personal trauma of battling breast cancer and putting it to good use every day? As the program director for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, I am so incredibly proud knowing that the money raised at our events helps people get the breast cancer screening and treatment they need, regardless of their ability to pay for it. I was so fortunate to have good health insurance and access to great doctors, but not everyone is so lucky. To know that the work we do every day could ultimately help turn someone's diagnosis into a story of survival is really something special. And to know that we are funding research into new treatments, a prevention, and ultimately a cure is not only amazing for those it will help, but selfishly I am hopeful that this research will keep me from ever having to go through breast cancer again.
And to see what the events themselves do for people is remarkable as well. I travel to all nine of the Avon Walks every year (I've been to 32 so far!) and to see complete strangers form lasting friendships, to see people bond over their connection to the cause, to see thousands of people celebrate survivorship...it's incredible. I see timid and anxious newly diagnosed women embrace their survivorship and come away with some reassurance that everything really can be ok. I see the satisfaction and accomplishment on the faces of people who so desperately want to help, to make a difference, to show their loved one who is fighting breast cancer right now that they are proud of them and doing everything they can to help. I see pride (and sometimes astonishment!) in those who never thought they could walk 39 miles.
Personally as a breast cancer survivor (six years now!) it is beyond inspiring for me to meet so many other survivors at the Avon Walks, especially what I like to call the "big number survivors." To meet strong, successful, happy, healthy women who are 10, 15, even 25 year survivors -- what could be more hopeful? I practically jumped over a table to get to a woman who said she was a 40 year survivor -- I had to hug her instantly. And to think that my little conversations with the one and two year survivors (the "newbies") may actually help them, give them some comfort, confidence and hope -- well there's not much that's better than that.
When friends, family and even strangers ask me how they can get involved and support the breast cancer cause, I tell them to WALK! There are nine Avon Walks each year in fabulous cities across the United States, and it doesn't matter which one you participate in because every single one has the same incredible sense of community, celebration, hope and purpose. And each of them play an equal role in the greater fight against breast cancer. As I prepare for my 33rd Avon Walk, I am just as excited to get out there on the route to meet these amazing people and hear their amazing stories as I was on my very first Walk. Whether you come by yourself or with a team of 20 people, whether your family has been hit with breast cancer more times than you care to admit or you've been lucky enough not to be touched by the disease and want to keep it that way -- you will have an unforgettable, life-changing weekend and the funds you raise will truly make a difference.
Each year on August 4, I send out an extremely sappy email to my friends and family to commemorate my "cancerversary" -- not only to celebrate another healthy year for me, but to celebrate the incredible people who add so much to my life, who supported me when I was sick, who are there for me today. Cancer sucks -- there's no other way to put it -- but some really really good things can come out of it.