How did you first find out you had cancer?
I was headed home to California for Christmas; my sister who’d been battling “the beast” for 8 years ~ and winning ~ woke up one Saturday and had a hard time breathing. The cancer had returned with a vengeance and, per her doctors, this likely would be our last holiday with her. Maybe paranoia had me pinching my breast one day but I did and I noticed that the skin dimpled, like an orange peel. I noticed , too, that the welt that ran from my under my arm and down my left breast was still there. I made an appointment that day. They wasted no time getting me in and when they didn’t send me on my way after the mammogram but told me the specialist was waiting for me, it took all I had to not panic. God wouldn’t have my family dealing with my sister’s demise and now have this happen to me, I thought. Well, the breast surgeon, a woman, was doing an ultrasound and talking about Christmas shopping when she got quiet. I knew. “I don’t want you to feel sideswiped but I know what I see…” she said.
How did you react when you heard the news?
I lost it. Not gonna lie. I wailed on that table. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I kept crying. She did a core biopsy. My friends told me later that those usually hurt. I never felt a thing. I’d been thrust into the center of a black hole it seemed.
What course of treatment were you prescribed?
The goal, at first, was minimal invasion although I was at Stage III of an aggressive form of breast cancer (ductal carcinoma)because the tumor was 7 mm. Every time I went in, the news got worse: chemo to shrink the tumor then lumpectomy. THEN chemo + mastectomy + radiation. THEN chemo + bilateral mastectomy + radiation + 5 years of herceptin. They were going to remove a bunch of lymph nodes, too, but I found out there was a test that could be done immediately prior to the surgery to determine if the lymph nodes were affected. Mine were negative so I’ve none of that arm swelling so many have. The surgeon, being a woman, also didn’t want me waking up from the surgery more traumatized than I already was so reconstruction was done right then and there. I’ve got C-cups now!
Months later, however, a “flake” which had traveled to my brain and so was insulated by my skull, festered into a ping-pong ball sized tumor. My oncologist wanted to cut it out. The neurosurgeons stepped in at their “tumor meeting” and said hell-to-the-no! I was too young, a professional, AND I had a teenager who needed more than a mom he’d be feeding applesauce to at some nursing home, they said. Technology. I listened to Tony Bennett while they targeted and then zapped the tumor. I went home 2 hours later. Two years later, to quote the neurosurgeons: “you can’t even see where the tumor used to be.”
What most surprised you about your treatment?
That it was no joke. It’s a brutal process. I had no idea what my sister had been going through, had no idea of her strength, the strength had by all the others ~ especially the kids ~ who have and are battling “the beast.”
What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
Understand that IT’S WAR! Cry like a baby for a long minute and then fight with ALL your might at every turn! Be proactive: my sister told me my hair would start falling out with the third chemo blast; she was right; I took her advice and had my hairdresser shave my head. Wasn’t going to let “the beast” take control.
Get your network together; some folk are secretive, others, including me, need that circle of family/friends who pray and have your back.
Get your faith together. The news may not be what you want to hear, and so you must be ready and at peace with your being…mortal. My sister taught me that. I’ve never known anyone as strong as her.
Respect your doctors but educate yourself and don’t be afraid to ask questions/make your team spell out ALL of your options. I’d have lymphodema (arm swelling) had I not questioned the oncologist’s wanting to snatch out my lymph nodes without first confirming that the cancer had spread to them, and I’d unnecessarily been in a nursing home now had I simply agreed to an initial plan to operate on my brain.
Go organic. My cancer was hormone-related and so I completely~ and immediately ~ changed my diet . We read labels now. No preservatives, no “natural” (cuz that doesn’t mean it’s pesticide-free), no hormones or additives.
How long have you been cancer free?
What lessons did you learn from the experience?
Having my own mortality smash me in my face twice made me realize the importance of life, time, and purpose. Family, friends, issues no longer being issues, and so it went because life, I learned is all about the amount of time we’re given to focus on the right things/our gifts so that we matter.
If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
Be clear that it is WAR, that you have to commit to fighting the fight. And, as importantly, make peace. This light we call life, indeed, has a finite number of seconds during which to shine.
Josette is the proud mother of Iman and Tai and the ever loving grandma of twins Aiden and Tristan, and Anahla who is a lawyer, writer and music/film buff. She is a graduate of Fisk University and the University of California, Hastings College of Law, and now resides in Nashville, Tennessee where she practices employment/housing discrimination, wrongful foreclosure and entertainment law. She’d rather be writing films, however…and, given that slap of mortality, is doing just that these days.
More from GEM