October is Breast Cancer awareness month. Everyone I know has either had cancer, had a loved one who had cancer, or knows someone touched by cancer. It’s everywhere and affecting too many people. One is too many, but as of 2014, there were over fourteen MILLION survivors of cancer in the US alone. Those are the survivors, not the countless number of those that didn’t make it. There were over three million of those with Breast cancer. Yes, it’s sad to say, we all, in some way, are affected by this killer.
In March of 2014, I, personally, was devastated by Breast cancer. The diagnosis was not for me. It was for my sister. We’re closer than sisters. When she told me, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. In a twenty-four-hour time span, I experienced every emotion, many more than once. What remained underlying was anger and fear. I was terrified I was about to lose my sister, and I was mad as hell it had hit her. My beloved Pa had cancer and had battled it for many years, but, as so many do, lost that fight in 1997. I witnessed some of what he fought through and couldn’t imagine the same for my little sister.
My sister Eileen is a long-haul trucker for various entertainers out of Nashville, but she calls my home hers. So, when she came home to battle this monster, she came here. Thus, began OUR journey with cancer. What a rocky road it was. We realized quickly that she was in such a state of shock that she wasn’t hearing what the doctors were actually saying to her. So, my daughter Keri began going with her to all her appointments to make sure we knew for sure what was transpiring. Keri would relay to me, at the end of the day, what each doctor had said while Eileen said, “Really?” It’s amazing how we each deal with shock and grief. Since it was Breast cancer, and they believed stage 4, they told her they would have to do a mastectomy. For a woman, that diagnosis is right up there with hearing we have cancer. So, my baby sister was hit with a double whammy. She’s going to love I’m telling all her business, but she’s one of countless women who have never been equally proportioned in the chest. We always try to look at the positive in all things. She said, “Well, when all this is over and I’ve had my reconstruction, I’ll be even for the first time ever.”
We had six females in my home at that time. Keri and her three girls also live with me. The twins were about to turn six and were very inquisitive. Additionally, they loved on their aunt like none of us would have thought to. Eileen has had long, beautiful, blonde hair most of her life. She’s a natural blonde, but has predominantly kept her hair very long. I knew what this diagnosis meant. I suggested she cut her hair short so when she did start losing her hair it wouldn’t be as devastating when a hunk fell out times a couple feet. She resisted at first but chose to do so.
In a sign of solidarity, all of us cut our hair. It was most difficult on the twins. Kids are cruel. What they did as love for their aunt, their classmates used to taunt them, calling them boys and insulting them. We reminded them why they did it, it was just hair and would grow back, and used it as an opportunity to teach them how to deal with bullies. We were so grateful she had cut her hair short and learned to live with that. The most shocking to all of us was how fast she lost her hair when it began to fall out. In a total of five days, she was bald. She would wake in the morning with her pillows covered in hair. Her hair was coming out in fistfuls as she brushed and washed it. Nothing we had been told prepared us for that reality.
Eileen lost her left breast and twenty-one lymph nodes. She can no longer get hot and sweat. Her body is no longer equipped to handle excess heat. That was just one of the many changes to adapt to. She was told she would have an expander implant that would have saline injections over time to stretch her skin to accommodate a size C implant to match her right breast. She was cut from her back around and throughout her left breast. She had drains put in. The regular visits for the injections were painful. The devastating blow came when the surgeon told her she was going to come out of all of this with size A’s! She had fought through all those weeks of chemotherapy, radiation, and humiliation believing she would come out of it with equally sized breasts, but size C’s not A’s. She did as she thought she had to, but none of us were really thinking straight. I actually went with her to speak with her doctor. I wanted to understand why he would not be doing as he originally said he would. His answer was, if he knew she’d be having radiation, he would have done his expanding prior to the radiation. It seems, according to him, that radiation kills the tissue and it’s not able to be expanded after that. He did the reconstruction. Eileen was very unhappy with it.
She went back to work. From the time she was a little girl, she has always had a fascination with big rigs. At a pivotal point in her adult life, she decided to follow her dream and got her CDL to drive an 18-wheeler. She was thrilled to be back in her element and it did a lot to boost her confidence. However, she spent a year refusing to look at herself in a mirror because of the size, shape and severe scarring she was left with from the reconstruction. Her self-esteem plummeted. She then encountered a woman who directed her to a plastic surgeon in Nashville. She has a lot of opportunity to go through there, so she met with the doctor recommended. What a difference a doctor makes. First, he said there was no reason she could not be expanded to a size C. The reason for such deformity was the implants were too small, leaving too much skin that puckered. The scarring she was left with, he could lessen when he did her surgeries. He took out her left implant and put it an expander. With her first round of saline injection, she kept waiting for the pain but it never happened. He couldn’t tell her why she’d had such pain in the past, but the fact was she was expanded and return for her next injection. He quickly expanded her to a C-cup. November 2nd, I’ll be in Nashville with her as she has her implants put in to make her what she was told originally. No, our worth is not in the size of our chest or the scars left behind. It’s much deeper. But with such a devastating illness, any reduction in a woman’s worth is just adding insult to injury. Yes, we are all thrilled and praise God for bringing her back from so close to death. We don’t take any of that lightly. But I’m thrilled for her that this man, guided by God, will be making her whole. He’s already reduced some of her scarring when he put the expander in.
What meant the most to Eileen? She never took a step down this road alone. I’ll admit, I didn’t handle it the best I could. I retreated initially, preparing myself for the devastating loss I just knew was coming. Once I saw how she was struggling, it didn’t matter that I
would lose her; she needed me in the present. I got on board and never left her again. All of this to say, if you know someone who’s dealing with cancer, please be present with them. It means more than you can ever know. If, however, you are the one in the front line of this fight, don’t hesitate to be vocal about what you’re going through and the emotional support you could use. Don’t assume we know. We don’t. Ask. You never know, but what those around you may be thinking is they don’t want to bother you during this time.
What’s next? We’re designing a tattoo of a dragon within a pink ribbon that will cover her left breast. We’re going to make sure it covers any residual scars. And it’ll be bad-ass! The video below was made in honor of my sister by my fiancé, Steve Soderquist the day we all chose to cut our hair. Turn up the volume.