There is nothing the body suffers which the soul may not profit by. ~ George Meredith
I wish I could have breathed a sigh of relief as I walked out of my doctor’s office that rainy spring afternoon in 2007, but I was still full of fear. I had gone in for a mammography after noticing a “dimpling” on my left breast. When I first saw this gathering of skin my reaction was: “Cellulite? On my breast? Do they have machines at the gym to deal with this?”
However, after checking the Internet, I learned it was a sign of breast cancer. My thoughts started racing and in a state of panic I rushed in to see my doctor. Her words “everything on the mammography looks normal—you don’t have breast cancer” were empty to me, for somehow I knew deep inside that everything was not normal.
The moment I got into my car I grabbed my cell phone, immediately dialing the number of another specialist for a second opinion. My fingers trembled, yet I was filled with determination.
The doctor I saw for a second opinion didn’t think anything was wrong either, but he did take the precaution of referring me for a sonogram. The next morning, I was lying on a table covered with white paper, the discomfort caused by the cold gel slathered on my breast was nothing compared to the fear in my heart. The doctor was scanning both breasts, but kept coming back to a certain quadrant.
As she silently stared at the screen she said, “I see something” and immediately performed a needle biopsy.
While I would have to wait a few days for the results, she basically told me that she believed it was cancer. She also sent me for an MRI – and wrote on the referral slip that the sonogram results were “highly suspicious of malignancy.”
As I walked to my car, I keep looking at the slip and felt a wave of dizziness each time I read the word “malignancy.” If not for the fact that I had to drive home, I am sure I would have collapsed in the parking lot. It took a few minutes for it to actually sink in, then the tears came and my body felt numb.
I drove home and tried to figure out how to break this news to my mother. I did not want to upset her, but knew that she was the one who would understand exactly what I was going through. This whole situation was so eerily familiar to what she went through two years earlier.
During the summer of 2005, she had visited several doctors complaining of a discomfort in her breast area, only to be repeatedly told, “everything was fine.” After taking it upon herself to check her symptoms on the Internet, she discovered that her symptoms matched those of IBC (inflammatory breast cancer)—the most aggressive and deadly forms of breast cancer and this was confirmed by a biopsy.
While her experience was shocking and horrific at the time, it also planted that seed inside my head that was pushing me forward.
I knew that “everything is probably fine” was not a medical term that I could live with.
After my own diagnosis in 2007, the initial shock eventually wore off and a deep resolve set in. My vocabulary became full of terms I never even wanted to think about and I joined a support group I never wanted to be a member of. I reached out to others who had gone through this before me and I was determined to beat this. The surgery took place about two weeks later and the doctor was pleased with the results of the lumpectomy.
Discussions then turned to treatment options—chemotherapy and/or radiation. I was overwhelmed with the choices, especially in light of the conflicting opinions I was receiving. In the end, I decided upon radiation and began six weeks of treatment and was put on a tamoxifen, a drug to prevent a recurrence of the cancer.
I followed up every six months with a mammography, sonogram or MRI and each time was given a clean bill of health. I was continuously reassured by all of my doctors that the cancer had been caught early and that I would be just fine. But I was skeptical, especially after what my mother and I had both gone through.
On top of that, I had also just lost the man I loved to bladder cancer. He had been diagnosed in April of 2008 (and told “we got it early”), only to find out that it had spread to his adrenal glands. He died six months after his diagnosis.
This disease not only made me skeptical, it scared the hell out of me.
Getting ready for bed one June evening in 2009, I felt a tiny lump, again in the left breast. I don’t think I slept at all that night and the next day I was in my doctor’s office. She performed a sonogram that day and although she saw “something,” I was told it was probably scar tissue. I told her that “probably” was not good enough and followed up with two other doctors, who told me the same thing.
