It Doesn’t Take Body Parts to be a Woman

Donna: “You think that if you got no uterus and no breasts, you’re still technically a woman?”
Erin: “Sure you are. Yeah, you just…you’re actually a happier woman because you don’t have to worry about maxi-pads and underwire.”

This quote from the Erin Brockovich movie resonated with me to the core.  In 1991, due to female complications, I ended up having a total hysterectomy.  I would tell my girlfriends, “It’s the best thing I ever did for myself.”  But in 2002, when I found a lump in my breast and the doctor’s misdiagnosed me, I ended up having an advanced stage of breast cancer, causing me to have a double mastectomy. As I was being wheeled into the operating room, these words played in my head.

At the age of 47, I was single for the first time in a very long time, an empty-nester, working a job I hated but going to school to start a new career I was excited about. 

It was surprising, once I heard those words, “you have cancer” how nothing else would permeate my mind.  Even though I had been getting mammograms every year from the time I was 40, the outcome was always normal.  How could this be?

Once the shock wore off, I got to work.  I started doing research on my cancer, Invasive Lobular Carcinoma.  I saw the words, “Mammographically occult…”

I remember when I found the small, pea size lump at the 8:00 position on my right breast.  I was doing a breast self-exam (BSE) and when I found the small hard invader, I immediately made an appointment with my primary care doctor.  She felt it too and sent me over to the radiology department to get a mammogram and an ultrasound.  The radiologist, a woman, told me she wasn’t able to feel a lump and asked me to place a lead bb where I “thought” it was. 

After the results came back, she told me it was a fluid filled cyst, come back in a year for a follow up.  That was in April of 2002.  In December of 2002, I felt the lump had gotten bigger.  Now it was the size of a quarter.  I wasn’t worried, after all, it was a fluid filled cyst and probably had more fluid buildup.

By April of 2003, the lump was now the size of a large lime and the skin around it was itchy.  It had been a year so it was time to call the doctor and schedule my follow up.  When I called to make the appointment, I told the scheduler about the lump and how it had gotten bigger.  She immediately found me an appointment for that day.  My primary was on vacation so I had to see a different doctor.  As I sat on the table, wrapped in my paper gown, he came into the room.  He had a kind face and a professional demeanor.  He asked me a few questions regarding my past appointment the year before and then he moved the paper gown to the side and started doing a clinical breast exam.  As he was examining me, he was asking me questions regarding family history and personal habits. He sent me for a mammogram and ultrasound that day.

The same radiologist who had examined me the year before and claimed she couldn’t feel a lump, could now feel the lump.  While she went over my file, I could tell from the look on her face, she wasn’t happy.  As the technician was doing my mammogram, she was extra careful to be sure what she was getting was the entire lump, so much so, I was bruised from the machine squashing my breast so hard.  But the pictures came out clean.  Nothing showed up on the mammogram.  She was just as puzzled as I was.

Next stop was downstairs to get an ultrasound.  And there it was.  A large, black mass that seemed to have fingers coming out of it as if to say, “here I am, come and get me.”  A core needle biopsy the following week confirmed our fears, it was breast cancer. 

Treatment was surgery, aggressive chemo, and radiation.  I opted for a double mastectomy because lobular breast cancer is not detectable with a mammogram.  Nineteen lymphnodes were removed from my right side, and seven had cancer.  My tumor was 7x6x3 cm, stage 3B.  Six rounds of chemo and 60 rounds of radiation and life expectancy was two years.  So much for finding that true love; so much for working that dream job; so much for growing old and seeing grandchildren.

The support of my family and friends was phenomenal.  We cracked jokes, they cleaned my house, they cooked me meals, they kept me company.  They formed a team “I love Lucy” and we walked 60 miles for the cause.

I wrote my first book “One in Eight” and did a workshop in high schools for seven years telling my story to young women so they could become their own health advocates.  Everything I didn’t know then, I taught them now.

This year I will be celebrating 16 years of being cancer free.  I found true love five years ago when I met my husband; I went to school and graduated Cumma sum laude with a BA degree in Creative writing and English (my dream job, to be a writer); and I have several beautiful grandchildren, thanks to my kids and my husband’s kids.

It doesn’t take body parts to be a woman, it takes a fighting spirit, a loving family, and a good heart to be all we can be.  I can honestly say, I am one lucky woman.

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