by Marcia Keith
The above title may seem odd, facetious, or even an attempt to trivialize something very serious. I don’t mean it to be any of those things. I really do mean to tell you about the benefits that I have realized by having had breast cancer.
In 1973 I noticed a change in a mole on my abdomen. I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and had a softball-sized chunk of tissue removed. (No more bikinis!) Eighteen months later I noticed a lump the shape and size of an almond just at the top edge of my left breast. It was diagnosed as a metastasis of the original melanoma. I had that lump removed, along with a few lymph nodes and became known to my husband, affectionately, as "Crooked Tit."
I had no previous history of cancer in my family. The cancer occurred about the same time as the suicide of my younger brother. This was a particularly tough time on the entire family.
During this time I was concerned about the cancer, but not devastated. After all I was only 30 or so and was going to live forever. The immediate and most profound effect was the decision not to have children, based on my doctor’s advice that the hormonal change during pregnancy might re-activate the melanoma. An ancillary outcome was a subconscious decision not to delay doing things that I wanted to do, not to live too much for tomorrow, but to look to today for life’s pleasures.
I am often accused of "trying to do it all." I maintain that living more in today than in tomorrow is a good thing and a benefit brought about by my experience with cancer. That tendency is still with me. I don’t have much of a savings account, for example. I’m divorced now and will retire soon, but without many vacation days on the books.
Eight years after my first operation, my current boyfriend discovered a sizable mass in my right breast extending into my arm pit. Further tests determined that the previous lump was not a metastasis of the melanoma, but was in fact breast cancer. So I had a double mastectomy in November of 1981, followed by a year of radiation and chemotherapy. I am a 25-year cancer survivor and have lived the last 17 and one-half years cancer-free.
I recommend, if you are a woman, check with your physician about having a mammogram soon. You should have a baseline mammogram at age 35. You should have a mammogram every 1-2 years between the ages of 40 and 49. After age 50 you should have a mammogram every year. The average-sized lump found by regular mammograms is 1/8 inch in diameter. The average sized lump found by women practicing regular breast self-examination is an inch in diameter. The average sized lump found by women not practicing breast self-examination is 1-1/2 inches in diameter.
I’ve always believed that the cancer was never going to kill me, that I will die from something else. I’m glad I had cancer. The benefits have been great. I’m now a stronger person and I’m very active doing today what I realize I might not be able to do tomorrow.
I stay in good health by following a sensible diet and exercising on a regular basis. I enjoy walking, golf, and yoga. And a big stretch, I’ve also learned to allow myself to be cared for by others.
Some of my strength came from a group of friends who have been together for 30 years and are known affectionately as "The Ladies". They have saved me of thousands of dollars in therapy!
Cancer-free, but not free of cancer’s effects. I now know in a way that I never truly knew before that I will die — and I know that I may die as soon as today or tomorrow. That knowledge changes things. It makes my friends more dear. It makes my family more valuable. It makes most problems unworthy of anguish. It makes having fun very important. It makes having love in my life the most crucial goal. It makes today a gift and tomorrow a dream. Having had breast cancer has made my life fuller and richer. These are the benefits I have derived from having breast cancer.
Marcia Keith is a college administrator and past president of her professional association. This article first appeared as the President’s Column in her association’s newsletter and is reproduced here with permission.