The TV was on. It was June 23, 2019. Two days before our 13th wedding anniversary. We had finished dinner and the three children, my husband and I were relaxing together before heading to bed. I was working on my computer on the couch as others took in the sights and sounds of another nature program.
With my arms crossed and my hands under my armpits, I suddenly felt something on the left side of my left breast. My heart stopped. It felt as if the world stopped; yet, there was my family, sitting before me, and nothing had changed for them. I could feel the blood rushing through my body, my muscles tensing, the pit in my stomach growing. I kept feeling. Still there. I moved my arms around and felt again. Still there. I raised my arm over my head. Still there. The lump was not going away. With several deep breaths and my eyes closed, I slowly calmed my heart rate, slowed my thinking, and made a plan. For me, gameplans have always been comforting - whether on the field as a college athlete or in the throws of giving birth or tackling an average day - gameplans give me a sense of control, of purpose, of belief. This time was no different.
I would go to sleep without saying a word to my husband, Charlie. If the lump was still there in the morning, I would let him know and get in to see my doctor. That night I did not sleep well. Trouble falling asleep led to tossing and turning through the night; yet, morning arrived and I reached for the spot. Damn it! The lump was still there and so easy to find. Mondays have never been my favorite day of the week, and this time was no different. It was only fitting that the journey I was about to take would begin on a Monday.
Upon finding Charlie downstairs, I said, “I need to make a doctor’s appointment.” He said, “Ok. For Millie?” No! Not for our dog! “No. For me.” And, that was the start of appointment after appointment and a whirlwind three weeks that began with with my primary care physician and ended with a bilateral mastectomy on July 12, 2019. The rollercoaster of emotions during those three weeks was wild: fear, focus, gratitude, sadness, elation, relief, and so much more.
While those three weeks were intense, purposeful and focused, they were not the end of my journey. They were simply the beginning. Removing both breasts meant taking one step in removing the cancer from my body, but numerous other steps remained.
The remainder of my journey began with a month of healing from surgery. Losing both breasts and having nine lymph nodes removed from under my left arm was no small event - physically and emotionally. While I had grappled with the decision of whether to do a single mastectomy or bilateral mastectomy, all discussions pointed towards the bilateral. I was prepared by my doctor and others about the emotional toll of losing one’s breasts, but I was not prepared for the response I would have. When my husband and I removed the bandages for the first time, 48 hours after surgery, I burst into tears - as my doctor suspected I would. However, they were not the tears she suspected I would have, for they were tears of joy and relief! I had made the right decision and I looked like Bowen! The relief I felt from seeing my scars, my symmetrical scars, was immense. As a coach of young women, I have always preached that confidence and grit and belief and, most of all, beauty comes from within. Here I was staring at my boobless self in the mirror, realizing that I had been right all along - all of that truly does come from within and I am the same woman I was before surgery, albeit without boobs. But, those breasts do not define me, nor do they define any woman. They serve a purpose, and my three healthy, strong children benefited from that purpose and now it was time to say goodbye.
Following that goodbye, four rounds of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation remained in my gameplan. And, while gameplans always gave me confidence and a sense of control, these gameplans took another level of fortitude and belief. Inundating my body with toxic chemicals and believing it was needed to make me healthy, was a hard pill to swallow. Digging deep within me to find that belief would take an immense amount of mental strength and an enormous community of support.
Now three-quarters of the way through chemotherapy, I am well on my way to conquering this beast, winning this game, and ultimately capturing the championship. The road has not been easy. The path ahead is still daunting. Yet, I can see the end in sight and have the belief within that this will soon be in the rearview mirror. Nonetheless, I continue riding that rollercoaster of emotions and predicting what I will feel from one day to the next is like predicting the weather - you really don’t know until it arrives.
While I may have lost my boobs and my hair, I have gained so much more. The tremendous outpouring of love and support from far and wide has filled me with gratitude and raised my spirits in ways I truly cannot express. It has even made me wish, in some ways, everyone could go through what I am going through as I wish everyone had the opportunity to feel this type of love in their lives. My appreciation for life, family, community, health, and nature has never been stronger.
As I navigate my way through these final months of treatment, I look to the future as a conqueror of breast cancer not a survivor. For me being a survivor, means I passively sat by, made it through, and survived. Winning this battle is not about being passive. It is about going after this enemy with every ounce of energy, strength, and determination within me. To do so is to conquer not survive; therefore, my eyes are set on 2020. When that clock strikes midnight, my championship will have been won and I will forever be known as a breast cancer conqueror!
© 2019, Bowen Holden