Surviving Breast Cancer by Raven Edwards | Photography by Dave Barfield
“I NEVER IMAGINED IT COULD HAPPEN TO ME.”
We have all heard these words before, on daytime talk interviews, in women’s magazines, and in made-for television dramas. They sound a bit clichéd, but there is deep truth there. Nobody ever sees it happening to them.
But it does, and we all have to figure out how to get through it. This is my story.
If you had asked me, before all this came to pass, what my favorite feature was, I would not have named my breasts. Now, granted, they were alright, and I liked them, but only in the way anybody else likes their earlobes or knees, or shoulders. They fit me, and were not especially big or small or oddly shaped. Still, I never gave them much thought. I treated them with more or less average care: self exams as often as I should, avoiding tight or uncomfortable underwire bras—truth be told I avoided bras in general as often as I could get away with it, and breastfeeding my three children for the health benefits to them as well as me. I got mammograms, routinely. And in a broader sense, I lived a pretty healthy life.
So when that first mammogram came back with suspicious findings, I was not especially alarmed. At the time I was helping my mother get through a recent diagnosis of breast cancer, so I had the awareness of disease on my mind, but it was still something outside of myself. I went for follow- up mammograms and an ultrasound, and we decided to recheck me in 6 months, to determine if there really was anything there to worry about. I put it out of my head and focused on Mom.
Fast-forward six months, to my next round of tests. I took off early from my job as a nurse one day, to get yet another mammogram. I figured that the calcifications they had seen before were normal changes in the breast, that would now show up as nothing odd. I was wrong. Those calcifications, those tiny white dots they showed me on my films, were changing, and growing in suspicious ways, and now my doctors wanted me to have a MIBB, a Minimally Invasive Breast Biopsy. This was October of 2015. I had a MIBB; I had another. And then I got the news. I had Ductal Carcinoma in Situ, DCIS, a form of breast cancer.
If you’re thinking this is a lot of lead-up to the main story, you’d be right. But that is kind of the point. The most agonizing part of all this, for me anyway, was the waiting. Waiting in the lobby to go back for some weird sounding and scary test. Waiting to have blood drawn for genetic screening, and then waiting the four eternities it seemed like while that needle was in my arm getting that blood. Waiting to find out if my daughter will have a heightened chance of this in her future. And waiting for referrals for surgeons, plastic surgeons, oncologists etc. Nobody likes sitting around in an exam room wearing one of those flimsy paper tops, waiting for a perfect stranger to come in and look at parts of your body usually kept private; and when you have breast cancer this is exactly what you spend a lot of time doing. And then the wait for surgery dates to come was a million times worse. It was unbelievably agonizing.
I was lucky. We caught my cancer in a very early stage, and it had not spread beyond a few spots in my right breast. But, seeing as how my mother was dealing with a much more advanced form of this scary disease, and seeing as how I was a fairly young, 45 years old at time of diagnosis, and seeing as how the uncertainty and waiting is the worst part; I decided to go ahead and take both breasts off now.
Remember how I said I was kind of indifferent to my breasts before? Well, that suddenly changed. I abruptly realized that they were the most beautiful, perfectly shaped, symmetrical and lovely breasts in the world; and now I had to say “goodbye” to them. And meanwhile, I was riding the Kubler-Ross roller coaster of emotions that comes with grief. On any given day, I could swing from anger, to depression, to denial, through bargaining, and to acceptance, and back again, in no particular order. I was all over the place, and it was exhausting.
Throughout all of this I dealt with the most caring, compassionate, understanding and patient people I ever thought I’d never meet. From radiology techs, to pathologists, to surgeons both general and plastic, to nurses and secretaries at a plethora of doctors’ offices, to phlebotomists, breast cancer navigators, and oncologists, everyone was just the best. And that’s a good thing, too, because I realized, in spite of being a nurse myself, when you have cancer you can become irrational, emotional, and needy. They all rose to the occasion and gave the very best care they could, and I thank them as often as I can for this.
I discussed all my test results and all the options with everyone and decided that I would have a double skin sparing mastectomy with immediate reconstruction and a sentinel node biopsy to make sure the cancer had not spread further yet. The location of my tumor made it impossible to keep my right nipple, and armed with the understanding that there would likely be little sensation and a greater risk if I kept it, I agreed that the left should go as well. I even joked with my plastic surgeon that I could get a multi-pack of those realistic stickon nipples — yes, they really do exist — and go as a mother pig for Halloween. Sometimes you just have to laugh about things; if not, you might have to cry.
At the appointment where I scheduled my surgery, I asked if we could make it happen on February 29th, so I only had to mark the anniversary every four years, but that was not possible. Instead, I went under the knife on March 1st, 2016 and awoke later the same day in the hospital. It all went well! Now I was sore and tired, being pumped full of antibiotics and pain medications and trailing tubes and wires of various sizes, but past the major surgery. My family and friends network, some of whom I hadn’t seen in ages, came and showered me with love, acceptance, and patience. My loving husband thoughtfully set me up with a Caring Bridge account, so that all who could not come by could track my recovery and see pictures of me gamely going home with my strangely altered profile. I was lumpy from drains, and had tissue expanders — which are the necessary flat tires many women have for a time while undergoing reconstruction — where my glorious new breasts would eventually be.
Over the next weeks and months, the drains would come out, those flat tires would be gradually pumped up; and the bandages would come off. I regained my strength, swimming as soon as I was allowed to and returning to work. And on July 25th, I traded out my training wheels for my permanent implants. Happily, my new perky breasts are almost as lovely as the originals, and, since I have no nipples to hide, I never have to wear a bra again, unless I just want to!
As I mentioned before, I was really lucky. Lucky to have an OB/GYN who saw those tiny white dots change and noticed it early, lucky my cancer was still in the ducts and not on the move, lucky to have a team of caring doctors and other health professionals who would listen to me and actually hear my wishes, and lucky to have such a wonderful family and set of friends who showed me truly that they would do anything to help me get through this. And my luck extended one more incredible way: my doctors all agreed that I had no need for chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or even hormone suppression therapy, since we had taken all the breast tissue there was to take. I’m one lucky woman.
So now, to pay it forward, I do everything I can to help others understand and cope with this disease when they encounter it. I tell anyone who wants to know about it my story. I’ll even show someone my scars, if it helps them to be less freaked out about cancer. I remind all my patients, friends, and family to get those screening mammograms — truly, without that tool my story would probably be very different today! I learn everything I can about breast cancer and the advances in medicine towards a cure.
I exercise, eat well and cherish each day as the bright and beautiful moment in time that it is. Even though I never imagined it could happen to me, it did. And I’m living proof that having breast cancer does not have to be a death sentence, in my case it is a life sentence and I plan to live every day of my life fully.
Raven Edwards, wife, mother, nurse and teacher, loves life and lives and works in Thomasville, Georgia with her wonderful family.