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Maria J., Age 40-49, Virginia
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My Personal Breast Cancer Treatment Plan

Vertical Clouds

I will never forget where I was and what I saw the day I found out I had my first breast cancer. It was September 18, 2001, exactly one week after the September 11th attacks and five days after my biopsy. 
Everything seemed to be happening so fast and yet, I felt like I was moving in slow motion. I had found the lump in my right breast a few weeks earlier while and I was anxiously waiting for the doctor to call with my pathology report.
I was standing outside work having a cigarette, in Stamford, Connecticut, about 50 miles north of New York City when my cell phone rang. It was 9:55AM, and my doctor was calling to inform me I had ductal invasive breast cancer. He recommended that I come in right away to discuss treatment options. Not sure what else to say, I thanked him, and hung up the phone in disbelief. 
"Breast cancer." I said it over and over out loud so I could hear myself say the words. A million thoughts went racing through my mind: "Am I going to die? I'm only 39! What about my husband? What about my kids? Oh shoot, I need to quit smoking." 
It was 10:00AM, and as I looked up at the sky, I thought I was imagining things. I blinked several times and tried to focus on what I was seeing. All of the clouds were vertical - up and down, not sideways. They started at the horizon and reached high up into the sky. They were dusty white, shadowed by gray, wavy with a whisper of a tail. 
I stared for what seemed like an eternity. There was an overwhelming sense of calmness, almost mystical. It looked like the clouds were all of the souls of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and friends who died the week before. The souls were making their way to heaven. They were at peace. They were home. 
"Breast cancer." I said it again, and it didn't seem that devastating anymore. I would be okay. I was the lucky one! I thanked my lucky stars or in this case, my lucky vertical clouds, and went inside and asked if I could go home.
The next few months were tough. I went through three months of chemo followed by 12 weeks of radiation and all the fun that goes with it: vomiting, hair loss (I have a new appreciation for nose hair, and the kids got a big kick out of my bald head!), tiredness, and the most horrendous hot flashes you could ever imagine.
And that was the easy part. Just before my second chemo treatment, my mother died from end stage renal failure. My father had died just five months earlier from heart failure. 
The week my mom died, I had surgery on Monday, her funeral on Tuesday and Wednesday, and chemo on Thursday. O.K., 2001 really sucked!
Without the support of my loving husband, Daniel, my two beautiful boys, Gerry and Nick, my family and friends, I think I would have lost my mind (oh, I did, it's called chemo brain). My honey and my boys made me laugh every single day - truly the best medicine. 
My other salvation was music. Melissa Etheridge's music healed my spirit and my soul. I bought every CD she ever recorded, learned the lyrics to every song, and even joined her fan club (I haven't been in a fan club since 1976 when Styx was hot.). I went to see her in concert several times. My husband and I even bought tickets to her live DVD recording at the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan. It was a night I will never forget. I was healed - physically and emotionally. 
Life went on. 
In 2004, we moved to Virginia, and we became a typical suburban family with a house, two kids, a black lab and a minivan. 
I was sad to learn Melissa Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer. I sent a note hoping she could find the comfort and strength in her own music to heal her soul. I still listen to her every day - even the kids know all the words now. 
Then came 2005. 
In March, I started having stomach and chest pains. I thought I was having a heart attack. It turned out to be my gallbladder. 
As my surgeon reviewed my medical history, she asked why I only documented mammograms for 2002 and 2003, and where was my mammogram from 2004? I explained that I didn't have a mammogram that year, because I had been in a bad car accident and broke my left arm. She made an appointment for me the next day. 
I can still hear the doctors: 
"There's a mass on your left breast film (My first cancer was in the right breast.). We'll need to do a biopsy." 
"Oh dear, you have breast cancer again, not a reoccurrence; it's considered a new cancer." 
"We recommend the same treatment you had before: lumpectomy, lymph node dissection, chemotherapy and radiation." 
"We also recommend you have genetic testing done." 
My turn: "You've got to be $#%&ing kidding me!" 
I was angry. Could this really be happening again? Oh shoot, I've got to quit smoking again!
Being new to Virginia, I decided to attend a cancer support group at the Hawthorne Cancer Resource Center at CJW Medical Center. I didn't need emotional support; I'd been through this before. What I needed was information about the region's best cancer centers and physicians.
But what I found was much more. I found a group of strong and sometimes not-so-strong men and women, who shared their intimate feelings of despair and triumph, and many, many laughs and tears. Their compassion was unbelievable. I was surely mistaken to think I didn't need their emotional support!
Right before my first chemo treatment, I decided to do the genetic testing. The results take several weeks, so in the meantime, I popped in my Melissa CD and headed (soon to be bald, again) to chemo. 
I don't know how I would have made it through the treatments without my husband's family. They took the kids for a couple of days each time I had a treatment. Friends and neighbors organized home-cooked meals to be delivered. My coworkers bought me an IPOD so I could listen to music during chemo treatments. The outpouring of support was incredible, and I am truly thankful.
Six weeks into my treatments, the genetic test results came back positive, meaning I had an 87% chance of getting breast cancer, a 20% chance of getting a second breast cancer and a 44% chance of getting ovarian cancer. Well, I hit the first two statistics, and I wasn't waiting around to hit the third! 
The most important thing to me is to watch my boys grow up, so I decided to follow my doctors' advice. They recommended that I have a full hysterectomy and a bilateral mastectomy. They also made it perfectly clear that there are no guarantees. 
Late August, I met with a plastic surgeon to discuss breast reconstruction. The thought of getting some nice new 20-year-old perky breasts was almost appealing - something good had to come out of all this! 
Of course, she wouldn't do the surgery unless I quit smoking (I'd already planned to quit after my last chemo treatment.). 
And then came the next big blow. For the surgery and healing process to be successful, I had to lose 30 pounds. She suggested a November timeframe. 
So, I was supposed to quit smoking and lose 30 pounds in two months? 
"Sure, no problem," I lied, as I left her office shocked and depressed, but still determined. 
I immediately went to Ukrop's and bought some fresh fish and veggies, and then to Wal-Mart for a treadmill and some nicotine gum. 
As always, my husband was my rock and my strength, and he decided to quit smoking and lose weight with me. Our last cigarette was September 6, and we've both lost 20 pounds so far.
In September, I had my hysterectomy. The surgery went fine, no complications. Four days in the hospital with comfy nightgowns, no housework, someone bringing me dinner and a morphine drip that I controlled.what could be better? I seemed to bounce back fairly quickly - must have been the healthy eating, exercise and smoke-free body!
It's now the middle of October. Losing the last 10 pounds is getting very difficult and there's not a day that goes by that I don't crave a cigarette. 
The mastectomy is only a few weeks away. I'm getting extremely anxious. It's one thing to say you'll cut off your breasts, but the reality of doing it is unimaginable. The "girls" have been with me for 30-something years! How am I going to feel when they take off the bandages and I look in the mirror for the first time? I just can't imagine.
Just when this journey seems too overwhelming, I often think of those vertical clouds, wondering if I'll ever see them again. So many lives have been lost through the war in Iraq, hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Pakistan. When I think of other people's pain and loss, it helps me put everything into perspective, and I realize they're just breasts!

Maria's e-mail:

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