One of my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou is: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
I truly can attest to this notion.
On a frigid December morning in 2002, my five-year-old daughter and I snuggled in her bed. I lingered a little longer than usual and somehow touched my left breast where I felt a lump. I rushed to the phone and called my friend about my discovery. She said that the lump was probably there because of my period, but I was concerned and scheduled an appointment to see my gynecologist.
That January, after my gynecologist examined my breasts, he casually announced: ''…it's probably nothing since you're only 28 years old, but I will send you for a breast sonogram.” When February came and it was time for the appointment, I contemplated not going because by then, I'd convinced myself that nothing could be wrong. I ate fairly well and worked out, and my doctor didn't seem overly concerned; nonetheless, I went. As the radiology technician pressed the sonogram device firmly on the lump, she mentioned that she saw something that should be highlighted to the radiologist. When the doctor looked at the monitor, I noticed a tinge of concern in her eyes as she told me to come back for a breast biopsy. Still, I did not subscribe to the possibility that I had cancer. In between the next appointment, I continued life as normal: volunteering at my daughter's school, running my boutique public relations firm and singing with my band…
The biopsy was in March. In April came the results. April 2nd to be exact. On the day I had to go to the gynecologist to get them, despite waves of uneasiness in my stomach, I didn’t ask anyone to accompany me. Instead, I sat alone as my doctor looked at me nervously and said: "I have bad news. You have breast cancer."
The news was stark and surreal. But in an instant tears were falling profusely from my eyes. My doctor proceeded to explain some details about my diagnosis, but I couldn't hear him. He was drowned out by my internal voice screaming, "I am not doing chemotherapy, I do not want to lose my hair!"
Too dumbfounded to ask any significant questions, I haphazardly wrote illegible, tear-streaked notes on the biopsy report. My stomach ached, my eyes burned, and my hands quivered as I left the office and emerged onto the streets of Brooklyn, NY with a new title: breast cancer patient. Each painful stride felt like I was stepping on a now shattered life. The bus ride home was torture, no one else seemed to be carrying the weight of the world. I prayed silently to maintain my composure.
When I got home, I sat on my couch quietly, but instead of focusing on chemo, I heard a voice that said: “You are not going to die”. On that misty afternoon as I began the daunting task of telling my loved ones about my diagnosis, I assured them that all would be well. When I saw my daughter that evening, I hugged her tightly. After I read her a bedtime story, I left her room knowing that I had to beat cancer.
The next several weeks after my diagnosis were like a worldwind. I spent countless hours researching breast cancer treatments and getting different opinions from doctors. I decided to move my case from the original hospital that I was diagnosed at because I did not feel that they were responsive to my concerns. I was diagnosed at Stage III, so I accepted that since my tumor was aggressive it was best that I have a mastectomy. But I was adamant that I have reconstructive surgery because I was a young woman and refused to leave the hospital with only one breast. I organized a new medical team that understood my concerns.
Five months after my initial discovery of the lump, my surgery was scheduled. While lying on the operating table, I looked at a surgical nurse who smiled at me, I felt peaceful; I grinned and closed my eyes.
My road to physical healing was challenging, but for the most part I kept a positive attitude because I had the love of my family and the support from my friends. I fed myself spiritually by attending church, reading the bible and meditating. I was coping emotionally, but I decided to seek a therapist to help me keep things in perspective. Initially I didn’t want to do chemotherapy, but I eventually conceded to my doctor’s recommendation because I wanted to fight my cancer by any means necessary. A few weeks before I was going to start chemo, I escaped to a bed & breakfast in Savannah, GA to enjoy the serenity of solitude.
While I was on chemo, I experienced weight gain and extreme fatigue, but overall my experience was endurable. My friends took turns accompanying me to my treatments. A couple of weeks after my first chemo session, my hair began shedding, so I had a female barber shave my head. When my daughter saw me, she said:” Mommy, you look beautiful bald, but you have to wear a wig to my school!”
In November 2003, on the weekend of my 29th birthday, I was considered "cancer-free." I had so much to be grateful for so I threw a party to truly celebrate life. I wanted to help other survivors along their journey, so I started working with Young Survival Coalition as their program manager. In this role, I participated in various events and conferences to educate the public and the healthcare community about young women and breast cancer. Today I am their communications writer.
I continued living my “new normal” until I developed a persistent cough in 2010. To my dismay, a chest x-ray showed a blood clot and multiple tumors in my lungs; a biopsy confirmed that the cancer had returned. Unlike when I was first diagnosed I didn’t cry this time although the doctor explained gently what Stage IV, metastatic breast cancer meant: the cancer had spread beyond my breast to an organ.
Clinically I understood that this time my disease was treatable, but incurable. I wondered how I was going to relay this information to my then 13-year-old daughter because at that point, she understood what cancer could mean—death. When I told her the news, she gave me a hug and said sweetly,” Mom, you beat it before, you’ll do it again.”
My heart wept. Yet, my faith abounded. I had relied heavily on prayer and reading healing scriptures during my first diagnosis; I knew that my spirituality would have to anchor me once again because I was literally fighting for my life. Between different chemotherapy regimens and radiation, the tumors continue to shrink. Indeed, the shadows of mortality linger, but I keep moving toward the light. I believe in miracles because my voice and body feel stronger than before.
Here I am, standing tall as ever in 2014, eleven years after my first diagnosis.
But my story of survival is not just about me; it’s a testimony meant to inspire cancer survivors and anyone who is trying to overcome adversity. We. Can. Do. This.
Khadijah Carter is a multimedia journalist in New York City and a graduate of Columbia University Journalism School. She specializes in reporting on health & wellness topics, profiles and inspirational human-interest stories. @KCReports will survive!