Terry Ratner, RN, MFA | Jun 5, 2014, 1:30 p.m.
My right breast is deformed. Two surgeries and a five-day intensive radiation treatment have changed the structure of a perfectly beautiful breast. The skin is still smooth and the nipple looks identical to the original—it’s the implant itself that has dropped leaving the right breast lower than the left breast. The lumpectomy, sentinel node biopsy and radiation treatments have altered the shape along the right quadrant, causing a dimpling in the skin leaving my right breast an anomaly.
It’s now more than a month since the radiation was completed. It’s six months since the lumpectomy and four months after the sentinel node biopsy. I rejoiced on the last day of radiation. I wonder now what I was celebrating.
I thought the cancer was behind me, that the radiation killed every cancer cell in the area, but that’s just what I and every cancer patient wants to believe. The fact is that I have cancer. I am not a cancer survivor and will never call myself one. There is no such thing as a cancer survivor because one never knows when or if this terrible disease will sneak up on them, attack the same area or a different one. All of us who have had a diagnosis of cancer live with the likelihood of having cancer return sometime in their life. The trick is to learn to live life as if you were never touched by this awful disease or to live as if it the cancer will never return.
I’m afraid I’ve failed horribly at my own advice. I’m feeling worse now than before treatment or during the treatment. I try and think about people who suffered a far greater loss than me; a girl in her 20s on crutches with only one leg. And yes, she was smiling. Then there was a man sitting in a wheelchair who lost both legs. He also smiled at me. I remember another man walking down the halls in the hospital where I worked with two silver hooks that sparkled in the light. I asked him about his life and how he managed. We walked to my office and his artificial hands picked up papers, pens and books, whatever he wanted. He smiled as he performed everyday tasks that we all take for granted.
These encounters were all before my breast cancer diagnosis, except for the girl with an above the knee amputation who had no prosthesis. This beautiful young girl with blond hair, freckles and a huge smile entered the salon and glided past me with grace as if the crutches were her wings. I almost didn’t notice a missing limb. Her eyes met mine and there was a strong connection. This occurred a week before I underwent radiation—a week when I had doubts about the treatment and its aftereffects. I wanted to talk with her, but thought it best not to. The strength I needed didn’t require a conversation or necessitate an explanation of what had happened to her. The image of her smile seemed to put things in perspective—then and now.
Terry J. Ratner, RN, MFA is a health educator at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. Visit her website at www.terryratner.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.