First I want to thank JL* for granting me the interview and being so candid with what she shared about her breast cancer battle. She is a breast cancer survivor who is an amazing lady, strong and passionate, quick to help others, full of love and Christian goodness yet by nature an introverted homebody. All quotes are JL’s unless otherwise specified. This article is a loving tribute to JL and breast cancer survivors everywhere.
Finding the Lump
JL found the breast cancer lump while doing her monthly breast self exam. “It felt like a hard pea. I knew immediately that something was wrong and I called my doctor right away.” In between the call and the appointment JL fought her nervousness with prayer and relied on her faith in God. But this wasn’t a one time pray, feel better and that’s it kind of thing. She prayed continuously and she tried to go about her life as usual, attending church, caring for her husband and school age daughter, tending her animals (she lives on a small farm) and doing charity work.
JL’s doctor agreed that the lump was suspicious and ordered a mammogram. She continued to battle her nervousness with prayer as she awaited the results. She knew in her heart that it was breast cancer and wanted to just take care of it as soon as possible and move on with her life. She was very surprised and somewhat dubious when her doctor called and told her that it wasn’t anything to worry about. He threw in “but keep an eye on it,” as kind of an afterthought. JL viewed the radiology report just to see with her own eyes and, sure enough, it confirmed the doctor’s report. Wanting to feel relief but knowing deep inside that it just wasn’t true, JL was conflicted about what to do, but decided to trust the results and continue with her monthly exams.
Growth and Metastasis
After a year the breast cancer lump had grown to the size of a “big golf ball”. JL decided to find another doctor. She wanted to trust her old doctor but just couldn’t believe that this was still nothing to worry about. She felt that it was getting to the point that her life would be at risk if action wasn’t taken and she wanted to be a survivor. She consulted a surgeon who had successfully helped a lot of breast cancer patients and was known for his positive bedside manner. “I had another mammogram and some other tests and a biopsy and he also found a bump in my neck.” It was indeed breast cancer, and it had spread (metastasized). As JL expected, time was of the essence. “I consider that I was lucky that I was already a grounded Christian [when I got the breast cancer diagnosis]. I’d been a Christian for 10-12 years and I just depended on God.” It also helped JL that she had confidence in her new doctor and his team. Her supportive family and friends were amazingly kind and generous during her battle with breast cancer, which made a huge difference in her emotional state.
Although a definitive breast cancer diagnosis had been given, it wasn’t yet determined whether JL would need a mastectomy or a less severe procedure. The surgeon tried to get the entire neck lump out when he did the biopsy. “He got most of it out but there was a little piece in my neck that they couldn’t get out because it was bleeding too much.” The results of this procedure did determine that JL would need a mastectomy. In her own words, this is how JL dealt with this stage: “I went into automatic mode, just going through the motions, step by step, waiting for the results, praying they wouldn’t be bad; when it was determined to be cancer, I just put my hand in the Lord’s in my mind and went forward.”
This was a time of almost constant prayer for JL. She had faith that God would see her through, even though she wondered if she’d even be facing a mastectomy had the pea sized lump been excised when it was initially found. It took effort not to be angry at the initial misdiagnosis of her breast cancer. She still battles anger about that today, but she gives the anger to God and He works in her heart to heal her.
Thankfully, the mastectomy went well. JL just didn’t let herself think about the loss of her breast and focused on conquering her cancer. She embraced the fact that her value as a woman and person isn’t rooted in any body tissue; no matter how dear it may be. She tried to focus on keeping her normal routine and helping others while doing everything she could to be as healthy as possible, recover completely and prepare for chemotherapy.
I sensed that this was the most challenging stage for JL. The breast cancer surgery was pretty quick and everything went as well as possible. The chemo to fight the rest of the breast cancer lasted for six months and, after her second session, seriously impacted her life in a negative way. Her hair fell out, she lost 20 pounds and the chemo brought on severe anxiety attacks, which she had never previously experienced. Even though she was on anti-nausea medicine, the smell of food made her sick to her stomach (nauseous) and there were very few things she could keep down. When she was able to eat, she was left with a nasty taste in her mouth, “like I was eating metal.” The metallic taste was a constant reminder of her battle with breast cancer.
She dealt well with the physical symptoms from the chemo but the anxiety attacks shook her to her core. She found that her faith, family and friends were her lifeline. Her breast cancer coping strategies included prayer, attending church, focusing on helping others whenever possible, staying busy (as much as her condition allowed), meditating on Bible verses, reading inspirational material, allowing her loved ones to help her with simple things she could no longer do. She said that she honestly didn’t know what she would have done if she hadn’t been a Christian. The misery between the affects of chemo and anxiety attacks might have been unbearable. This was her pit of despair. Every day she’d fall into it and every day she’d crawl back out, some days falling deeper and some days managing to crawl further away.
One day that was particularly bad, she was sewing and crying so hard she couldn’t see her fingers and was afraid she’d sew them up. She cried out to God, “Please send someone to help me.” Not five minutes later a friend from church called and offered to come over to visit. This was the best gift JL could have received. Her friend just sat with her and held her hand. JL was able to sleep on the couch for a few hours (sleep had become difficult too), secure in the peace that her friend and God were there watching over her.
JL has been in remission for over 10 years now. She’s considered to be free of breast cancer. She remembers her battle with cancer like it was yesterday yet she doesn’t focus on it. She said that she hadn’t even thought about a lot of the challenges she faced in years but wanted to share her story in hopes that it would encourage another person battling breast cancer somewhere. JL is someone who always thinks of others. Right now she’s sewing dresses for children in Haiti and doing other charitable activities. She has a wonderful husband, is still active in her church, and relishes life. Some things she’s learned include that her God is greater than any trouble that comes our way, family and friends can make a tremendous positive difference for people battling breast cancer, and we are so much stronger than we think we are.
As I write this article it is October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in America. I hope and pray that we will find a cure for breast cancer (and all cancer) and wish you success in any health battle you face.
Interview with breast cancer survivor JL*
*JL is used instead of interviewee’s actual name to protect her privacy