First Person series: Wait, stop! I have cancer and I’m lucky?

Written by Deborah Woodbury

Special to The Daily Record, September 30, 2011 (Link no longer available.)

Deborah Woodbury’s story is the fourth in a 10-part series by Morris County women who describe their journeys from breast cancer patients to survivors.

Everyone I know who was told, “You have cancer,” remembers the date they heard those words. For me, it was Feb. 20, 2009. I’d like to say my diagnosis came as a surprise, but it didn’t.

I already knew. Even as I drove to my breast surgeon’s office for my appointment, scheduled one week after my surgical biopsy, and took a seat in the waiting room. After five months of mammograms, stereotactic and surgical biopsies, tests and doctor visits, it finally was time for an answer.

Ginny, the physician’s assistant, started to talk, but I don’t remember full sentences. I only remember words: “Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS),” “Stage 0,” “non-invasive,” “cancer,” “lumpectomy,” “radiation,” and “lucky.”

Wait, stop! I have cancer and I’m lucky? These words were so different than those uttered back in November when the radiologist performed my stereotactic biopsy. Despite the fact I’d almost fainted from the pain and anxiety of that procedure, it was a huge gift when she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Whatever it is, I guarantee it’s going to be OK, because it’s so small.”

Those words got me through the next three months. Whatever else happened, I knew, at least, I wasn’t going to die.

But “lucky?” I was just 50 years old with no history of breast cancer in my immediate family. Don’t get me wrong, I felt very lucky to be able to tell my husband and two children that my cancer would not kill me. I just couldn’t extend those feelings of good fortune to weeks of radiation therapy and another breast surgery.

Four days later, I met with the breast surgeon and was completely unprepared when she said, “Mastectomy.” Due to the wide fields of micro-calcifications and atypical hyperplasia in my breast, she explained a mastectomy was indicated over a lumpectomy and radiation.

More than once she reiterated I was “lucky” to have found my cancer early. All I could comprehend through my shock was that I was losing my breast.

I never had a tumor or a symptom, so why the brutal response to something a person needs a microscope to see? DCIS is a condition in which abnormal cells are found in the lining of the breast ducts. At that stage the abnormal cells have not invaded (spread to) other areas of the breast. But, in some cases, they can, and there’s no way to predict which cells will become invasive.

In April I had my mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. That’s the point when cancer’s losses compounded the shock of my diagnosis. That was an awful summer, though I slowly healed by getting support and “doing the work” of oncology therapy.

Nine months after my mastectomy, something extraordinary happened that transformed me from patient to survivor. I realized I was keeping a tally in my head of the changes cancer was bringing me. Although I was excruciatingly aware of the losses, I started recognizing the gifts. When I could ignore the gifts no longer, I decided to write a “gifts and losses list.”

Under “losses,” I included emotional upheaval, scars, fear, lack of control, watching my family suffer and being overwhelmed.

(My list of gifts was unfortunately edited out of my story.  If you’d like to know what they are, you can visit my Gifts & Losses List.)

Eventually, that list gave birth to my website and blog at WhereWeGoNow. Created for people living full lives beyond cancer, WhereWeGoNow brings cancer survivors together to explore the emotional realities and meanings behind our cancer experiences.Besides managing my website, I give seminars for cancer survivors and work with Pathway’s Women’s Cancer Teaching Project in Summit. I also serve on the Oncology Community Advisory Board of the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Overlook Hospital.

One of the greatest gifts of my cancer is gratitude. Because of gratitude, I finally was able to feel lucky I had a non-invasive cancer. I also feel lucky for the numerous gifts cancer brought me and the opportunity to give back in appreciation of those gifts.

Because of gratitude, I’ve truly learned that survival is greater than existence.

Deborah Woodbury, 53, of Morris Township has been cancer-free two years.