How Breast Cancer Changed My Life For The Better
I remember when I first felt a lump in my left breast - it was May, 2013. I promised myself that I would always remember the actual date - thankfully it escapes me now. Does that mean that I have moved on? I’m not sure. What I can say is that the only date which remains implanted in my brain is the date that I had my surgery - March 17, 2014 - St Patricks Day - the luck of the Irish was definitely on my side that day.
When I was 25 years old, I remember telling my husband that one day, I would get breast cancer because I sat in an office in front of a computer all day. Would the radiation from the screen cause it to develop? There was no evidence to support this theory however I was of the opinion that once I hit 50, I would receive a diagnosis.
50. It seemed so far away when I was 25.
As I write this I am in my late 50’s and like many of you, often wonder where the time went. When I was in my twenties, my loving Father tried to get me to understand how precious life was and how fast it would slip through my fingers. Time would pass in a blink of an eye. How true! In his late seventies he told me that despite his age at that time, he wanted more life. At that time, I felt like I would have my Father forever.
Dad has been gone for just under 14 years and Mom joined him just under 2 1/2 years ago. Both of my parents lived very full lives and while I knew that the day would come when they would be watching me from above, I was never fully prepared.
When he was in his early seventies, Dad was diagnosed with skin cancer on his nose which was dealt with and never returned. In his later years, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer which he was told, would not be what ended his life. Thankfully, that was correct.
When my Mom was in her early seventies, she had a hysterectomy for cancer which was “down there”. I recall her telling me with a smile that I would never have any other brothers or sisters other than my dear sister Marci. Thankfully, the cancer never returned.
When I felt a tiny lump in my left breast in May of 2013, I didn’t think about my Mom and Dad’s experiences with cancer - I only recalled what I had told my husband when I was 25 years old. I had had my first mammogram in December, 2012 and was told that everything was fine. Approximately 5 months later, I felt the lump for the first time.
I spoke with my Family Dr about it and her face dropped as she told me that she would order another mammogram and a breast ultrasound. I had the tests in July, 2013 and once again, received news that all was good - the lump was a fibroadenoma and we would repeat the imaging process in 3 months time which would be late September. I asked if a biopsy was necessary and was told no.
As soon as I got home, I started surfing “Dr Google” to better understand what a fibroadenoma was. I read that they would often feel like a marble within the breast and that they tended to be round with clear-cut borders. As I continued reading, I decided that my diagnosis was incorrect and that I had breast cancer. I could not move my lump and it did not feel rubbery which were other qualities often found in fibroadenomas
In late September , 2013 I had another mammogram which again came back clear. The breast ultrasound was a different story. At the time of the test, the Technician who is not supposed to say anything, asked me if I had had a biopsy. I told her that my Family Dr had explained that this was not necessary. She suggested that I request one.
Back I went to the Family Dr to discuss the results and I was told that there was still no need for a biopsy despite small cysts appearing under my arm where there were none before. She said that the lump itself had not changed and that I would be scheduled for another series of tests in January, 2014.
As the final months of 2013 passed, I would often feel the lump which seemed to evolve into 2 lumps. I can’t recall how any times I had asked my Husband to feel the lump to see if he too noticed a change. We would discuss so matter of factly, just as other couples discussed what they wanted to eat for dinner.
“Do you notice a change”, “Is it bigger”, “Does it feel like one or 2 lumps”, “Can you move it”, “Does it feel hard to you?”, “Can you feel it again”, “Do you think that it’s serious?”
One morning in January 2014, I woke up in bed with an urge to poke around under my armpit. I had no pain or discomfort however I was able to grab what felt like a very large and hard lump. This was my confirmation that my lump was breast cancer. I had taken every opportunity to research possible characteristics and behaviours of breast cancer tumours, and had discovered that the first place breast cancer spreads is into lymph nodes under your arm, inside your breast, and near your collarbone.
From that point on, things moved very slowly and very quickly at the same time. I went from another visit with my Family Dr to having a biopsy to meeting with a General Surgeon to receiving my diagnosis of breast cancer to deciding on having a lumpectomy to changing my mind before leaving the Surgeon’s office to having a modified radical mastectomy to meeting my Angel of an Oncologist who after providing me with the pathology of my cancer, developed a treatment plan which included 6 months of chemotherapy cocktails, Herceptin for a year followed by 10 years of Tamoxifen.
As I drifted through the process, I experienced a variety of emotions which included fear, depression, anxiety, most prevalent in the beginning of the journey. This changed to a sense of calm and peace once treatment started.
Before treatment, I went for a variety of imaging tests to determine if the cancer had already spread to other parts of my body which thankfully it had not.
Throughout treatment, I had frequent blood tests, appointments with my Oncologist every 3 weeks, and once Herceptin started, quarterly MUGA scans to confirm that my heart was not negatively impacted which is a possible side effect.
This was so unreal for me as in the past, I had only seen my Family Dr for yearly physicals or when I had a specific concern which had been infrequent.
Throughout treatment, I did my best to stay active. I walked, I did cardio and lifted weights when I felt that I was able, slept when my body told me to, cried and laughed. I looked forward to the start of the NFL season in September 2014 as that aligned with when my chemo treatment would end.
