Breast cancer recently drug me back into its ugly world. I fought back and took control, when I had the honor of receiving the BRAVE Day proclamation from the Mayor, Tim Levitt and the Vancouver City Council on BRAVE Day, which is March 21 and is a day dedicated to recognizing a women’s right to reconstruction and support after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. A little known law passed in 1998 and was given very little press.
It was all downhill for me after March 21.
As I write this, I have recommended my super star breast cancer team, Dr. Toni Storm-Dickerson and Dr. Allen Gabriel and their amazing staff, to two of my friends who recently received breast cancer diagnosis. It was a reminder that, although I have been cancer free for four years, breast cancer never leaves you alone.
Then my oncologist called, time for a follow up. When it rains…
I refer to myself as the $1 million woman, roughly the cost of my various surgeries and treatments. Now that I am clearly a superhero, it was important to me that I use my new powers for good.
Aside from various broken bones, I had never had any major surgeries or illnesses. The phrase, “You have cancer,” is a sentence you never want associated with your name. As I sat there letting this information ruminate, circling above my head was the thought that after this was all over I would be disfigured and flat chested. All those years of complaining about my curves, seemed silly now.
When Dr. Storm began discussing my options for reconstruction, I interrupted her. As the dollar signs floated around my head, I informed her that I did not have $10,000 floating around waiting to be spent. I was one semester into a master’s program and that was far more important to me than restoring my figure. As an educator, I believe that knowledge is power; at that moment I was utterly powerless.
Cancer doesn’t just change your life, it explodes it.
Although I sat in an exam room with Dr. Storm, a nurse, my parents, my sister, brother-in-law, son and dear friend, I might as well have been alone. Alone in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, the pieces of my life smoldering around me, as the zombies (cancer), were slinking toward me hungry and dead set on destroying my existence (The Walking Dead is a TV staple in my house).
Seeing my confusion, Dr. Storm sat down and placed her more than capable hands on top of mine and explained the Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998 (WHCRA). The short explanation is that if my insurance covered the mastectomy procedure (it did), this “new” law required my insurance to cover certain reconstructive surgeries and post-mastectomy benefits, as well.
How, as an educated woman who still reads the printed paper, did I not know this factoid?
As I began polling my friends, it appeared, I wasn’t the only one who learned something new in 2011, and it’s a good thing too. During my tenure at Antioch University seven women I knew from the master’s program either found out they had breast cancer or had mothers who did; throws the 1 in 8 statistic out the window. I took my role as a WHCRA advocate seriously and made sure everyone knew that they had rights to certain services. It’s not about vanity either and I will tell you why.
After a mastectomy you are left with a road map of scars that reflect the fear and despair a cancer diagnosis causes you. Each day, you step out of the shower and look into the mirror, gazing back at you is someone you don’t recognize. If you’re lucky, it’s a Frankenstein monster with hair, but likely it’s a hairless beast, with sunken eyes, and track marks on their arms from the “medicine” that is supposed to cure them, riddled with incisions that removed an important part of what made them female. Despite wanting to forget and move on, this horrific picture is a constant reminder that their life will never be normal again.
You may scoff at plastic surgery, but reconstruction restores more than the physical characteristics that make us female… it is a stepping stone to restoration of the mental scars caused by having breast cancer — those scars cut much deeper than the physical ones.
So, four years later, even though I look like your above average almost 50-year old, I realize how deep my emotional scars still go when trying to offer help to my friends. I realize how much I know now and how little I knew four years ago. Much of that gained knowledge I’ve acquired from being a board member of Vancouver’s, Pink Lemonade Project, the driving force behind BRAVE Day.
Knowledge is power and cancer is an evil zombie, hell bent on leaving you powerless. The only way to survive and be victorious, is if we join together and aim for cancers head — destroy it and take back the power.
Chris Geraci is a marketing coordinator at BridgeFront, board member of the Pink Lemonade Project, and a four-year cancer survivor.