October Photo Project: Breast Cancer Awareness Month- My Mother's Story
Updated: Jul 11, 2019
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual international health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities to increase awareness of the disease and to raise funds for research into its cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure. For 31 days, you can't help but notice the campaign- from large organized races for a cure to major sports teams wearing pink. Once the month ends, most people move on and don't think about breast cancer on a day-to-day basis. That is, most people except for the survivors.
My mom is a breast cancer survivor. In June 2006, her world shifted. What started off as an annual mammogram turned into a day that changed her entire life. This year marks her 12th year cancer free and I wanted to feature her in a photo project since I have never seen her quite this happy, herself, and just... free.
Sherry is a mom of four adult children, no grandchildren, but three granddogs. She has been married to her loving husband, Greg, for 34 wild years. She's semi-retired, enjoys sewing and cooking, and lives in Austin, TX. She has moved A TON over the last decade and was most recently living in an RV with Greg for the last 8 months while traveling around the country. She's 64 going on 16 and is the most lighthearted, silly, Godly woman I've ever met.
When were you diagnosed?
June 2006. I actually don’t remember the exact day anymore. I was going in for a routine mammogram and they saw something abnormal. They were worried enough to give me an ultrasound biopsy immediately. A couple days later the doctor called me while I was at work to let me know I had cancer. At work! I tried to keep working but couldn’t even think straight so I just left. I called my boss once I got home to let her know I left and that was the fist time I said "I have cancer" out loud. I'll never forget that feeling.
What did you do right after you got diagnosed?
I called all my sisters. It turns out my sister Kathleen had canceled her mammogram appointments the last couple of checkups so I told her she needed to reschedule one ASAP. On that checkup, they diagnosed her with breast cancer as well. Although we were both in a terrible situation, we were there for each other through it which was really helpful for both of us. She is also a survivor.
How long was your treatment?
After my diagnosis I had to wait almost a month until I could see the oncologist. After that, they wanted me to wait even longer until after they got back from vacation before I could get surgery. I pleaded that “I want it out now!” and so the doctor did the operation during my lunch break before she left for vacation. What a saint! I had the surgery on August 4th and rested up for one week before I went back to work. My radiation started after I healed from surgery... it lasted for six weeks from October to December. I had to get radiation every day on my way to work.
You got it BEFORE work? How did that affect your day?
I was so tired. Every day for lunch I would go into the nurses room to lay down for an hour/hour and a half. I didn't tell many people what I was going through. Although.... I walked around with a pillow under my arm because the lymph nodes hurt so bad. It was a bright yellow smiley face pillow- people definitely gave me weird looks for that. My breast never really hurt... just my arm. It was always so sore.
Who/What got you through it?
Well, your dad was in denial. He realizes now that he was in denial. At the time he'd say that the doctor must've switched the results and gave me the wrong diagnosis. He gave no support. Neither did any of you kids. [author note: this is true, and I'm so regretful.] But I suppose I was also a little in denial too. My sisters, Gayle and Kathleen, were there for me the most. Being able to help Kathleen with the process, like “this is what is going to help next” made me feel better. And of course, God. My relationship with God got much stronger.
How did it impact your day-to-day and your outlook on the future?
Day-to-day: I was so relieved the cancer was out, but still had the worry that it would come back. Mainly just the pain affected my day to day.
Outlook on the future: I've felt like I've had a ticking clock on my mortality. I'd have thoughts like “Why should I buy a sewing machine? I’m just going to die... so what’s the point?”. Probably for the next 10 years I felt like I was getting ready to die. I kind of stopped enjoying the life I had. Although, lots of other things were going on in my life aside from cancer to influence that outlook too. It wasn't until I turned 60 that I felt this giant relief and realized that I'm not going to die anytime soon. I let go of so much insecurity and worry. Also at 60 I quit my job and reconnected with Greg. Your dad likes to say I got the gift of being funny for my 60th birthday.
Did you change your lifestyle?
I've always been pretty healthy but I guess I did start to focus more on my fitness and nutrition. I've always exercised but I started doing workout routines. I hiked the Grand Canyon. Even though I had so many negative thoughts about how I was going to die I didn't let it affect my habits. I paid more attention to what I was eating. I cut out coffee, buuuuut then started drinking more wine. More recently I've focused on gaining more muscle and I've been eating the Paleo diet for about 2 years now. Oh, and now I have to put a padded insert into my bra. My right breast is noticeably smaller. I never thought I'd be stuffing my bra in my 60s!
Are you ever worried you may get it again, or a different form of cancer?
It's definitely crossed my mind. I smoked cigarettes for 15 years... although the doctor says my lungs don't look like I've smoked a day in my life. My mom died of colon cancer and my dad died of lung cancer, even though he didn't smoke, so I don't know what could happen. I can't say that I'm not fearful, but I can say that I’m almost 65 and I have no idea how long I’m going to live and that God is going to take me when he’s ready. I’m going to accept it but I’m thankful that I’ve lived longer than my parents did. I don’t like when people say fight for a cure. You should fight for a reason that a cure isn't even needed. I wish people would focus more on preventative measures rather than finding a cure.
What is the biggest lesson this experience taught you?
I learned how to love myself. It's helped me love others better. [author note: this is 100% true- I’ve never seen her and my dad so happy and in love. They're like children flirting.] I also appreciate each day. I stopped worrying about life and started appreciating life. I try to live each day like it’s a gift and I don’t look too far into the future. I buy something when I want it. I take care of me. All my life I didn’t prioritize myself but now I do.
What would you say to those who just got diagnosed or are currently undergoing treatment?
I'd point them to the bible verse Philippians 4:8; "Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise." I was in such a negative head space for so long I wish I found that verse at the beginning.
I'd tell them "Be kind to yourself. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself- quit your job if possible and slow down- it’ll help you to recover quicker. Think positive, read positive things, and be informed. LAUGH A LOT! Laughter is the best medicine. Reach out to other women fighting. Hospitals have resources to bond together. Find someone to talk to when you just want to talk and have the other person listen. Find someone to talk to when you just want to cry. Find that support person. It could be me. You'll get through this."