Like many others who have gone through this, I would often go to a dark place and think “why me?”. At just about every visit with my Oncologist, I would ask how long he thought I might live. Of course there is no magical way of knowing anyone’s life span but he gave me hope and encouraged me to save for my retirement. This was a good thing because I had been spending money as if it grew on trees because “you can’t take it with you”.
So, how can there be any positives from receiving a breast cancer diagnosis?
I had accomplished so many things in my life despite being born with a variety of birth defects which mostly impacted my right side. My right arm and hand were the most obvious but there was more. My right breast and right shoulder never fully developed and my right eye would drift causing many to look behind them when speaking with me as they thought I was looking at something other than them.
I was very active in a variety of sports growing up including hockey, football and baseball. Not only did I find ways to fully participate with one hand, I did so in a time when girls didn’t play these sports because they were for boys.
I taught myself to play guitar using a prosthetic and later in life formed an AC/DC Tribute Band called BARE RUMP which I used as a vehicle to share my message that no-one should be judged based on their appearance. After 15+ years of playing lead guitar as “Angus Young”, I decided to sing and at time of writing, do so in my classic rock band LEFTY AND THE GOONS.
As a result of persistence, I successfully entered the work force as a Data Entry Clerk. This was a major accomplishment as no-one felt that I would be able to type, file, use a calculator or function in an office environment. Prior to getting my first office job, I had been hired to work at a Coffee Shop in a mall. When I showed up for my first day of work, I was greeted with a look of disgust from the Owner who’s Wife had interviewed and hired me the previous day. Needless to say that didn’t work out.
As I reflect on my career, I can say that I have had amazing success as a result of that first office job over 30 years ago. As a result of someone believing in me and not judging my abilities based on my appearance, I have had the good fortune to work for amazing. Companies with many outstanding Managers who guided and helped me grow and develop into what I am today. I have Managed large and small teams, travelled, led a variety of initiatives, met many wonderful people all while not being judged based on my appearances
I never waited for things to happen - I would take steps to try to make things happen which involved good luck and determination.
Angus and Malcolm Young taught me the riff featured in "Thunderstruck" in St. Catherines Ontario in 2000. A year later, I was on Brian Johnson's shoulders.
I sang the introduction of “Dead And Bloated” with the band Stone Temple Pilots in front of 12,000 people in Jones Beach NY Sept 4 2010, again in Hamilton, Ontario Canada August 22 2012, and again with Scott Weiland’s Wildabouts in Toronto Ontario in the summer of 2014 while going through treatment.
I have been very fortunate and never let my limb difference define me.
Again, how can there be any positives from receiving a breast cancer diagnosis?
Prior to receiving my breast cancer diagnosis, I rarely thought about my mortality. I lived my life with the expectation that tomorrow would always be there and took so much for granted. I would always be strong, I would always be able to walk, to run, to think clearly, to see. As a result of this way of thinking, there were things that I would put on the back burner.
I had loved motorcycles since I was a little girl. Motorcycle riders had always looked like super heroes to me. Throughout the years, my husband and I would sometimes talk about getting a motorcycle however since tomorrow would always be there, we waited for the right time.
The positive which came from my breast cancer diagnosis was realizing that life was short just like my Father had tried to explain to me many years earlier.
My breast cancer diagnosis gave me the kick in the butt I needed to get the motorcycle.
When we got our first bike, a Yamaha VStar 650, I was happy to be a passenger until I saw it sitting alone in the garage when I wanted to go for a ride. My Husband was not home at the time which meant that I had to wait.
As the word “can’t” was never in my vocabulary, this was not easy for me to do. The solution was to get my own motorcycle which would have to be modified so that I can ride with one (left) hand. I got my first motorcycle in 2017 and never looked back.
But there was more positive which resulted from my diagnosis. I met wonderful people, many of whom I am proud to call friends to this day and learned so much more about myself and what I am capable of.
Getting the motorcycle introduced me to a family which I never knew existed and resulted in my becoming active in the motorcycle community. I started to write articles in several publications to share my story and riding adventures and decided to become an Inspirational Speaker.
I have shared my story at Motorcycle Shows, Rallies and other events including a Volunteer Appreciation Night for the Canadian Cancer Society.
I started JUSTRIDIN as a social media platform to share my story and adventures in the hopes that I could reach a wider audience - one which extended outside of the motorcycle community.
I worked with Christopher Darton (Blues Harp Productions) to make a film called ANGIE - TALES OF DETERMINATION. Christopher Produced and I was the Executive Producer.
All of this came from a breast cancer diagnosis.
If not for that day in February, 2014 when my Surgeon confirmed my diagnosis, I would not be riding, writing, submitting a film into a variety of festivals or speaking.
I share my story in the hopes that it inspires others to reach for the stars - to not give up or lose hope. We must believe in ourselves and our abilities. This is not always easy however it is worth the effort.
The story does not end here - visit often for new blogs. Please do not hesitate to share feedback and share your stories.
Until next time,
Why Discourage When You Can Encourage
JUSTRIDIN through life