Monday, February 2, 2009

Why Liz Fights-

I am 39 years old and I have breast cancer. I am five months into my battle, and I have been changed for the better.

I am the mother of four wonderful children, ages 9, 8, 4 and 3. My husband, Marc, is my best friend, my cheerleader, my love. Sadly, my story may not be unique, since breast cancer affects so many women. But, sharing my thoughts and experiences with others helps me to gain strength in fighting this terrible disease. Maybe I can in some way inspire those who are fighting this alongside me.
I am learning that the diagnosis of breast cancer enters you into a very special sisterhood — one that I may not have volunteered to join, but one that I am learning to look at as a gift. I am new to this disease, but I am a warrior, a fighter, ready to win the battle! My life has changed so much over the past five months, but I have to say, I am thankful for my family, my friends and the strength that God has given me. I want to make this horrible experience a positive one, and I am determined to see the good in this journey. I am ready to go and kick some breast-cancer ass!

I would like to think that I am an educated woman, especially in the area of women's health. My father is an ob/gyn, and my mother is a registered nurse. Together, they ran a family-style medical practice, taking care of women in West Palm Beach for more than 30 years.
My parents' love of medicine and obstetrics definitely rubbed off on me. After working in the labor and delivery unit as a registered nurse for many years, I returned to school and became an Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner, specializing in women's health. I provided obstetrical and gynecological care in a private physician's office, and became quite familiar with the breast exam. Even after I "retired" to stay home and take care of our four kids, I religiously did my own self-breast exams once a month.

It was during one of these exams in the shower that I felt a large, hard lump in my left breast. The lump felt about the size of a walnut. When I looked at it in the mirror, I was shocked. I could see it creating a bump over my nipple. How could I have not noticed this sooner? I reassured myself that it must be a fluid-filled cyst. Surely, a mass this large was fluid-filled.
I didn't panic because I remembered that many breast cancer tumors are pea-sized, hard lumps found near the arm pit area. Unable to get an appointment to have my lump evaluated for over a week, I called my brother-in-law, Bill McGarry, an oncologist. He suggested I come to Vero Beach (where he practices) for a mammogram.

I'm sure he never thought the following day he would have to tell me I had cancer.
I was diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive carcinoma and ductal carcinoma in situ in both breasts. My tumors range in size from 2 cm to almost 5 cm. These are large, aggressive, fast-growing tumors.

I had a PET scan to determine if the cancer had spread to other parts of my body. My husband and I had been prepared for the worst news. I had an enlarged lymph node in my armpit, and so I knew there was a good chance that the cancer was outside of my breasts.

The night before my PET scan, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and couldn't go back to sleep. I started a journal. As I wrote my feelings down, I paused to pray. As a practicing Catholic, I have always had prayer in my life. But I felt unsure about how I was supposed to pray. I didn't want to question God's plan for me, but I also didn't want to ask for a miracle. For the first time in my life, I didn't know how to talk to God.

After a long while, I felt a sense of acceptance, and peace. God had done the speaking for me.
A few days after my PET scan, my brother-in-law called with the most positive news I had heard in the previous four days: My cancer had not spread beyond my breasts.

This is when I allowed myself to completely open up and cry. I was not going to leave my babies anytime soon! I told myself all those things you hear people say when they are given a second chance: "I am going to live my life in a new, improved way!" and "I promise to be a better person."
But I mean it! Life to me now is new, and I view things in such a different way. The whining of my 3-year-old son doesn't irritate me anymore, I am thrilled to get my daughter another pencil after she has broken three, I actually enjoy helping my son with his homework and the way my husband clears his throat when he falls asleep doesn't irritate me anymore! All those trivial things I used to worry about are just ... trivial! In a way, this diagnosis has been a gift.
Since my tumors were too large to perform a mastectomy immediately, I am receiving chemotherapy for six months in order to shrink them. December was a rough month for me. I was hospitalized for five days with a fever and low white-blood-cell count. Thankfully, I was sent home before Christmas, and I was able to enjoy my time at home.

In March, I'll have a double mastectomy, followed by radiation. I'll have reconstructive surgery six months to a year after the radiation.

Since my maternal grandmother had breast cancer in her late 70s, and two of my cousins in their 40s were diagnosed with breast cancer, I had the BRCA (breast cancer gene) test done. My results were negative, so I can't help but ask 'Why me?' Maybe someday I will fully understand why.

So, here I am, battling these cells which would like to take over my body. No way! I am not going to fight lying down! I now have chemotherapy infusions every three weeks, which generally puts me in bed for 7-10 days. But on the good days, I am jogging or still trying to hit a tennis ball or at the park with the kids. I am pushing myself to look into the future. I am trying to laugh as my hair sheds on the couch, and as my eyelashes land on my cheeks. I am teaching my children that no matter what you are faced with, there is good in every situation.

Some days I find it hard to stay as upbeat as I was a few months ago, but all I have to do is look at my four children and husband, and I am immediately inspired to snap out of it. So, I am trying to continue my fight looking ahead, looking on the bright side and looking forward to the day that I can say, "I am cured."

I have already seen the good that has come from my diagnosis of breast cancer. Strangers sending e-mails and well-wishes, friends going to church after years away from God, reconnecting with extended family members, sharing a smile with other cancer patients in the chemo room. These are the little things that I appreciate now. And to me, these are all gifts.

Liz Yavinsky

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