My left breast itched. I was preparing for vacation July 2009 when I felt an itch on my left breast, and with a light scratch, a lump that seemed attached to a deeply embedded growth. I have fibrocystic breasts, so I wasn’t too alarmed. I did a breast self-exam following an instruction card and in every other position I could think of. In the morning I call my doctor and arranged to come in that day after work.
On the way to the doctor’s office, I had a car accident.
“I’m going to be really late, more than an hour,” I called and told the nurse.
“We’ll wait for you,” she said.
After a clinical exam, my doctor set me up with a mammogram, an ultrasound and a breast surgeon.
The mammogram didn’t show the mass, but I was able to feel it and so could the technician. It showed up in the ultrasound. The lights were dim and soft music played as the radiologist said he was 99 percent sure it was benign, but he wanted to be 100 percent sure.
We left for vacation, and I prayed. And prayed.
I took that sequence of events to mean the Lord wanted me to have downtime with my family before coming back to a breast surgeon and an excisional biopsy in the office the same day. The surgeon was concerned that the mass had shown up between mammograms, and she wanted it removed.
At my follow-up exam, I thought everything was fine, till my doctor came in, sat down and said, “You have a carcinoma.”
I looked over my shoulder. Who was she talking to? I did everything right. I do all the recommended medical exams. I eat healthy. I exercise.
“I don’t want to die,” was my next response. “I’ve got too much to live for. I want to see my daughter grow up.”
“Well, you’re going to have to fight to live,” she said.
The doctor called my husband in from the waiting room and explained we were facing triple negative breast cancer. That means breast cancer cells tested negative for estrogen receptors (ER), progesterone receptors (PR) and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). Without these receptors, the cancer’s growth is not likely to be fueled by estrogen or progesterone or by growth signals coming from the HER2 protein. Therefore, triple-negative breast cancer does not respond to hormonal treatment with drugs like tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors or therapies that target HER2 receptors such as herceptin. Triple negative breast cancer only responds to chemotherapy and radiation. Doing anything conservative or with minimum exposure to chemicals were out. It’s also a cancer with one of the highest rates of return, typically within one to two years of diagnosis.
Right before Thanksgiving, they put in the port to deliver the chemo. Two weeks later they started the therapy.
United Methodist Women’s supportive community kicked in too. A number of people called to remind me that the Lord can work through chemotherapy.
“He took the mud and healed the blind man. Why not chemotherapy?” one woman said. “Trust that the Lord has his hand on the chemo. Don’t feel it’s a curse; it’s a treatment. It’s a blessing. Receive it as a blessing each time you go.”
So I went and received each treatment as a blessing! I received it has my healing!
Eleven days to the day I started the chemo treatment, my hair started falling out from the roots.
I also got a letter from my employer saying, “Hope you’re feeling better; however, we have to inform you that you did not qualify for the Family Leave Act.” I had changed jobs and had only been with this company six months. This meant I could be fired at any time, and if and when I came back to work, the company was not obliged to put me back in the position I left. I could not come back to work with restrictions for light duty. I’m a physical therapist, so there really is no light work. The letter said they were required by law to inform me of what my rights were. To me, it sounded more like what my rights weren’t.
How was I going to maintain my family financial responsibilities?
Our family persevered, and it just all worked out. My car died, but it turned out I didn’t need a car because I was having a lot of difficulty moving my arm and couldn’t drive anyway. United Methodist Women members and others came and brought me meals and prayer shawls. You want to talk about a supportive community? I saw it in action. Women I’d never met before came and were there for me. I took my 12-year-old daughter to support groups with me, when it was appropriate. Her public school classmates made a huge card for us in their computer lab and signed it and wrote messages that they were praying for us.
By Christmas all my hair was gone. I did everything I could to hold on to it because that would mean I wasn’t sick. I finally had to release that and say, “The Lord has allowed this to come my way. How will I use it for his glory and to help other people?”
I began to use every opportunity, every luncheon, every breakfast, even though I didn’t feel like eating, to let people know breast cancer is a real possibility no matter what your age, and we need to take responsibility for our bodies through self-exams and regular mammograms.
I completed my last chemotherapy session in February 2010, began radiation three weeks later and was able to go back to work when they found some light duties for me. After 10 days of radiation my skin turned dark like a spotted leopard.
Cancer does a lot to your self-esteem, your self-image. You don’t feel or look good. All the things you thought made you beautiful, appear healthy, that gave you confidence are front and center — and in question. I’m used to being the superwoman, and I didn’t want people to discount me and not ask me to do things because they thought I was sick. But I wasn’t able to do many things, and people weren’t asking me to do it.
The experience reminded me that no matter what it looks like, you still have to trust God. I started wearing a wig, but it was so hot. When I got enough hair to cover my head, I took off the wig. It was freeing. And I started getting compliments! I’m enjoying it. I had in my mind what beauty was, but the Lord allowed me to see another way.
Today, I am cancer-free. I am a survivor. I am getting my steam back. At Assembly I picked up a variety pack of Scriptures cards that you place on your car dashboard so that you can read the verse reflection in your car window. When I got home they were all stuck together so I could only use one. That one was based on Galatians 6:9, and it was just what I needed:
“I reap the harvest of blessing because I trust God, and I faint not.”
That Scripture keeps me encouraged day in and day out.
Tonya Murphy is a director of the Women’s Division from North Georgia Conference, where she is a member of Grace United Methodist Church in Atlanta.