Thursday, December 6, 2007

"Pat’s Breast Is Here”

My breast has been handled by so many people you would think I spend a typical day in an Amsterdam window. Instead, during the summer and fall of 2006, I spent a typical day in the John Stoddard Cancer Center at Iowa Methodist Medical Center. My left breast became the darling of Des Moines’ radiologists, surgeons, oncologists and radiation technicians. They pricked it, sliced it, shot blue dye into it, and zapped it.

I became a breast with legs. When I arrived for a doctor’s appointment, I began to feel that I should announce, “Pat’s breast is here” and the receptionist would say, “Tell it to have a seat. The doctor will be right with it.” The rest of me could have stayed home.

The rest of me, though, held the power—the power to heal, to build strength, to fight the disease, to survive. Doctors focus on the disease, as well they should. I had a sick breast and their job was to heal it. In their medical myopia, though, they overlooked the tools I could use to regain my health: a positive attitude, loving family and friends, internal strength, and a good mind that would help me do the research I needed to understand my body and its disease.

The more I studied, the more I realized that, while breast cancer grows, obviously, in the breast, its origins can be in the way you live your life—how you eat and drink, how much you exercise, the stress you live with, your spiritual state. Healing the tumor, then, means healing the whole body.

Some of my doctors did understand that I was more than the sum of my mammary glands. The radiologist who first called to tell me the bad news said, “Patricia, this is not that bad.” I come back to those encouraging words over and over and over again. I wish I had asked her to tell me the many ways in which it was not so bad, but at that time I was too ignorant to know what questions to ask. I did ask if she meant the size and she said that, yes, it would be considered early stage cancer.

When I first met my radiation oncologist, she looked at my charts and examined me and explained everything I needed explained. Then she looked at me and said, “Your prognosis is excellent.” Those were also words I came back to again and again.

My oncologists, however, were more scientific, less personal. One told me my cancer “was on the march.” I felt like Poland, being invaded by cellular Nazis. They all emphasized the aggressive nature of hormone negative cancer and said it required aggressive chemo.

I am sure the chemo helped. What helped as much, if not more, I am absolutely sure, is the belief I had deep inside me that I would get well. The doctors who gave me hope helped my full-body healing process. Those who saw no farther than a tumor in a breast took care of the tumor in the breast, period. Perhaps that was enough, but I do not think so.

I am glad treatment ended with radiation, because the radiation staff treated me as a whole person. I got to know them well because I visited them every working day for six and a half weeks. They all learned my name, so when I walked in for treatment, I just had to wave and walk back to change into my hospital gown. They even laughed with me about their fixation with my breast. After my final treatment, they gave me a diploma. The next day, my husband and I headed for two weeks at our Colorado cabin.

Because I trusted my radiation oncologist, I asked her to manage my continuing care. She agreed.

I returned for my first follow-up appointment a month after my final radiation. I walked in and the receptionist smiled and said, “Hi, Pat. How was Colorado?” We chatted briefly, then she called back to the other nurses and radiation specialists: “Pat’s here,” she announced, as though it was a big deal.

And I guess it was, because at that point, I realized that these people saw me as more than a body part. The doctor even spent time looking at my vacation pictures, showing real, not feigned, interest. She knew that the ability to hike, to relax on our deck, to watch animals was just plain normal. And normal is what my breast and I needed to be.

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