Once again, there was something inside of me that was not buying their reassurances and I pushed for a biopsy. The doctor who performed the biopsy remained convinced that it was scar tissue. In fact he said he would try to get the results back quickly so that I could stop this “needless worrying” and head off with my mother for a wellness retreat in New York.
I spent the weekend with my family and tried my best not to think of the tests that were being performed. Even as I ran through the sprinklers with my nieces and nephews, nothing could stop my mind from racing about the cancer.
My mother and I arrived at the retreat Monday morning and we were unpacking the bags from the car when my cell phone rang. When I saw that it was my doctor’s number, I prayed that it would be his nurse on the other end (nurses can give the good news, doctors always had to give the bad news.) When I heard his voice on the other end, a wave of fear rushed through.
All I remember are his words “I don’t know what to say—but the cancer is back” and then I collapsed into my mother’s arms.
As I sobbed uncontrollably, I asked my mother “I just want to live happily ever after—is this too much to ask?”
We put the bags back in the car and headed back to D.C. When I met with the surgeon the next day, he went over the options—a double mastectomy being the most drastic. Since this new tumor was so small (4 mm) he did not believe that a mastectomy was necessary. After reminding him that I had undergone radiation and medication for the past two years, I told him I was done playing it safe.
Point blank, I asked, “If I were your daughter, what would you recommend?” He paused for a few moments, and then said “a double mastectomy.”
That was the moment I made my decision. While it was a huge decision, I made it with conviction. Having just had an MRI two months earlier (which did not detect anything), I knew I needed to deal with this aggressively and asked to have the surgery performed as soon as possible. Nine days later, I was on the gurney about to go into the operating room, tears running down my face. One of the doctors took my hand, and said, “Don’t worry—you are going to live happily ever after.”
The surgery went well and a month later I was at Sloan Kettering to meet yet another specialist to discuss further treatment options. When the doctor entered the room, followed by his entourage of assistants, he introduced himself, “I am Dr. Andrew Seidman, I have reviewed all of your reports and I am here to tell you that you are going to live happily after.”
I couldn’t believe my ears and immediately started crying. Having these words come from two different doctors after what I had said to my mother! And for the first time, I actually had not only resolve, but hope.
My fight against breast cancer wasn’t the first time that I have gone to battle. In fact, by the age of 46, I had become quite a scrappy and tenacious woman. Or maybe I was just born that way. Being the oldest child (and only girl) in a middle class Irish-Catholic family probably had something to do with it as well. As a feisty young child, I would stubbornly insist on getting my way, often to the dismay of my parents.
There were times when they would just give up and my grandmother would come to the rescue. She was often the only one that I would listen to and we had a very special bond that I still feel today. My grandmother was (and still is) my hero—a woman way ahead of her time, who was involved in civic activities and politics when most grandmothers were home baking cookies.
She spoiled me rotten, yet also instilled in me the belief that I could do anything I put my mind to. As a young girl, she would take me on adventures—very often to political conventions—many in Washington, D.C. These trips were so exciting and from a very young age, I dreamed of being a lawyer and moving to D.C. (despite the fact that back then no one in my family had even graduated college, never mind law school).
But my grandmother’s words “you can do anything” stuck with me and in 1989 I graduated from law school.
I began my professional career as a prosecutor in New York City, the most incredible job I have ever had. The hours were long and the pay was low, but there was an amazing feeling that came from standing up for the victims and putting the bad guys behind bars. Eventually I was working on homicide and child abuse cases, dealing with horrific crimes and countless tragedies.
Some of the cases I worked on were so awful, so vicious that it was hard to believe that human beings could actually commit such crimes. I devoted myself to doing what I could to for these victims (many of whom were small children and some of them brutally murdered.) The determination and tenacity I exhibited as a child were now assets that helped me through many cases.
It was a “work hard, play hard” environment and I managed to do both very well. I would frequently meet up after work with other DA’s and cops in the bar behind the courthouse. There was a tremendous camaraderie among us and we were able to let off lots of steam over the horrific crimes we were witnessing on a daily basis. As the years passed, the “happy hours” ended (my colleagues were settling down and having families), so I would stop at the liquor store on my way home from work.
