My Story: “I Choose Life”

A photo of Ricki Fairley smilingI am a breast cancer survivor…I choose life.

During a typical, high-stress day in the life of a Type-A working mom and wife, I had my annual gynecologist checkup. When my doctor found a lump in my left breast, her facial expression made me pause. But I had to get back to work, figure out what I was going to cook for dinner and make plans for my upcoming week-long business trip. I didn’t really have time for the mammogram, sonogram and biopsy.

READ: Black Celebrities Who’ve Fought Breast Cancer

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Breast Cancer: Confirmed

But soon enough, after a positive biopsy and a confirmed breast cancer diagnosis, I had to make time and deal with it. The pathology report confirmed that I had triple-negative breast cancer. What was supposed to be a tiny, early-stage tumor, turned out to be a fast-growing, aggressive agent of death.

According to Komen.org, “Compared to other breast cancers, triple negative breast cancer tends to grow faster and it less likely to be seen on an annual mammogram. And it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body early. Also, it seems to recur more often than other subtypes of breast cancer. It usually has a poorer prognosis.”

According to BreastCancer.org, African-American women are three times more likely than white women to contract this type of breast cancer.

READ: Why Do Black Women Die More From Breast Cancer?

“How Many Times A Day Do You Think Or Say The Word…?”

In my first meeting with my nurse/breast cancer coach, she started the conversation with, “When you walk out of here today, you will be in the process of figuring out how to remove all of the stress in your life.”

Of course, I denied having stress. Frankly, as a multi-tasking, miracle-working black woman, I didn’t have time to entertain the concept of stress in my life. Nurse/Coach Nancy then asked me the bomb-dropping question that would dictate my behavior throughout my healing process and, really, for the rest of my life:

“How many times a day do you think or say the word, a$$hole?”

My jaw dropped! Wow! I couldn’t even count how many times it happened in a day.

She continued. “Anyone you think of that way needs to be removed from your life.”

Thoughts of my toxic, emotionally-draining, 29-year marriage and my caustic eight year business partnership immediately filled my head.

READ: Double-Mastectomy Facts You Need To Know

The Decisions Of A Survivor

In that moment, I became a survivor.

I had to make decisions about my physical and emotional state in order to remove the stress. So I took the most radical medical route I could: a double mastectomy, aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. My mastectomy identified that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, putting me at Stage 3A. Stage 4 is terminal.

The double mastectomy was my choice (one that my doctors were proud of me for making), but there are many members of the medical community who view this as an extreme measure. Dr. Yvette Williams, my cancer survivor mentor, dear sista-friend, and assistant professor at the Emory University’s School of Medicine, also underwent the procedure.

“As you know, mastectomies are often not necessary in small or early stage cancers,” she said. “Increasing numbers of women like me who have a personal or family history that makes us high risk for second breast cancers are choosing mastectomies–and even prophylactic mastectomies–as a way of preventing cancer and also as a way to avoid the tiresome routine of yearly or every six month mammograms or MRI’s.”

READ: The Best Foods For Breast Cancer Survivors

The Recovery Of My Body & My Life

My bald body (when they tell you that chemo will make your hair fall out, it’s not just the hair on your head they’re talking about) and the physical side effects of chemo and radiation were indications that the cancer in my body was under siege.

I had to start working on the other cancers in my life: the a$$holes had to go. So, I divorced my husband, separated from my business partner, sold my house in the suburbs of Atlanta, started my own business and moved to the beach. Most of this took place while I was under-going chemotherapy.

My first client was the Obama for America Campaign, so part of my healing process was writing and producing all of the radio ads targeting African Americans for President Obama’s re-election.

Through my year of recovery and healing, I was blessed with love and caring from my family and so many friends from every era of my life. In the six weeks of initial healing time after my mastectomy, it was really hard. When I woke up from the surgery, I felt like a truck had hit me and then backed up over me again. It was no joke: I had chemo on Fridays and was pretty much out of commission until the following Wednesday. One thing I am grateful for, though, is the fact that I was never alone. I could not have made it without my incredible mom, my force-to-be-reckoned-with younger sister, my two beautiful, brave, brilliant and bodacious daughters (who were 19 and 26 at the time), and my supportive and loving sista-friends who stepped in and stepped up, taking care of me and pouring unconditional love on me while I healed.

READ: My Story: “I’ve Survived 9 Years With Breast Cancer”

A Gift From God

I am now celebrating my second year of being a breast cancer survivor. I did go through reconstructive surgery: they put in tissue expanders to be used to stretch my skin to prepare my chest wall for implants. After I healed from the mastectomy surgery, I had saline pumped into the tissue expanders about every two weeks till I got to the breast size i wanted. The ones that tried to kill me were pretty small, so now I’m a B cup. I don’t really know for sure, though, because I don’t wear a bra – one of the benefits of breast implants. I had the implants put in last February, a little over a year after my mastectomy. The implant surgery was in and out in the same day and no big deal. I recovered in about 2 weeks.

I now have a clean bill of health and live on the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, MD, two miles from the area where I spent childhood summers. I go kayaking and paddle boarding when the water is calm in the mornings, walk on the beach at least three times a day and seek peace in my life. Looking back on the past two years, I know that my breast cancer was a gift from God. He took me on a faith walk to change my life. He showed me the people I am supposed to be around and blessed me with a new life based on truth, faith, peace and love.

READ: How Black Women CAN Survive Breast Cancer

How About You?

So if you are a multi-tasking, miracle-working, rule-the-world woman who always puts others first, remember what the flight attendant says just before the plane takes off: “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, before helping others.” Don’t be afraid to put yourself first, get your annual check-ups, do breast exams regularly, remove the stress-causing negative forces from your life, bask in your blessings, know that God has you and seek peace.

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