By: Char Murphy author of “Unshakeable Power-Through Seasons of the Soul”
I’ve asked myself this question hundreds, if not thousands of times over the past 17 years since my first breast cancer diagnosis. Can my breast cancer recur? Honestly, I think we all know it can, so the real question here is, will my breast cancer return?
Unfortunately there is no one right answer to this question. Worse, the opinions and science are all over the board concerning our questions about recurrence.
Let me tell you a little about my breast cancer journey. My name is Char Murphy and I’m a four time breast cancer survivor. It all started in 2003 when I had a thriving law firm in Little Rock, Arkansas. I had been in practice for eight years at the time and things were going great, even though I was constantly stressed out trying to manage a large overhead, employees, work load and balance my home life. It was September of that year and I had just been named “Best Lawyer in Central Arkansas.” I had also attended a large luncheon and fashion show where the models were all breast cancer survivors with a girlfriend, not knowing I would be modeling as a survivor myself the very next year.
You know the feeling, if you’re a survivor reading this. That literal ‘gut punch’, when your doctor says those four words...”you’ve got breast cancer,” and you become speechless, frozen, like a deer in headlights as my doctor told me I looked like in that moment. When it comes to the second, third and even a fourth diagnosis- that’s a whole other ballgame. And by no means am I minimizing your experiences. We’re a sisterhood and brotherhood of real people sharing similar feelings, asking the same questions.
I had seen, read and heard all the statistics, ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, on the chances of complete recovery and/or recurrence with or without radiation in addition to the lumpectomy I had. Reluctantly, I chose to undergo it for six weeks everyday, even though I knew it wasn’t or there wasn’t a 100% guarantee that it wouldn’t rear its ugly head again. I also knew, it might end my business and my career, as well as change everything about my life, forever. I’m one of the truly blessed ones, I lived through it all.
After surgery and radiation, it was immediately apparent that was exactly what would happen. My doctors all said, “you can’t keep doing what you’re doing”- the stress of trying to keep all the balls in the air would kill me, or make me sick again. I tried anyway, because it’s just not my nature to give up. That lasted about 18 months and I realized more and more, I didn’t have the same stamina or energy, I was exhausted, totally worn out. My body and mind couldn’t do what I needed to get done. It was time to retire at age 50.
Six months later after losing everything I owned, came the second diagnosis and another lumpectomy. Then another and then yet another...my life for those seven years before my doctor said that’s it, is still like a huge black blur or scribble of ink on a map. Conservative treatment was over and it was on to the bi-lateral mastectomy, and that’s another totally different conversation. Truth be known, even at this juncture of my journey is, the reality of the topic of this piece- can my breast cancer come back? The answer is still YES.
Miraculously, I have officially just crossed the “ten year” benchmark since I went into remission after my mastectomy, the question will it come back, still looms like a low hanging cloud in my mind.
I could go into way more detail on each diagnosis, the shock and disbelief I felt after each and every single one, but you know all too well, the shock and immense amount of feelings...now multiply that by four. There are only so many words to describe it. It was and still is unbelievable. I’m simply a walking, talking miracle- akin to a battery that “takes a lickin and keeps on tickin.”
Your questions to me are many. How did you keep on going? Were there any warning signs? What advice would I give you if you were in my situation, facing a God forbid second or even third diagnosis? Would there be anything I would change or do differently looking back? Is there anything you can do to prevent this from happening to you?
The answers to those questions are many and diverse, depending on your level of understanding the disease itself, your spiritual beliefs, your family situation, your work/career situation, your plans for the future. Every single decision we make regarding each of these questions is very personal to us as individuals. And every one of us has a different response, a different reaction. There’s no handbook on the correct way to handle anything, especially breast cancer and recurrence. If there is anyone trying to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, or how to handle a recurrence is in my opinion stepping over boundaries. Even your physician herself can’t tell you what to do. What she can do, is give you the latest stats on the various options regarding success of certain treatments for various cancers at different stages. At the end of the day the answers for you, can only be made by you.
There are a few key pieces of advice I can give you here with regard to any cancer diagnosis, or chances of recurrence and what to do to if it does recur.
1. Become thoroughly educated on the type of breast cancer and stage you were diagnosed with. Do your own due diligence and research, research, research. Read everything you can get your hands on about it.
2. Always get a second and even a third professional opinion on everything.
3. Keep all your records, your mammogram images themselves and the reports.
4. Ask the tough questions of your physicians, insist on getting the answers.
5. Don’t assume anyone else knows your body, mentally or physically better than you do.
6. Trust in your own intuition, listen to what your body and gut is telling you.
7. Pray, meditate on what you should do next. Ask the Universe to give you the right answers for next steps. Then listen and watch for the signs.
8. Self care is paramount. Do something nice for yourself, something which you would think to do for someone else in your situation. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Buy yourself some flowers. Go out to dinner with a friend, or just order delivery in. Get those regular mani-pedis and your hair done.
9. Put yourself first for a change. It’s okay to be what some people would call being “selfish” as opposed to being “self-less”. Say no when you need to, you’re not obligated to anyone or anything more than yourself.
10. Have a team of friends and family behind you. Have someone drive you to doctor appointments, someone to take notes of everything the doctor tells you. I can guarantee you won’t remember half of everything you hear. You need to be able to really listen.
11. Do what you feel is right for you. If you’ve researched a specific procedure or drug being recommended, or told you have to do something, but you don’t feel like your body can handle that thing, you don’t do it. Just make sure you understand the possible consequences of your decision making and be comfortable with it.
12. Make sure you find out what all of your options are, then take the time to sit with them and talk it over with your support team. Determine the positives and negatives and YOU make the final decision. Then be confident in your decision and stick with it.
13. Be grateful for everything. It’s in our most challenging and trying of times which we learn our true inner strength and courage. Everything is “mind over matter”.
14. Sometimes what we thought was the worst possible thing that could ever happen, turns out for the very best.
15. Real learning, growth and positive change occurs when we allow ourselves to step into our own inner power, grit and determination to persevere through what we thought was impossible!