Diana M. Raab, R.N, MFA : 'Thank You, Cancer'

By Diana M. Raab, R.N, MFA

There is no cancer in my family, no cancer of any kind, except for mine. I am now 57 and it's been 10 years since my diagnosis.

For the 10 years before this happened I had annual mammograms and each of those years were accompanied by false positive results, bringing me back for a repeat mammogram. In May 2001 when I walked out of the exam room, I had a sense that things were not the same this time around. The ultrasound after the mammogram showed calcifications in my mammary ducts that were not present the year before. To confirm this, I had a breast biopsy. My official diagnosis was DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ), a pre-cancer in the mammary ducts that if left untreated can develop into a tumor. Actually, most tumors begin this way. Doctors reminded me that I had my mammogram just in time.

I was referred to a world-renowned specialist in my type of cancer, located in Los Angeles. My appointment was the following week and he was able to do a needle biopsy the day after my visit. I returned home to my small town in Florida, and three days later the phone rang.

My husband, who was beside me during that dreadful phone call, drew me close and caressed both my breasts. I became more aware of them than ever before. I felt every throb, every tingle and every squeeze. I wanted to flood my memory with those feelings. I felt thankful for all the years that I had been bestowed with two perfect breasts. My senses were heightened. I listened to every compliment and each reminder of my beauty as a woman. I couldn't get enough reinforcement.

"Well, there's good news and bad news," the surgeon said. "The good news is that whatever we found was early and the bad news is," he added, "the DCIS is quite diffuse around the breast."

He recommended a mastectomy and reconstruction because he said if he removed all the calcified areas, my breast would be severely deformed. Plus, I would need chemotherapy and radiation.

Deep down, I wanted to be dead. I thought that it would be a good alternative to mutilating the part of me that nursed and nurtured my three children, the part of me men glance at when not noticing my eyes first.

I developed a deep trust in my new Los Angeles doctor and decided to return there for the surgery. A few months later, we flew to Los Angeles. He performed the mastectomy, and his associate plastic surgeon performed the reconstruction. I opted for the latismis dorsi flap reconstruction, which involved the removal of a muscle from my back to cup the breast implant.

The following weeks were like an emotional roller coaster. The post-operative period was grueling, laden with pain, discomfort and tears. Even as a nurse, no amount of preparation could have gotten me ready for what to expect after the surgery. I couldn't stand looking in the mirror at the body that bore three magnificent children. It took me days to even glance down at my breasts, something I insisted on doing first with my plastic surgeon. The mastectomy site was numb; most of the pain came from my back.

My passion for writing really helped me cope with my journey. In fact, the day after my diagnosis and through my post-operative time I kept a journal, something I had done one numerous occasions during difficult times in my life. The entries, along with prose and poems, eventually became the book my daughter suggested I write when I first told her about my cancer. This self-help memoir, Healing With Words: A Writer's Cancer Journey, was published in June 2010. It shares my story and offers writing prompts to help other women share theirs.

With each passing day, I have become more and more aware of the both the fragility and brevity of life, and how there is no time like the present to begin following your dreams and passions. Now 10 years later, people tell me I look better than ever, and I feel great too. I will continue to be a survivor and I hope I inspire others to be the same.

I learned that emotional healing usually takes longer than does physical healing. I have tried surrounding myself with people who have good energy and who don't bring me down. I am under the care of a holistic internist in Los Angeles who works hard at keeping me healthy. Months after my surgery I returned to school for my MFA in Writing and just last month in celebration of my 10th year of survival, I began my PhD in psychology.

Looking back over the past 10 years, I can safely say, that what does not kill you makes you stronger. Being diagnosed with breast cancer was a life-changing event. The scare taught me the value of life and forced me to slow down and appreciate all that is good and to embrace doing all that makes me happy. And for this, I would like to thank my cancer.

Diana M. Raab, MFA, RN, is an award-winning memoirist and poet and the author of eight books. She is a journaling advocate and frequently writes and speaks on the healing power of writing. Her book, "Writers and Their Notebooks," won the 2011 Eric Hoffer Award and was a finalist for "Foreword" magazine's 2010 Book of the Year. She has two memoirs, "Healing With Words: A Writer's Cancer Journey" (winner of the 2011 Mom's Choice Award for Memoir/Biography) and "Regina's Closet: Finding My Grandmother's Secret Journal" and three poetry collections. To buy Diana's books and to read her blog, visit her on Red Room.