My Story: I Am A Self-Proclaimed “Breast Cancer Survivor Instructor”
My name is Melisa Wilson. I am 40 years old. I have been married to Joshua, my best friend, for the last 17 years of my life. We have a sweet 6-year-old son, who is our living miracle. Our son was born at just 23 weeks gestation at a ginger 1.4 lbs & 11 inches long. He stayed in the hospital for a little over 4 months. He came home with us weighing 6 lbs 6 oz. He has done remarkably well thanks to prayers, a lot of love, outstanding medical care, and very supportive family and friends.
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We thought the drama of life was behind us, but on Saturday, February 16, 2014, my husband discovered a lump in my left breast. I thought it was likely a blocked or hardened milk duct. Despite having a premature child, I was able to produce ample breast milk, and it took a long time for my supply to dry up.
My husband insisted that I get checked out right away. So, on Monday, I called my OB/GYN, and they got me in that day. The doctor reassured me that it could indeed be a blocked duct, but wanted to get some test to be on the safe side. I work in healthcare, and I have to admit I was not expecting anything abnormal to show up on the tests.
A few days later I had a breast ultrasound and mammogram. I never had these tests before. Honestly, they weren’t bad. It was not the best feeling in the world to have my breast squished like a pancake for the mammogram, but it was a temporary discomfort. The ultrasound did not hurt at all. Upon completion of testing, I met the radiologist who greeted me and personally took a few extra pictures. As he completed the ultrasound, he recommended a breast biopsy. I still did not feel concerned. I had no significant family history of breast cancer, uterine cancer, or prostate cancer.
The biopsy was done a few days later, and the radiologist suggested I come back the next day for the results. I will always remember the technician saying, “Hum he usually does not have people come back in that fast.” The doctor also stated that no matter the results he would recommend I get the mass removed. Regardless of his statement I still felt confident my results were going to be normal.
The next day my husband and I went to see the radiologist, and I heard the dreaded words, “I am sorry Mrs. Wilson- you have breast cancer.” My son was all I could think about. I immediately cried and stated, “But my son is 2.” The doctor told me I needed to see an oncologist and a surgeon. I had a range of emotions, but I felt stunned above all and just wanted to wake up. I thought how could this be? I can’t have cancer. How could God give such as precious a gift as a son and then take me away from him?
From there everything moved quickly. I saw the oncologist in just 2 days. She had so much compassion and educated my husband and me about the various types of breast cancers. She explained that I was HER2-positive and estrogen and progesterone negative. While this an aggressive type of breast cancer, it is one that has targeted therapy, which meant that there are medications designed to kill cancer at the source. I will be honest while I heard her, I was still in shock and did not really absorb everything.
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My husband spent time researching breast cancer treatment options and, in a day, he sounded like an expert. He asked all of the questions. I did not even know what to ask and did not really talk very much during the visit. I cried a lot though. I would advise anyone going through this to not go to your appointments alone especially not at first.
A nurse came into the room and provided me with a binder to keep myself organized. She had handouts of all my therapies, she described how the medications worked, the side effects, and how I would manage them. Having this information paid off, and it became my survival guide. She also provided support group information and resources for me regarding nutrition. Additionally, she presented me with ways to organize the billing. When the bills began rolling in, I valued having an organized way to manage them.
One thing I discovered on my own was that there are patient assistance programs, co-pay cards for the medications. Genentech offered co-pay assistance for 2 of my therapies, Perjeta and Herceptin. The other chemotherapy medications I took were Taxotere and Carboplatin did not have co-pay assistance. I also had to get Neulasta injections. Following that first appointment, I had a lot of testing, including a PET scan to look for cancer in other areas in my body, a breast MRI (which I did not like very much as it was uncomfortable), numerous lab test, and surgery to have my port placed.
When I returned to the doctor, I was told I had Stage IIb HER2-positive breast cancer. I was presented with the opportunity to participate in a research trial. I decided to do it as a way to help others who will one day walk this journey. In just 2 weeks after my discovering the lump, I was starting chemotherapy.
Motivation I had to find from within, but inspiration was easy. My son had (and still does) so much fight in him. He came into this world fighting for his life, and he won. Every time I looked at my baby, I knew I had to press my way through it all. I had to do it for him, my husband, my family, and myself. A week after my first round of chemotherapy, I was back to work, going through the motions. I kept my diagnosis a secret from many for a while and tried to pretend everything was normal.
I had some days where I just cried and cried. I did not want people to pity me or make negative comments. One day a dear friend told me it would be easier to share and that more people would say good things than those that would be negative. Another friend who is also a breast cancer survivor said, for every person you tell that is one more prayer going up. These words encouraged me through the journey, and they held true.
Some days I get mad at my body for offending me, yes even now nearly 5 years after my diagnosis. I don’t stay mad. I chose to get a double mastectomy, and I have had full reconstruction. This decision gave me peace of mind. I don’t look the same, but I am alive.
One friend told me that I am a survivor, in fact, he said, “Melisa, you are a survivor instructor!” That boosted my confidence, and I thought yea I can show and tell others how to survive through the diagnosis. One of my co-workers who did not learn of my diagnosis until about 6 months later, said to me “I had no idea you had cancer. I had no idea of what you were going through. I really had no way of knowing. You always smile, you always helped so many people. You have so much grace. If I ever get diagnosed with cancer, I hope I can be as strong and inspiring as you. I would come to you. You showed me that you can live with cancer.”
Her words provided me with a purpose. Throughout the year and half of treatments, I had my down moments. All of the test, appointments, and surgeries felt overwhelming. I was physically, emotionally, and financially exhausted. I just wanted to get through everything and regain my “normal life.” It took about a year for me to accept my new normal. It took that long for me to focus on me getting better and not just surviving.
So today, I am a self-proclaimed “breast cancer survivor instructor.” I help people through breast cancers fear and reality. I provide support to anyone who wants it. I answer questions about the other side of breast cancer, people are afraid to talk about like intimacy and relationship management.
Over the years, my husband kissed and wiped away many tears. He tells me every day that I beautiful. He never wavered in his confidence that we would beat cancer. We did we beat breast cancer. Now I am pursuing a doctorate in nurse practice from a prestigious university. I am doing it for many reasons, but one is because life goes on after cancer.
While when I was first diagnosed, I was stunned I did not let it paralyze me. My support system, my tribe, would not allow me to stop fighting.
My experience taught me to be a better mom, wife, daughter, sister, cousin, friend, and medical professional. I know what the dark days are like because I lived through them; joy really does come in the morning.