I will never forget how devastated I felt when I heard that one of my best friends, also a wheelchair user, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Months later, and supposedly in remission, the cancer returned with a vengeance, and how quickly she was gone.
My first thoughts were, “Why her?” She already used a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury, she had waited until she was in her mid-thirties to marry and have her two children, she had a great career, was an incredible spokesperson for the disabled, why, with everything going her way, should she be the one to get cancer and die at 40? Hadn’t she been through enough?
Well, exactly 5 years later, people are asking me the same question? Why, with all you have been through as a wheelchair user, your advocacy, your community involvement, your “golden” years on the horizon with wonderful children and grandchildren to enjoy, all the traveling to do, why you?
Well, I wish I had an answer for them, but I did not. I just know that all these years of using a wheelchair has been a journey for me, and this is just going to be another journey. I have always done breast exams, I nursed 3 of my 4 children, which does not prevent a woman from getting breast cancer, but lowers the risk.
I knew that breast cancer attacks no particular race or color. I knew I had no history of breast cancer in my family and all of this should have lowered my risk. Not in my case. What I did discover was that over 25 years ago, I was given radiation therapy for a thyroid tumor, and perhaps the therapy that works today to destroy or prevent cancer cels may have caused my breast cancer.
I found the breast lump by self-examination. A mammogram did NOT show cancer, the first ultra sound at the doctor’s office did NOT show cancer, the second ultra sound in a radiology center was questionable, and finally, a biopsy showed the cancer cels buried deep inside the mass or lump.
With my husband and grown sons by my side, the surgeon explained my options. Since the biopsy showed a Stage 1 cancer, my success ratio for a cancer free future should be high. I could have a lumpectomy, which would come with at least 6 weeks of daily radiation treatments, or, I could have a mastectomy, with no radiation or chemo therapy.
My surgeon explained to my family and I, in complete detail what would happen during surgery, and the weeks following. I shared with her my risk of anesthesia due to post polio syndrome. She immediately sent me to an anestheseologist who assured me he was aware of post polio problems. I visited with a plastic surgeon who shared with us the pros and cons about reconstruction surgery. (I chose to not have reconstruction immediately after the mastectomy due to the length of being under anesthesia, and the lengthy rehab process due to being a wheelchair user.) I chose to have a mastectomy.
I went into this entire procedure just like everything else in my life – with a positive attitude and great faith. I have always believed that things happen for a reason, and having cancer would be no different. I was never afraid, I never shed any tears, I was very calm through the entire procedure knowing that I had been through worse times in my life.
Everything went according to plan. Even when they took all the bandages away, and I no longer had a left breast, I felt no remorse, no sorrow, it was just another chapter in my life. Through this entire event, my husband of 49 years was entirely supportive. He shared with me that it was my body, and my decision on what to do. He was more concerned about my health than my physical appearance, just like he had always been, and I knew he would love me just as much with or without a left breast.
When a representative from the American Cancer Society came to visit me post-surgery, we laughed together, as there was no “very” small sizes in a soft prosthesis that would make me look ‘normal’. I said, “After 62 years using a wheelchair, what is ‘normal’ anyway?”
Insurance will help me with a prosthesis, insurance will help me with preventative drugs, although I have not chosen to start them, as the side affects, due to my polio, may be worse than having the cancer return. That decision is pending.
I now know that after cancer, normal is not normal anymore, but that’s nothing new to a wheelchair user. I also know that I am now on yet another journey, one that I am not alone with, just like being a wheelchair user – there are literally thousands of women, and yes, men too, who have had breast cancer. I also know that I will live one day at a time, just like I have always done… I have always loved myself, and I always will. I am a survivor!
Story and photo contributed by Barbara Cramer