In December 2015, I had a modified radical mastectomy for Stage 3 breast cancer with lymph node involvement.
Aggressive chemo, radiation and hormone treatment continued throughout 2016. My surgeon informed me, “ It will be a rough year.” Listening to him break the news, my thought was, “This is a dramatic story. I’m going to write as I go.” Writing was a big piece of my healing. It kept me focused. There was a lot to keep track of once I learned I had breast cancer.
I wrote my way through chemo and radiation in 2016.
With my loving husband Gerard by my side every step of the way, I kept track of medications, medical appointments and details of treatment. I continued to live life as a teacher, wife, daughter-in-law and friend. We were also taking care of my husband’s father. Early on in the process, I felt a psychological and spiritual connection to my breast cancer. I made it a priority to get healthy in body and soul. Writing reminded me to stay consistent. My journal is now proof to myself that I can get through the hard stuff, come out wiser and more appreciative of life.
My journey goes on.
Monitoring and hormone therapy continue for another seven years. There are ongoing physical challenges. In January 2017 I developed lymphedema. I wear a compression glove and sleeve now, but can still play guitar and piano. Today I feel healthy, happy and strong.
Through my journal, I found my best listener. I imagined talking to a perfect best friend, someone with time to listen to my every thought, harebrained or not. I put pieces of my life together. Synchronized events piled up. This made me feel I was on the right track. I stayed mostly in the present, but as interesting memories came up, I wrote them down. I didn’t dwell on the past. As 2016 came to a close, I felt complete. I had written important stories that define me. I discovered what I needed to live most fully on my own terms. Completing my 2016 journal marked the end of a chapter in my life. As 2017 began, I closed that book. I focused on the present, but with the great benefit of techniques, good habits and insights from the previous year.
I wrote first and foremost for my own benefit.
I didn’t edit myself when I felt a personal need to release feelings and thoughts. A few episodes I shared with a close friend or two. I wanted trusted friends to know the real me, deep down.
This year I began reviewing my 2016 journal, as I feel compelled now to help others. I’m posting a monthly story including excerpts from my journal at terisulc.com/blog. It’s my example of personal expression that is a source of healing. Any creative activity including music, dance, visual arts and writing can help us stay focused on positivity throughout treatment and beyond.
At my first meeting with my surgeon, I was given important instructions and advice.
There will be lots of appointments. Keep a positive attitude… hill climbing is good exercise…women who keep a positive attitude have the best results.
I worked on getting in my best physical shape with walking and other endurance exercises. I drank plenty of water to flush the chemo through. I felt lucky to have medical insurance thanks to Obamacare.
I didn’t ask, “Why me?” Why not me?
I focused on making the best of every day. And it wasn’t that bad. Cancer treatment has radically advanced in the last 20 years. Controlling nausea and other negative effects is managed quite well with newer drugs.
I now remind all my women friends to be sure and regularly check their breasts. Most breast cancers are discovered because women find their own lumps. My surgeon talked to me about how sad it is for many nuns. They’re uncomfortable with their bodies. They don’t discover the cancer. They die.
I was totally shocked when I learned I had breast cancer.
My mother lived to be 94 years old and never had it. I thought I had such great genes and a healthy lifestyle. My heart attack risk is low. My blood pressure is generally about 90/55. I never get sick. I took only three sick days in 20 years of teaching. My only health issues in my 55 years before cancer were annoying pollen allergies, and since about age 53, my right big toe starting getting stiff from some arthritis.
Oh the joys of aging!
At every annual exam throughout my adult years I was reminded to do breast exams. Generally I would soon forget. I assumed my regular mammograms were enough. After my diagnosis, I learned that cancer grows for maybe 10 to 12 years before a mammogram can see anything. I wondered why we are still using that seemingly antiquated detection method. I appreciate researchers, doctors and activists working on this.
Before scheduling my yearly exam in 2015, I started noticing that my bras weren’t fitting right. I checked the left side and felt hard tissue. I compared it with the right that felt softer and smoother. It was subtle. I was checking for a few weeks. Sometimes the left breast felt denser than other times. The tumors move around in the ocean of breast tissue. It can take chasing after them to find them. They’re easy to miss.
We need to pay attention. We literally need to take our own bodies into our own hands to protect ourselves.
Teri Sulc was diagnosed with breast cancer in November of 2015 at 55. She is a music school administrator at Gerard’s Guitars in Tarzana, and an early childhood educator teaching online classes, Building Positive Self-Esteem in Young Children, and Music and Movement in Early Childhood Education, through UCLA Extension. She writes a blog about her breast cancer experiences and on books she’s reading at terisulc.com/blog. For more about Teri and her music, visit terisulc.com.