My name is Deborah Bowen. I am 56 years old and have survived Breast Cancer twice–in 1994 and 2010. I am also a survivor of Salivary Gland Cancer, which was detected in 1995. I want to share my experience in hopes that it will help others believe that a Cancer diagnosis is not an ending but can rather be a beginning. I believe that my life is richer because of what I have learned and endured because of Cancer. I can’t tell you that I would choose it all over again, but this is the life chosen for me and I have tried to do the best that I can with it and to be faithful to what I have been called.
Cancer is disruptive. It doesn’t wait for you to figure things out. It took me two weeks to actually face the fact that I had Breast Cancer and allow myself to cry.
For the past three weeks I have been glued to the television at 10:00 pm every Tuesday night. A show that I have never watched before has so grabbed my attention and my heart that I find myself thinking about it all week and actually wishing that it would come on an extra night. The reason for this obsession is that one of the main characters has just found out that she has Breast Cancer. While watching another television show, I saw an ad for this one. When I heard that there was going to be “surprising news” and saw the expression on the woman’s face, I knew that she had Breast Cancer. The writers seemed to be writing about my life. I say this because so many situations in this family’s life remind me of my family’s life when we first dealt with Cancer. I cry every week. Maybe that’s why I watch the show: to cry the tears and feel the emotions that I did not allow during my first bout with Breast Cancer. This woman and her husband are trying so hard to stay positive and take care of everyone else’s feelings that they aren’t being real about what is real. Initially, she takes a few seconds to cry here or there, pulls it together, puts on a brave face and hides her fear. She doesn’t want to alarm or bother anyone with the news until she knows more. But Cancer is disruptive. It doesn’t wait for you to figure things out. It took me two weeks to actually face the fact that I had Breast Cancer and allow myself to cry. I finally told my family and friends, but kept a very positive but stoic attitude that pushed people away. I didn’t know how to feel. But everyone knew something was wrong with me.
My breast health issues actually began when I was 14. I noticed a hard area in my right breast but said nothing to my parents or anyone else. I grew up in a very rural area. Information about what could be going on in my body was almost non-existent. I kept checking the knot and felt it growing for months until even I could not ignore the fact that something was really wrong. By now I was 15, with a mass almost the size of my entire breast (I was very thin and under-developed). I told my mom, who felt it and then told my dad. They got me in to see a doctor and before I knew it, I was in the hospital. I knew very little about what was going on. Cancer never crossed my mind. Why would it? That was for older people. For an adolescent it was traumatic, frightening and painful. I later found out that the doctor removed a very large non-cancerous tumor that was about “the size of a biscuit.” I was left with a big, ugly scar.
When I was 17, the procedure had to be repeated on my left breast to remove several small tumors. Before I knew what self breast examinations were, I started to regularly check my breast for lumps, hard places or anything that felt different from that point on.
To this day I feel very strongly that it is never too early to start self breast exams. The more familiar you are with your body, the easier it will be to detect when something changes.
When I was in my early 30s, my doctor felt that because of my history I needed to start having mammograms. The first report showed “suspicious micro calcifications in the left breast.” A biopsy was required. As a matter of fact, every time that I had a mammogram, something showed up, but always in the left breast. In the spring of 1994, shortly after having my yearly check-up, I felt a large mass in my right breast that appeared out of nowhere. I called my doctor right away and told her about it. She was not initially all that concerned because of all of the tests that I had just had. She suggested that I watch it for a couple of weeks and let her know what happened–maybe it was connected to my period. She never blew me off and always listened to my concerns so I waited and watched for a couple of weeks. The mass did not go away so I called her back. Sensing my urgency, she asked me to come in as soon as I could get off the phone. She performed a fine needle biopsy (no fun!). I waited uneasily over a few days for the results. The pathology came back negative for Cancer.
I still did not have a good feeling and asked to have the mass removed. While waiting on my appointment with the surgeon, she scheduled me for another mammogram and an ultrasound. Even though the mass was large and palpable, it was invisible by mammogram. When I was given an ultrasound, however, the mass was as clear as a bell and considered ‘curious.’ Because of the biopsy showing negative results, my surgeon was fairly sure that we were still dealing with a benign mass and suggested that I wait six months. If it grew, he would be happy to take it out. Somehow I knew that I didn’t have six months to waste and pushed for an excision. My surgeon and primary care physician were both shocked when the pathology revealed Stage II Tubular Carcinoma with minimally invasive Ductal Carcinoma. A stage 2 diagnosis of Cancer was given because my tumor was larger than 3 centimeters and had begun to spread to surrounding tissue. Because of this, lymph nodes were also biopsied which were found to be negative for Cancer.
