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Wanda - Bodies of Courage Bodypainted Cancer Survivors

I am a cancer survivor.
In fact, I have survived cancer twice.
In 2002, I had to have my left kidney removed because of renal cancer.
Then on March 12, 2003, I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ.

I had a total of nine biopsies on my breasts between 1995 and 2003.
When I went to my surgeon for the results, I would say, “Why don’t we just take them off?”

He would look at me and say that he didn’t think I really wanted that.
And each time, he gave me a clean bill of health: no cancer.

In November 2002, I found a lump during a breast exam.
The surgeon sent me for a mammogram and then a biopsy.
When I went back for the results, he told me that it was in situ and all we had to do was keep a watch on it.
Good news to a woman’s ear.

Then in February of 2003, my breast started hurting.
I ignored it for a while, thinking I had eaten to much chocolate at Valentine’s Day, since I had fibrocystic breasts which can be aggravated by sugar.
But when I couldn’t take the pain anymore, I went to my surgeon.
A mammogram showed a cyst in the right breast. The surgeon scheduled me for another biopsy.
I knew something was wrong when I went to see him for the results a week later, because instead of sending me to one of the examining rooms, he told me to sit in his office.
He told me that the pathologist hadn’t said it was cancer, but that it was suspicious.
The pathologist couldn’t be more exact.
So my surgeon called the head of the breast center, gave her a brief description of the results, and asked her if she could schedule another biopsy.
He told me to go and see her after I left his office.

Getting up to leave, I felt weak.
All I could think about on the way to the breast center was that I had cancer again.
I didn’t want to have chemo, but the thought of having cancer of any kind took something away from me.
The five-minute drive seemed very long and I shed some tears.
The doctor and I went over how she would do the biopsy, something that I knew like the back of my hand since I had had so many of them.

I had the second biopsy on March 5.
As I waited the three or four days it would take to get the results, I had a feeling that something was wrong.
At this point I had not discussed the situation with my husband, Junior.
I just didn’t know how to tell him that I might have cancer again.

The surgeon once again told me to wait in his office.
That feeling came over me and I started crying and asking God not to let this happen.
The surgeon came into the office, sat down, and told me that I had breast cancer.
The only thing I could say was, “How am I going to tell my husband?”
He looked at me and said, “It’s not about your husband. It’s about you.”

He explained that the cancer was small and asked me what I wanted to do.
My options were to take the right breast off or to take them both off.
Still feeling empty, I didn’t know what to say.
Finally we agreed to take them both because I would rather do that than come back a year or two later for him to tell me I had cancer in the left breast.
Making this decision helped me regain some strength.
Before I left my surgeon’s office, he called an oncologist to ask if he could see me.
He told the oncologist that I felt like a daughter to him.
Hearing this made me feel a little better.
I did feel like I had become part of the family in his office over the years, through all of my biopsies.
The whole staff there is unforgettable.

As I got up to leave for the drive to the oncologist’s office, I was still wondering how I was going to give Junior this shocking news.
I had to just sit in my car and cry.

The oncologist saw me right away.
He went over my biopsy reports, told me what a great surgeon I had, and said that my surgeon had told him to take good care of me.
He told me to come back for treatment after I had my bilateral mastectomy.
Before I started the chemo I would have to have a port put in because the dye used in the CT scans during my kidney cancer had eaten up my veins.
He then asked me if I had any questions.
I did.
(1) Was I going to get sick? My mother had died of lung and brain cancer and I saw how she had suffered during the treatment.
(2) Was my hair going to fall out? When he answered yes to both questions, the numbness came over me and I wondered again how I was going to tell my husband.
As I got up to leave the office, the oncologist said that I was going to be all right.

Driving home felt like it took days; I could not think.
When I finally made it, I sat on the couch and cried.
I was working the second shift at that time, so I eventually got off the couch to get ready for work.
My husband called before I left, as he did every day, but I did not tell him.
What he would say about my having both of my breasts removed?
He could sense something was wrong, but I told him I was fine.
I worked eight hours without saying a word about it to anyone.

When I got home at 11:00 p.m., I was relieved to find my husband already sleeping, because I wasn’t ready to face him yet.
I still did not tell him the next morning, when I got up to make coffee before he went to work.
After he left, I called my niece in New York.
She too had been diagnosed with breast cancer, a year before me, but hers was not caught in time.
By the time she knew she had breast cancer, it had already gone to her hip.
She ended up having a total hip replacement, and then lost her battle at the age of 36.
She told me that I had to tell Junior, even though I didn’t know how he would feel about it, especially since I had had kidney cancer just 10 months before.

I didn’t tell him, though, until the doctor’s office called to say that surgery had been set for March 21.
When Junior called me before I went to work, I told him.
He was silent for a while and then he said, “You will be all right.”
I can still hear him saying, “Look at me—I am okay.” He had had breast cancer also.
He didn’t have to do any chemo, but he was supposed to take tamoxifen for five years.
He took it for only one, saying that it made him feel funny, not realizing that the feeling was caused by hot flashes.

I was a total wreck on the day of the surgery.

I cried on the way to the hospital, but Junior kept saying, “You’re going to be all right.”
As I lay on the table during the sentinel node mapping, I was still crying.
I felt as if my life had been torn apart.
When the transporter came to take me to surgery, I prayed, asking God to please let me get though cancer one more time.
I made it through surgery, which was a blessing.
I had a lot of support from friends and co-workers, who were waiting in my room when I got there.
Junior was there also. I had feared that he wouldn’t be.
I stayed in the hospital for three days with a fever.
An infection had set in to my right breast, but we didn’t know this until I went to my surgeon’s office a couple of days after my discharge because bright red blood was running out of my breast.
This lasted for a week or so and I couldn’t get my port put in until all the infection was gone.
Another setback—I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me.

