Pinktober is upon us, and this year, it’s personal for me.
In May, I went in for my screening mammogram—a painless, important exam I’d blown off every year since I turned 40. Good thing I listened to that inner voice this spring that nudged me to schedule and show up for the appointment.
It revealed abnormal microcalcifications, prompting a second mammogram with magnified views, and ultimately, a biopsy-confirmed diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).
I am 42 years old with no family history of cancer and zero chronic health conditions. Genetic testing revealed no breast cancer mutations. This “Stage 0” cancer had seemingly come from out of nowhere, and I simply didn’t have time for it.
Work, marriage, children—everything was humming along just as it should. I’m living my dream job, leading a team of creatives and brand strategists in a competitive sector of the financial services industry. My husband and I just celebrated 17 years of good marriage. Our children are happy, healthy—and as they morph into independently minded little humans—often accidentally hilarious.
This was supposed to be the year I started training for my second triathlon. The year we made headway on key financial goals. The year the ‘someday we could’ goals became ‘now’ plans.
Instead, I’m in a purgatory of sorts, focusing all energies on the procedures and treatments to help me become cancer-free, asap.
In July, I had a lumpectomy, and pathology revealed a more invasive cancer, which advanced my diagnosis from Stage 0 to Stage 1.
That finding prompted another lumpectomy and a sentinel node biopsy, which revealed both good and bad news. The bad news? More invasive disease. The good news? Nothing has spread to my lymph nodes, so I am still considered Stage 1—it’s an early, highly treatable form of breast cancer.
In September, I had a single mastectomy and the first of two reconstruction surgeries. In October, I will start a five-month chemotherapy regimen, based in part on my healthcare team’s recommendations, my own independent research and clinical findings from the Oncotype DX, a genomic test that evaluates 21 genes specifically from individual tumor tissue.
By next May—one year from my screening mammo—I should be finished with all chemo treatments and surgeries. At that point, I will begin a 5- to 10-year hormone therapy regimen. Collectively, all these treatments will give me the greatest risk reduction of cancer ever returning.
Are mammograms (and what they can uncover) inconvenient? Absolutely. I was responsible enough to get a baseline in my late thirties, and then like so many others, unintentionally forgot to schedule them at ages 40 and 41 because life is busy and we’re only human, right? But I didn’t let two years of carelessness turn into three—and thank goodness for that.
Isn’t the possibility of a cancer diagnosis (and all that it can mean) scary? Yes ma’am. But when you have no other choice, you end up surprising yourself with a strength and resolve that was in you all along. And the journey is not completely without silver linings. I’ve had acquaintanceships accelerate into close-knit, genuine friendships. I’ve had the opposite too—and truth be told, those relationships needed to be pruned a bit.
Bottom line, that initial mammogram did its job. By going in for my annual screening mammo (which took less than 20 minutes total and was painless by the way), I am living proof of the power of early detection, when breast cancer is most treatable.
The most sobering observation came from my gynecologist, who talked me through the initial diagnosis.
“Tumors like yours can grow for up to five years before they are palpable,” she told me. “Had you not gone in for your mammogram and this had grown undetected, we could be having a very different conversation.”
For all the hassle and fear and anxiety and worry and expense, is it all worth it? Absolutely, times infinity.
I’ve already registered for that second triathlon (next April—a perfect finish to what will then have been the biggest sprint of my life).
When everything is really, truly done, except the oral meds (hormone therapy), we’re up-ending our summer vacation sameness and bucket list traveling to Alaska! I cannot accurately convey how giddy I am to go dogsledding.
My best fellow and I might even have a vow renewal up our sleeve—it means more now than it did when we were naïve little twentysomethings promising for better and for worse (as if we had a clue). He’s championed me through every plucky high and every tearful low since this all started, and I love him more now than I thought possible.
Get it done, ladies. You have a unique and wonderful contribution to make in this world—and we need you in it.
Rebecca Walden is an Alabama native and north Texas transplant, where she balances full-time work as a marketing executive with freelance writing for various national media outlets. Her work has been published in Reader’s Digest, Southern Living, Taste of Home and more. In 2014, she published her first book, part of the Images of America series and focused on the history of her hometown, Vestavia Hills. Rebecca lives with her husband, daughter and son in Fort Worth. To talk cancer, parenting, working or all the things, connect with her at https://rebeccacwalden.com.