I battled depression for several years, took nearly every drug and combination of drugs in the books. I was fighting to take care of my family, my work; to love people…have a life.
Because I was diagnosed with a relatively rare form of Cancer for my age (37), the size of the tumor and the fact that I was African American, it was strongly suggested that I have both chemotherapy and radiation to give me the greatest chance of not having a recurrence. I had three courses of chemo followed by 7 weeks of radiation followed by 3 more courses of chemo. This would be followed by five years of a drug called Tamoxifen. (My tumor fed on estrogen; Tamoxifen blocks the effects of estrogen on tumors.) This treatment took about five months and was very hard on my body, my life and my family. My kids were young and didn’t understand a lot of what was going on. It was hard for me when they wondered why Mommy was in bed so much. We explained as much as we could to our oldest daughter, who at the time was 9. She was incredibly brave. But I was surrounded by love and support. My husband really took great care of me. My friends were with me for every chemo & radiation appointment. We made a family affair of it all.
My dad lost his battle with Cancer in February of 1995. It was a devastating event. We had spent very little time together the year before because we were both fighting for our lives. I was also dealing with the effects of Tamoxifen. About two months after starting to take it, I became incredibly depressed. I also became extremely anemic because the drug caused my periods to become very heavy and almost constant. I was taken off of Tamoxifen and had a total hysterectomy in May. I woke up from anesthesia in pain and a hot flash. Unfortunately, the depression did not change. I was later diagnosed as clinically depressed and began taking antidepressants. In December of 1995, after several mysterious illnesses and a ton of tests that yielded no real results, my surgeon biopsied what we all thought was a calcified (hardened) lymph node in my neck, just below my right jaw bone. I was given a diagnosis of Salivary Gland Cancer. I was stunned. The tumor was treated with surgical removal only, but I was thrown for a loop. I was not prepared for more Cancer; especially not so soon.
I battled depression for several years, took nearly every drug and combination of drugs in the books. I was fighting to take care of my family, my work; to love people…have a life. I finally had to stop working and hardly left home at all. I spent a week in a mental hospital before finding a doctor at the Mayo Clinic who finally helped me have a life without so much depression and so many medications. Depression is still there, but I manage it; it does not control me. I live a very active, happy life, work part-time and feel very blessed to have the life that I do.
The effects of Cancer are more than having surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. Cancer messes with your security. You can’t predict when or if it will show up again. It can affect your faith–for the good or the bad. Having Cancer made me dig down deep and figure out what is important in this life. I feel that I am so much better, so much stronger because of this Journey.
Other ways that it has affected me is that I have not slept through the night since May 15, 1995 (chronic insomnia). I have not gone a single day without hot flashes since May, 1995. I have had so many biopsies and other same day surgeries that I can’t count them. My immune system is shot. I have had mono and mono-like illnesses several times, shingles, and many more ‘mystery’ illnesses that doctors can’t figure out.
I remained Cancer free for 14 years.
In 2009, while doing a breast exam, I felt a difference along the scar on my right breast. I went to see a surgeon, who after seeing my history performed a biopsy. The results were negative. I did not have peace of mind and was sure that I felt a mass. I went back to see the surgeon a couple of months later and voiced my concerns. He examined me, but felt that what I was feeling was scar tissue. I did not agree. I asked him if in light of my history if I had the option to have my breast removed. He took note of my concern, my history, knew that I was not a rash person, and decided to listen to me. In early 2010 I had a bi-lateral mastectomy (the removal of both breasts). Two weeks after the surgery, he called to say that they found Cancer in both breasts. Words can’t express how thankful I was!
You will notice that I always capitalize the first letter of any type of Cancer. This is purposed. I see Cancer as a powerful foe that I have had to battle three times. Because of God’s Mercy, I have been victorious. I have learned a lot about managing my health care, speaking up when I think that doctors need to do more or look somewhere else. I have learned when it is best to wait. Over the years, because of Cancer, I have attended the funerals of several friends who prayed with and for me, held my hand during chemo or made a meal for my family when I was too weak to cook or just sat with me and made me laugh. I will always fight Cancer any way that I can. I intend to remain a powerful foe of It. My mindset is that if Cancer were writing about me, it would capitalize my name.
I believe that every woman must be her own advocate.
We must speak up when our spirits tell us that something is wrong…even when science says the opposite.
We must look at all of our history as being important parts of our medical charts.
Self exams are an important part of early detection. No machine can know your body the way that you can. Start when you are young!!
Do not let fear of knowing the truth stop you from knowing the truth that could save your life!
I don’t know if my Journey with Cancer is over. I hope and pray that it is. For now, I am Surviving. I am Victorious. I am At Peace. I am Blessed.