I didn’t grow up a stranger to Breast Cancer. I was eight years old when my mother was first diagnosed. She had a mastectomy, and in the years that followed, she went on to have five reoccurrences, treated by rounds of radiation and chemotherapy over the next thirty years. I also lost two aunts to Breast Cancer and have four cousins who were diagnosed, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when at age fifty, I myself was diagnosed with Breast Cancer.
It was the day before New Year’s Eve in 2010, a day like any other. I had a busy day ahead of me at work and I was really tempted to cancel my appointment for my annual mammogram. I decided to go, and after having to wait for over an hour, I finally got in. By then I was agitated and mad, I had things to do and this was just taking too much time. After the mammogram, I went in for a cervical exam as well as a physical. As I was lying there thinking about how late I was for work and all the things I needed to do, the nurse practitioner was feeling my breasts, stopped, and asked me “Have you felt this lump before?” Before I knew it I was sent for follow up, and two hours later I was sitting in a surgeon’s office hearing those four words that no woman ever wants to hear, “You have Breast Cancer”. My world had changed.
The first thing I thought of was how do I tell the people in my life? Am I going to be able to beat this or am I telling them that they may lose me? I knew the first step of my journey was to tell the people I loved. So I had to figure out how to best share my diagnosis. What was the best way, what was the best time, the best place? And being so vulnerable, how did I want them to react? What did I need from them? How was their reaction ultimately going to affect me and start me out on my own personal journey?
My husband and I have been married for 27 years; we met as teenagers and had our share of fun. We weathered through raising our children, financial ups and downs, and all the things that life has to offer- both good and bad. Our foundation was solid- so he was the easiest for me to tell. Of course I cried, but he comforted me and he accompanied me every step of the way, went to every doctor appointment and appeared solid as a rock. I knew though, that underneath, he was scared of losing me, as I, like most women, tend to be the glue that holds things together. But he never faltered, and to this day I remember when I went for tests and pre-surgery, his patience and how he followed me from one doctor to the next, carrying all my bags and all the materials I was given. He never said “You’re going to be fine”, instead he said “We’ll get through this together”. You have no idea how huge that is, because in that moment I wasn’t going “to be fine”- I had Breast Cancer and knew it would be a long time before I would ever be fine again.
At the time of my diagnosis, my children were 22 and 20 years old. My son was a junior in College and being my first born, we had a special bond as so many mothers and sons do. I called our family into the living room and very calmly told them that I had Breast Cancer. My husband already knew and my daughter, then aged 20, reached over to hug me with tears, yet support and love in her eyes. But I will never forget my son’s reaction, it was anger, anger at me for not always being healthy in my life, anger at me for smoking for so many years, anger at me for not exercising as much as I should have. He was angry at the world because there was a possibility that his mother could be taken away. As a woman I was looking for understanding, support and a bit of sympathy, but as a mother I knew this was a son’s natural reaction. I knew that I was the most important woman in this young man’s life and the fact that I had cancer shook his world, probably more than mine.
The most difficult phone call for me to make was to my mother and father, because I know that my mother would be so devastated- she would think it was her fault as if she was responsible for passing these genes on to me. Then in their late seventies, both my parents were no strangers to Cancer. In addition to my mother’s many years of fighting Breast Cancer, my father had colon cancer a few years back. When I was eight years old, my mother had her first mastectomy. I don’t remember much, but the one thing I do remember is overhearing my parents talking behind closed doors in their bedroom. My father was telling my mother it was okay, he wanted to see her. She was crying and said that she was “so ugly, how could you ever want to look at me again?” My father gently said that she was “the most beautiful woman in the world to him- no matter what”. I’ll never forget that, the pure love and commitment they had for each other, the way my dad just lessened her burden. So when I called them long distance, both my parents were on the line. I told them “Not to worry, but I want you to know that I have Breast Cancer”. There was silence, and then my mother started to cry and dropped the phone. Then my dad, this wonderful, kind and wise old soul calmly said, “Let me talk to your mother and we’ll call you back”. By doing that, he instantly relieved all of the anxiety I had in telling them; he took the burden off of me and left me with a sense that he understood and he would do what was necessary to support me through it.
So after my closest loved ones were told, the next part of my journey was to meet with my surgeon and decide on the choices that were presented; but in the moment I was still in shock and couldn’t really think clearly as to what steps to take next. I was offered a double mastectomy, because of my family history, but all I could think about was that my mother had a mastectomy and her cancer came back five times. So I opted for a lumpectomy. Chemotherapy was not a certainty yet, but radiation treatments would follow.
I had two surgeries; the second followed a month after the first as my margins weren’t clear. I was so very fortunate not to have to undergo chemotherapy, and after a month of healing, I began six weeks of radiation therapy. I worked full time during my radiation, and was able to get through it with very little side effects or discomfort. Now three years later I am still cancer free. People ask me if I feel normal now. My answer is that I will never feel that normalcy I felt pre-cancer, now I live my new normal. I’m thankful for each day that passes; each mammogram that is clear and each six month visit to my oncologists where he says see you next time.
I was very fortunate in that I had a great support system and was able to channel my energy into positive things. Ironically, as time has passed, my son, who initially was so angry, and I have bonded the closest with regard to my cancer diagnosis and subsequent survivorship. Together we have embarked on a journey together which has proven that there is a silver lining to every dark cloud. He read, he researched, he learned all that he could about the diagnosis, disease and treatment and approached it thereafter with a clear and level head. He was the catalyst in our decision to embark upon a partnership to start a business that stemmed from my Breast Cancer.
During my radiation therapy, I came up with a design for an alternative patient gown for women to wear called Radiant Wrap. Now two years later, my Wrap is part of the cancer program at thirteen Hospitals and Cancer centers nationwide. To date we have provided nearly 1,000 Radiant Wraps to female Breast Cancer patients. We support and work with Breast Cancer organizations to include Living Beyond Breast Cancer, the Breast Cancer Alliance, Breast Cancer Wellness Foundation, the American Cancer Society and we just partnered with Susan G. Komen in a regional event. In 2013 we launched our “Pay It Forward” campaign where we provide Radiant Wrap to Breast Cancer patients who are unable to afford them.
The bottom line is I would not be where I am today nor have the outlook I have on life if I had not had Breast cancer. We can either let these events ruin us, or we can take the opportunity to turn them around and make something wonderful out of it. I draw inspiration from my mother, who now at eighty years old, still has the most positive attitude of anyone I have ever met. She has had her share of illness and misfortune, but she never let it take her smile away. I’ll always believe that out of something bad something good is born and that every dark cloud definitely has a silver lining.
Maria Lucas is a 53 year old wife and mother of two. Maria grew up in Connecticut and she now lives in Napa, California. During her free time she enjoys bike riding, gardening, reading and her two dogs. Maria was diagnosed with Stage 1 Breast Cancer in December 2010. As of this writing, she has been cancer free for three years. For more information about Radiant Wrap, please visit www.theradiantwrap.com or e-mail Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org.