As a two-time Olympic athlete, gym owner and fitness professional for over three decades, it was with a blend of utter disbelief and a deep knowing beyond any doubt, that I felt two tiny pearl-like lumps in one of my breasts one morning. I immediately had a flash-back; remembering the same feeling of the lumps in my mum’s breast 21 years ago before she had her double mastectomy.
Ironically, after championing the cause and organizing countless “pink” events for over a decade (aerobathons, triathlons, gym days), I was suddenly catapulted onto the proverbial flip-side of the breast cancer coin; from supporting to surviving and thriving status!
Despite a negative mammogram and ultrasound (showed nothing untoward), my GP insisted on me having a tissue sample done. She literally saved my life. 10 days later, leaving the surgeon’s consulting rooms, my husband Austin and found ourselves in a dazed, robotic state and carried on straight to the venue where we were setting up for the annual “Pink Triathlon” scheduled for the following day! Grateful to have something to do for a few hours to keep us from our thoughts, we went on autopilot. When we got home, a very special friend who is a nurse and the contact person for an international medical aid company, visited to help us decide on our options.
It is absolutely imperative that anyone who receives a cancer diagnosis gets at least two opinions.
We decided to go to Doctor Carol Benn and her team at the Breast Care Centre of Excellence located at Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. Suffice it to say that from the moment we found ourselves in the consulting room of this lovely, tall, athletic surgeon, blonde pony-tail, dressed in pink scrubs with “Our breasts are best!” embroidered on her back, and pink Nike track-shoes, to the last time we met with her some four weeks later post double mastectomy for the final verdict, we felt we were in the best place possible for optimal treatment and healing not just physically, but mentally and spiritually.
The way our doctor speaks to us ought to instill a sense of personal connectivity, confidence, care and compassion because ultimately, the power of our faith in this person is the basis of our belief system in the early days of our diagnosis, through treatment and beyond in every day for the rest of our lives!
Biopsy before lumpectomy is standard international protocol. For some unknown reason, initially in Zimbabwe, I had a lumpectomy procedure without having a biopsy. It transpired later (when I was in South Africa) and the night before my scheduled mastectomy, that the pathologist had called my surgeon to say that he had found micro-metastasizing cells in my first sentinel node; Dr Benn’s fears of the risk of spreading cancer cells into the nodes by doing invasive surgery before analyzing a minimally invasive and much safer biopsy had been proven correct as had the pathologist’s report. Thank God, my second lot of sentinel nodes were clear so the first had done their job of preventing cancer cells from entering the rest of the body.
The whole surgical experience was testament to the expertise of the training, team-work and collaboration of Dr Benn’s practice. As a lifetime athlete, strong, fit, and tough and used to discomfort and even pain, it was still with a fair degree of apprehension that I tried to prepare myself mentally for what effectively was a double amputation! Surely there were going to be some challenging pain thresholds through which to pass?
No need to worry; I woke up with just a sense of pressure across the chest (not unlike the feeling of engorged breast-feeding days. I was in a ward with 4 other patients all of whom had the same procedure on the same afternoon and we became very close “bosom buddies” talking late into the night and a special memory I shall treasure forever. We had access to a personal pethadine pump which we could use any time as well as pain medication. Suffice it to say, neither was needed; kept “saving” myself for when the anesthetic block wore off…which it never did.
My reconstructive surgeon, being cognizant of my full time job as a Fitness Professional, did a procedure where he used the lower pectoral (chest) muscle instead of the latissimus dorsi (back muscles). 6 weeks later I took my first class again (yoga) and today I happily do push ups, pull ups, teach step, weights, spinning, kickboxing, aerobics and even participate in the odd judo training session! I compete in EcoChallenges, triathlon, mountain biking and swimming and the only problems I have is a slightly weird sensation of missing a few degrees of pull through the water and spooning out frozen ice-cream (Lower pec missing in action)! Dr Charles Serrurier – thank you from the bottom of my heart … or should I say breasts ☺!
The hospital stay was only for 2 nights and complete with our “Gucci bags” (a portable box into which we could carry our chest-drains), we were discharged on day 3. I left hospital and went to watch a movie and have a meal; it was so good to get back into the real world. No driving for a few weeks but walking, sleeping, gentle yoga and pilates type workouts were done every day (started with 10 minutes worked up to 30 minutes) and I was very wary of not doing anything with the arms above the head or sudden movements.
It is from this “experimental rehabilitation” phase of my life applying an exercise physiology profession to this situation that the idea for a DVD / YouTube 20 minute movement program which breast cancer patients are able to do I the comfort and support of their home environment (soon to be released and put on The Pink Project website) was born.
We spent four weeks in South Africa (not able to fly by plane with a chest drain) and were blessed to stay with a wonderful family for that time. For me it was perfect; to be out of the normal community loop and be able to pace myself and put my head to what needed to be done. Austin and I used the opportunity to spend precious “time-out” with each other although for him I think it was much harder. A support group for the significant others in a patient’s life is a much needed and deeply appreciated thing and another worthy project to undertake certainly here in Zim.
Attitude towards anything in life has a direct effect on our recovery and determines the attitude of those around us; perhaps most important to remember when the going gets tough. “Breast cancer” is only two words yet they are loaded with feelings of dread, fear, horror, impending death, pain, shame, helplessness. My mum’s attitude towards her own pink journey over all these years was easy to adopt; 24 years later she is still throwing members of our National judo squad around the mat!! She was also a pioneer on the drug Tamoxiphen and reported no side effects. It’s hardly surprising that I have been on it for nearly 3 years now and no side effects.
For my bosom buddies in that ward and the pink women warriors now in my life, “breast cancer” was one of the best things that happened to us for the following reasons which I share and give with all my love to anyone who is walking the pink road.
God bless, take control of your thoughts and feelings and learn, as we strive to do now, to really, truly live every moment in life and not sweat the small stuff … and it’s nearly all small stuff compared to the gift of life, living and loving.
► We have been to the edge and peered over … and by the Grace of God have been given a second chance every moment that ticks by.
► Strangers in the medical profession treated us with compassion, honesty and gentle leadership through the process of saving our lives and giving us hope, faith and love. “Work is love made visible.” – Khalil Gibran –
► We are forced to ask the spiritual questions which really matter; we live in this domain every day and it centers us when things get crazy.
► We relearn to look after our number one best friend: ourselves. We exercise, eat nourishing, cancer-fighting food (this includes none or extremely limited sugar / refined carbohydrates as cancer loves carbs; scientifically proven!), meditate, learn to say no, and consult more with our inner child when making decisions; even if it means disappointing someone else.
► We strive to forgive, forget and forbid negative emotions from contaminating our energy; equally, we are reminded how vital it is to read, listen, act and socialize with positive, inspiring things and beings for our own life quality and expectancy.
► We look at our own death in the face; every day. When we begin our day with the end in mind, it changes our perspective to one of extreme mindfulness – being able step outside of ourselves and objectively “see” our jigsaw piece in the big picture of purpose. This picture is living a life of love, compassion, simplicity and understanding to somehow make this a better world and when we are gone for the world to be a better place because we were uniquely here.
In conclusion, strive to not just survive breast cancer, but to thrive thanks to our pink experience and the lessons learned. Be a light for someone else and see this as a Devine Intervention to wake us up to who and what we really are capable of being.