Although I never drank at work, a bottle (or two) of Chardonnay was what I used in the evening after a rough day on the job. And there were many rough days.
Since I was a single woman living alone in New York City, I thought alcohol was the only thing that could take the edge off my stressful life and it had gone from a luxury to a necessity. And while it did not affect my job performance, it had a great effect on my personal life. As friends would marry and settle down, I would try to convince myself that I was a “career woman” who had no use for the husband, children, picket fence, etc.
But truth be told, I could not sustain a relationship. I had no problem meeting men, but after a few dates it would become clear to all of them that I drank too much and their calls would stop. That of course, did not stop me. In fact, many evenings after a few glasses of wine, I’d be dialing their numbers in the hope of “reconciling.” (I am sure they were on the other end, listening to my slurred speech, wondering, “How did I let this one get away?”)
Don’t get me wrong—my drinking did not start while I was working in the DA’s office; I had started drinking way back as a teenager and I was smitten from the first sip. For many years I absolutely loved drinking and nothing could compare to the wave of relaxation that would run through my body after those first couple of drinks. Suddenly, the anxiety would melt away and I felt comfortable and at ease.
But somewhere along the line it changed and alcohol no longer worked. In fact, instead of relieving my stress, it was now creating more. Some of my actions would fill me with such embarrassment and shame that I had a hard time looking people in the eye. Ultimately it was evident, even to me, that alcohol did absolutely nothing to enhance my reputation, my personality or my appearance.
On July 15, 2001, I made the decision to quit drinking. I had known for years that I drank differently from others, but would attribute it to being of Irish ancestry, being in a stressful job, etc. But on that hot, muggy afternoon of July 15th I stopped making excuses and admitted that I was an alcoholic.
Getting sober was not easy, especially in the beginning. To this day I am amazed at the fact that one day I was drinking and the next day I was not.
Over the past 11 years there have been plenty of situations in which a glass of Chardonnay would have taken the edge off. In fact, most of the hardest experiences of my life occurred after I got sober.
For example, I had less than two months of sobriety on September 11th, 2001 when I watched the towers on fire from my apartment. During the early morning hours of July 4, 2002, I awoke to a strange man standing above my bed. He had broken in to my apartment and I am not sure what would have happened if I had not screamed and caused him to run out (especially since they later found out he was involved in an unsolved homicide and rape case!)
In 2005, my mother’s cancer was diagnosed at the same time that my father was gravely ill with emphysema. About a month into her chemo treatment, my father was experiencing intense difficulty breathing and wanted to go to the emergency room (which was rare for a man who avoided doctors and hospitals). As they drove in the car, my mother, wearing a bright bandana covering her bald head, tried to lift his spirits and said “Joe, we are so lucky” (referring to their years together).
He just looked at her and quietly said, “Yeah, if I could breathe I’d be whistling.”
Even towards the end of his life, he possessed a dynamic sense of humor we all adored. My three brothers and I all flew down to North Carolina and we were able to spend precious moments with him before he died a few days later. Life hit me hard again in 2008, when the man I had been involved with for several years was diagnosed with bladder cancer and died six months later.
Looking back, I am so grateful that I was able to get through each of these experiences sober. My father’s death in 2005 was probably the biggest challenge I faced without using a glass of wine to dull the pain. Fortunately, I realized that alcohol would just make these “bad” situations even worse.
There was not enough wine in California that would take away the pain of losing him, so why would I even consider it? There was no escaping the pain; I just had to walk through it. It was a hard lesson, but I believe it has been a key to my sobriety.
Interestingly, recent research indicates a strong correlation between alcohol and breast cancer, with the risk directly proportional to the amount consumed.
