Editor’s note: CultureMap Austin + San Antonio editor Chantal Rice shares her personal cancer journey during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Two years ago this month, I was in the hospital on my birthday. While that sounds dreadful (and in many ways it was), I was there of my own volition, choosing to undergo major surgery and a five-day hospital stay in an effort to regain my body just months after my doctors had saved my life.
I was 44 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. There’s no history of the disease in my family; my previous mammograms had been clear; and I didn’t display any other predisposition to cancer, which is often the case for many women diagnosed in this country every year.
About one in eight U.S. women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. According to the American Cancer Society, about 281,550 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, and about 43,600 are expected to die from the disease this year alone. And Black women at every age are more likely to die from breast cancer.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. As I learned along my cancer journey, with amazing advances in medical technology and screening, breast cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. In fact, it can be — like it was for me — an incredibly life-affirming and empowering experience.
One of the first suggestions I make to women who ask about my cancer journey involves taking personal responsibility. Yes, it is of paramount importance that women have regular checkups with their doctors. But don’t discount your understanding or knowledge of your own body. If I had, I may not be here today.
I found the lump during a routine self-check. And while I was filled with trepidation, I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions before taking my concerns to my doctor, who, it turns out, did not appear to be my best advocate, as she summarily dismissed the lump — without any testing — as “nothing to worry about.”
Though that was a relief, my concerned lingered. I knew something wasn’t right with my body, and even if it wasn’t cancer, I needed more enlightenment on the issue. So, I saw a different doctor, who immediately sent me for a 3D mammogram, which led to biopsies and my eventual breast cancer diagnosis.
Getting the news stunned and terrified me, not because of the fear of losing a breast, but the fear of potentially losing my life. But, unbeknownst to me at the time, that’s when the outpouring of support — from my new oncology doctors and nurses, my family and friends, my new plastic surgeon, and what felt like the entire Austin community — flooded into my life.
Armed with expert knowledge and encouragement from my brilliant doctors, the Breast Cancer Resource Center, and other medical professionals, I embraced what I knew needed to be done. Each decision made about my care was made by me, with my doctors educating me and championing my choices about my body at every turn.
Throughout 2019, I underwent a unilateral mastectomy and months-long prep for reconstruction, developed a complication or two that required some extra remedying, had near weekly visits with my doctors, and then braved an eight-hour, awe-inspiring reconstruction surgery called DIEP flap, wherein the doctors removed tissue from my belly to recreate the breast. (Seriously, medical advances in breast cancer treatment are incredibly innovative and quite revolutionary.)
After five days, I was released from the hospital and the long, grueling road of recovery began, a road made significantly easier for me to travel with the help of my ever patient and supportive partner, Tom, as well as those closest to me and my genius medical team.
When I could finally stand and walk on my own again, it was early 2020, and before I knew it, I was embroiled, like the rest of the world, in a terrifying virus-provoked pandemic.
Last year, cancer-free yet entirely freaked out and doing my best to navigate this new normal along with everyone else, I found myself feeling so grateful that I did not have to undergo surgeries and a cancer fight amid a worldwide plague. But then I met several women who did fight breast cancer during the height of the pandemic, an insight that made me realize that women are even more resilient than we often give ourselves credit for.
I know that as women, we don’t put ourselves first enough. We are often the caretakers for our partners and kids, the dinner makers, the carpool drivers, the working moms who have the world on our shoulders and worry it will crumble if we aren’t there to save the day. But in order to do all that, we have to put ourselves — and our health — at the top of our to-do lists.
Though I am still on my journey, I consider myself extremely lucky to be cancer-free and, indeed, alive. And my medical team’s expertise and my family’s and community’s support notwithstanding (truly, it takes a village to fight cancer), I know that if I hadn’t persisted in getting a more thorough examination early on, I could have been one of those 43,600 women to die from the disease.
So please, this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, consider my cancer story not just as a cautionary tale, but as motivation to take control of your own health. Visit your doctors for regular checkups. Obediently perform breast self-exams. Stay up on the latest medical news. And encourage the other women in your life to do the same. We have the power to prevent — and survive — breast cancer.