Breast Cancer Milestones
June 1, 2008, our daughter Sara gave birth to our first grandchild. Jack, of course, is a beautiful baby. I do understand that every grandchild is as wonderful as Jack and that every grandchild is a special milestone, but it seems to me that the milestones in a cancer survivor's life are especially sweet.
When I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) in 1998, our daughter was a junior in college and our son was a junior in high school. It wasn't apparent to me that I would live to see them graduate in May 1999. That fear was probably overly dramatic, but I had read that the average survival time for IBC was 18 months, which had to mean that many people didn't make it to 15 months. That statistic is out of date now, but it is still a fact that most IBC patients won't live to be elderly.
My first goal was to live and be well enough to go to our children's graduations. By then, I'd finished treatment and was doing well enough to believe that I would make some other big milestones: weddings, births, even retirement. In October 2007, I danced at Sara's wedding, and this year I was present at our Jack's birth. As I write this, I'm at her home helping out with the baby.
Before each big milestone, I've been almost obsessed with thinking about its significance in my cancer journey. Gratitude and joy overwhelm me, but I can't resist some "what if's". What if a health crisis prevents me from being there? What if I had died? How would my absence have affected my family? I picture their big day ruined because I wasn't there.
I am happy to report that by the time the actual event rolls around, I'm over such maudlin obsessions. In fact, I was surprised after Sara's wedding to realize that I'd only thought of cancer once. Someone I hadn't seen in a long time asked me how I was doing in that tone of voice that signals not just a polite formality, but a real question about health. I did choke up just a little then as I told him that I was well, but after that it was all about our daughter and her new husband. I relaxed and had fun.
The first grandchild experience has been similar with a twist or two. Just like the wedding, I've been too caught up in the wonder and excitement of a new baby and too busy with helping out to spare much time to think about cancer. However, giving birth involves medical procedures, so it's inevitable that memories of my own experience would come back.
Twice Sara has called her medical provider about a problem, only to be told that she didn't need to be checked out. Twice it turned out she was right; she did need to be checked out. I was reminded of all the people I know who were told that they were too young to have cancer, or that the mammogram was fine, so they should stop worrying about their red swollen breast. I realized once again how important it for us to have faith in our intuition about our bodies.
The baby is fine, and our daughter is fine; but at a couple of points in the birth process everything wasn't fine. Inflammatory breast cancer represents perhaps 1-4% of all breast cancers, and my tumor profile is also unusual. Having a relatively rare medical problem made me all too conscious that a good outcome wasn't guaranteed for our daughter or the baby when things went wrong.
I've come a long way in the ten years since my diagnosis. I know that no one is promised life's milestones; however, I can now picture myself at many more. There will be more weddings, more births, graduations and celebrations. My 86 year-old mother danced at her grandchild's wedding. I hope to do the same.