I started chemo on April 19, receiving Adriamycin and Cytoxan every three weeks for a total of four rounds.
My hair started falling out after the first treatment.
I got it all cut off because every time I rubbed my hands through it, it would come out in big chunks.
I cried during the haircut and wore a scarf around the house for a couple of days.
But one day my husband told me that I needed to take the scarf off because having no hair didn’t change who I was.

My chemo treatments lasted for eight and a half hours, which was really tiresome, but I made it.
I never got sick or threw up.
But the Neupogen injections I had to get when my counts were low caused me so much pain that I could hardly walk and I had to go to bed.
I also couldn’t leave the house for at least two weeks because I was at high risk for infection.
Depression started setting in and I felt trapped, as if I had nowhere to turn.
I always smiled on the outside, but on the inside I just wanted to go somewhere and die.
I found comfort when I went to chemo and to mysurgeon’s office because they really knew how I felt.

After the mastectomy, I had a lot of pain when I tried to get into the bed.
It felt like a pulling pain and I couldn’t lie flat, so I slept on the couch for about two weeks.
I had been given pain pills, but I didn’t take them.
I am a recovering alcoholic and addict and I have a fear of getting hooked on drugs again.
I took the pain pills when I had my kidney removed and I overdosed.
I have been sober now for 13 years and when I have pain, all I take is Tylenol.

I finished my last chemo treatment on June 6. I was finally done with the red devil, Adriamycin.
One week later, I went to see a plastic surgeon.
He told me how the reconstruction would take place, but that I would have to wait for a while.
This was okay with me because I was not yet ready, even though wearing two prostheses made my back hurt.

Around this time, a lady from the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery team called me to say that a volunteer would be calling me.
I had a lot of questions, but the first volunteer told me that since she had had a radical mastectomy about 15 years ago, she didn’t think she could help me much.
So I called the director and asked for someone who could answer my questions.
Unfortunately, the second lady was not helpful either.
Our first phone call went well, but during our second call, when I really needed to talk about the pain I was having, she told me that someone was on her other line and she would call me later.

My husband was concerned that I would be lonely when he went back to work, so he went online and found out that the American Cancer Society has a chat line, and he showed me how to get into it.
This is where I got the support I needed, from other survivors who had gone through or were going through the same thing.
No matter what time of the day or night I went online, someone was there.
I still sometimes go into the chat room to see what others are saying about their cancer.

One of the ladies on the chat line told me that I should sign up for the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer.
My sister and some friends helped me get a team together for the walk.
I still had no hair, but I didn’t care. That walk was such a wonderful experience for me.
Another friend told me about the Komen Race for the Cure.
I got a team together for this too, and in October I did two walks.

In September I started the saline injections for the reconstruction.
The surgery was done in April 2004, and everything tuned out great.
I have silicone breast implants designed for breast cancer survivors and I am in a five-year study.

One day while waiting at the plastic surgeon’s office for a check-up, I started talking to a lady who was wearing a great breast cancer bracelet.
Before she left she handed me one of her business cards.
She was the founder and CEO of Faces of Courage, a non-profit organization that helps women and children affected by cancer.
A couple of months later, she called me.
She was planning a camp for African American women who had been touched by any type of cancer and she asked if I would help.
I said yes.
This was the experience of a lifetime —75 women stayed in cabins in the woods for weekend, doing arts and crafts, having facials, having a good time.

At the camp I met Sherlean Lee, who wore a pin from the Sisters Network®.
I asked her what it was. She explained that it is an organization for African American breast cancer survivors.
One of the things they do is try to get the word out in the African American community about the importance of early breast exams.
She was the president of the Orlando, Florida, network.
It sounded like a great organization, one that I wanted to be a part of.
At the end of the camp on Sunday, after a good church service, a lot of crying, and getting goodie bags, I took her card, but I didn’t call her.

In September of 2005, I met Sherlean at another camp.
We sat together on a bench and I asked her again about her organization.
They sounded like a wonderful group to me, since I had had no support group to call on when I was going through my cancer.
She told me that I should try and start a network here in Tampa.
A little hesitant at first, I told her I would see.
After leaving camp, I thought long and hard about whether this was something that I wanted to do.

A few days later, after much thought and discussion with my husband, I called the national headquarters in Houston and told them I wanted to start a Sisters Network® in Tampa.
I received their information in the mail and started looking for women to help me pull this off.
I found them and I am now the president of the Sisters Network® of Tampa Bay.

Starting this organization has been great for me.
With all the cancer that has occurred in my family—with my mother dying, my sister dying, and my niece dying—I now do everything in my power to get the word out in the African American community about cancer, particular breast cancer.
More personally, being part of this group helped me come out of the shell that I was in.
I meet women who are going through what I did. I’ve gone places I’ve never been to before.
I have a sense of belonging. When I meet people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, I let them know that they can call me anytime of the day or night.
I don’t want any woman to go through the sadness and loneliness that I went through.

So, before I end my story I would like to say this: There is life after cancer.
You just have to believe. I did that.
I knew I could and would make it. I always asked God to let it be His will and not mine.
My life after breast cancer is wonderful.
Sharing my story and hearing others’ stories makes me realize how great my life is.
Breast cancer took away my spirit for a while, but starting a breast cancer organization gave me hope.