I was not surprised to hear that, since my mother and I are both recovering alcoholics. While our alcohol consumption probably played a part in causing our breast cancer, sobriety has been instrumental for each of us in the recovery from that cancer. For me, it is what I relied on through both of these cancer ordeals, the thing that told me through the long days of despair, that I could get through it.
The last 11 years have not been easy, but they have taught me very important lessons. First and foremost, there is nothing as important as being your own advocate. Listening to your own body and soul can save your life. My inner core made the decision to stop drinking, and that same core instinct led me to push for more answers when I was being told that everything was fine in regard to my health.
“It’s probably nothing” is not a medical diagnosis that anyone should settle on when something just doesn’t feel right.
I have also gained a new appreciation of “tough times.” As I look back at some of the hardest moments, I now can see that there was something in each and every experience that was positive. My mother’s cancer, while initially devastating, ultimately saved my life by pushing me to ask for more tests.
I now know that my alcoholism has been a gift as well. My decision to quit drinking was the beginning of a journey in which I discovered that I had an inner strength and a joy for life that I never knew existed. When I look at this in a timeline—it all makes perfect sense.
That is the magical thing about life—you must live going forward, yet it only makes sense looking backward.
I now know that getting sober prepared me for my fight with cancer. I recently met a fellow sober breast cancer survivor who lamented “she didn’t get sober for this (the cancer) to happen.” I suggested her to her that perhaps she did. I cannot even imagine how I would have handled this if I were still drinking. And if I had been, I doubt I would have even had the courage to push for more answers.
Sobriety has given me tools to deal with “life on life’s terms.” It has given me healthier ways to relax, which include praying and meditating. These tools have brought me tremendous peace—although admittedly my meditation sometimes merely consists of me obsessing with my eyes shut.
But it is far better than picking up a drink.
Sobriety also taught me to look at things from a perspective of gratitude. Had I still been drinking when I was diagnosed, I would be wallowing in self-pity. Instead, I relied on my faith and prayed for the strength to do what I had to do. And through sobriety, I found that the strength was deep inside the whole time. Of course there have been moments of doubt, but overall instead of asking “Why me?” I am now able to say, “I was able to save my own life—two times!”
This tremendous shift in my perspectives has helped me cope with the double mastectomy as well. I finally realize that the “external” things (including parts of my body) have nothing to do with who I am. For years, I was self-conscious about my body (especially my thighs) and would try every gym club and exercise machine imaginable to change them. Initially I thought that “losing” my breasts would be devastating, but ironically I feel more comfortable with myself than I ever have before.
Today, I believe that my heart and soul define who I really am and they are also what saved my life. I still don’t like my thighs, but I love my spirit. Perhaps that has been one of my greatest lessons of all—the power of the spirit. And I give thanks every day to the woman who first nurtured that spirit—my grandmother, Adele.
My mother and I are still going for follow-up treatments every few months and are so fortunate to have each other. In fact, I have a scan scheduled in a few weeks and she is the one I call to talk about the doubts, the anxiety, and the fear of another recurrence. And I can do the same for her. We are able to remind each other (often on a daily basis) that we are on a path and that we will be taken care of; this is truly amazing especially considering that way we fought when I was growing up!
Both of these diseases have brought us closer together and for that I will be eternally grateful.
Breast cancer and alcoholism are both generally regarded as awful and frightening conditions. And they can be. But they can both also serve as amazing gifts—suddenly putting a double perspective in your life that never existed before. When I first acknowledged that I was an alcoholic and quit drinking, I thought my life was over, when in fact it was really just beginning. I had the same feeling when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I now know that these experiences that appeared to be catastrophic and unfair at the time, actually saved my life. More importantly, they have made me realize how much like my grandmother I really am. This knowledge has brought me peace and solace, along with the hope that maybe, just maybe, there is such a thing as “happily ever after.”
Susan Broderick is an Assistant Research Professor at Georgetown University and very active in the recovery community.
Assistant Ed: Jennifer Townsend