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My cancer scare changed my life.
I'm grateful for every new, healthy day I have.
It has helped me prioritize my life.
—Olivia Newton-John, singer
It was late afternoon. I was catching up with my dictation after a busy day of operating, seeing my hospitalized postoperative patients, and evaluating the young and old in my clinic. I am a surgeon, and my mission, as taught in medical school and surgical residency, is to cure by cutting out disease.
Maxine, my office manager, poked her head in the door. 'Claire just got through seeing her oncologist and stopped in to say hi. Is this a good time?' Claire and I have a deep connection. I have accompanied her on an arduous journey with painful twists and turns.
About two years earlier, Claire found out her husband was having an affair. She took herself to a nice resort to get away and gain some perspective. As she was soaking in the candlelit tub, she found a lump in her left breast. She said it was as if someone had directed her hand to that spot. She had an ominous feeling, so she cut her trip short.
The day I first met Claire, I examined her breasts. The surgery textbooks describe the feel of cancer: gritty and hard with an irregular, rough surface. Cancer is Latin for crab, and breast cancer sends out crablike tentacles. The books don't instruct you to listen to your intuition as you do the examination, so I learned to do that on my own. We physicians don't usually offer treatment based on 'hunches,' so I put a needle in her breast and aspirated cells for the pathologists to look at under the microscope. As I had suspected, there were cancer cells.
How do you tell someone she has breast cancer? There's no easy way, and each doctor finds one that seems best. When I performed Claire's biopsy, I asked her whether she wanted to hear the results over the phone or in person. The next day I called and said, 'Claire, this is the phone call you don't want to get.' Delivering bad news is the hardest part of being a surgeon. It's easier with a breast cancer patient like Claire because she often knows long before the biopsy results arrive.
Now, two years later and with a cancer-free bill of health from her oncologist, Claire started her victory dance in my office and sang, 'Yup. I'm calling some girlfriends, and we're going out on the town.' After a moment of reflection, and with all sincerity, out came these words: 'Getting breast cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me.'
I was not surprised to hear Claire say this. She is the eternal optimist, finding the silver lining with the determination and skill of Sherlock Holmes. Leave it to Claire to frame her story of personal betrayal, disfiguring operations, and chemotherapy and radiation as an opportunity for growth.
'The moment I found my lump in the bathtub, I knew it was cancer. I thought breast cancer was a death sentence,' she confided in me. 'I didn't know that most women who get breast cancer live a long life. But you know, the woman I was two years ago died. And then the real me was born.'
Claire made big changes after her diagnosis. She divorced her husband and dyed her new post-chemotherapy hair blond. She understood both in her head and in her heart that the only moment she is promised is the one she's living. She was going to make each moment count.
™ Vicki Rackner, M.D.
©2007. ™ Vicki Rackner, M.D. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Chicken Soup for the Soul Healthy Living Series : Breast Cancer by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Edward Creagan, M.D., Mayo Clinic Cancer Specialist . No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street , Deerfield Beach , FL 33442.