Survivor Stories 2013:
1. How did you first find out you had cancer?
I had a routine mammogram in February 2011. They called a few days later to say there was a little spot on my left breast, they were sure it was nothing but wanted to do a diagnostic mammogram to be sure. After the diagnostic, they were still sure it was nothing but wanted to do a stereostatic biopsy just to be safe. That test confirmed the micro calcifications and the diagnosis of DCIS.
2. How did you react when you heard the news?
Honestly I was just numb at first. I had kind of expected this would happen at some point in my life, since my mom had had breast cancer. But still, it all felt unreal, like it was happening to someone else. I did have one very deep moment of faith. Waiting for the results of the diagnostic, I prayed so hard for it not to be cancer, and all at once I was overcome with the most profound sense of peace that no matter what it was, God would be with me through it all and I would be ok. That moment gave me the courage I needed to meet this thing head on.
3. What course of treatment were you prescribed?
They were going to do a lumpectomy followed by 6 weeks of radiation. But when the MRI was unclear, they sent the film back to the radiologist, and they discovered another spot in the same breast. Because of the distance between the two areas, they said they’d likely have to do a mastectomy on that side. I made the decision to have a double mastectomy partly because of my family history, but also I thought it would give me the most peace of mind long term. I didn’t want to always worry that the cancer would show up in the second breast and I’d have to go through it all again.
4. What most surprised you about your treatment?
That I didn’t have to have radiation or chemo. They caught it so early, and got it all out with wide clear margins, so I just had to recover from the surgery and have reconstruction, which was a walk in the park compared to the mastectomy. The silver lining is – I never have to wear a bra again! My new “girls” are suspended under my pectoral muscles so they will never droop or sag, and because I didn’t get new nipples, I can even wear a white t-shirt with no bra! Gotta love that! I was also surprised that I tested negative for both breast cancer genes and the PTENN gene which is associated with multiple cancers in a family. There must be a gene they don’t know about yet.
5. What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
Talk to other women who’ve been through it! This beast strikes one in seven of us, so somewhere in your life, someone has been through it. I spoke to one woman I knew but not well, and the friend of a friend who I still have never met in person. They were both so helpful! They were both honest that it’s terrifying and painful, but survivable. Also, take the pain medicine! There’s no shame in it, and why suffer? My doctor also gave me valium to help me sleep for the week or so before the surgery and that was a godsend. I didn’t get addicted to anything and I didn’t suffer needlessly. Finally, if you’re having a mastectomy, go online and look at the pictures of what the scars look like. It’s so scary, but you need to know what you’re going to look like. And the more you look at them, the less scary it is.
6. How long have you been cancer free?
Since my surgery April 12, 2011.
7. What lessons did you learn from the experience?
We are so much stronger than we think we are. We’ve all heard of women who’ve faced enormous challenges and thought, I could never get through that. But you can. You really can. And when you do, you’ll help someone else get through it too. Also it’s ok to ask for and accept help. It’s actually good for your family to take care of you for a change, for them to see that you’re human and to get a taste of how much you do for them every day with no fan fare.
8. If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
Teach your daughters to cultivate, nurture and surround themselves with good, solid girlfriends throughout their lives. Girlfriends will get you through anything. One told me I was a warrior, and whenever I got scared I would remember her saying that, and I was able to summon up courage I didn’t even know I had. Another gave me a pin that was an image Wendy from Peter Pan with a note that said “You are Wendy – you will fly through this!” Whenever I had to do a scary test, I’d picture that pin and know it would be over soon, and I wore that pin on my hospital gown right into the operating room. Another a friend I really didn’t know well at all knit me a beautiful prayer shawl. She told me that the entire time she worked on it, she prayed for me and pictured me some day in the future with my grandchildren. I wore the shawl into the OR, and I wore it throughout my recovery knowing that God wanted me to have a future. I hope my my daughter never has to face a challenge like this, but if she does, I want her to have that invaluable network of girlfriends to support her and carry her through like mine did for me.
Wendy Guarisco is a survivor of breast and thyroid cancer (Wendy 2, Cancer 0!). Her mom, Elsa, was a survivor, too, who lived a happy, healthy life for more than 40 years after her mastectomy, passing peacefully at age 91, just six days after Wendy’s breast reconstruction surgery. Wendy’s most important jobs are being mother to Emilia (17) and wife to Sal. She also owns the national publicity firm The Guarisco Group and is a partner in the new media training company, MediaBar.