On February 7, 2019, I awoke with a sharp, stabbing pain in my right breast. It was a Thursday, and I happened to be in New Orleans with my oldest daughter. I called my doctor and scheduled a visit with her the following Monday.
Two weeks later, after a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy, I sat alone at my computer and read the email containing the biopsy report: invasive lobular carcinoma, a type of breast cancer. I later learned that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes.
Events moved quickly after that. I had appointments with the surgeon, the plastic surgeon, the medical and radiation oncologists, and an MRI. It seemed a hundred people all wanted to take a look at my boobs.
It was Tuesday, March 5 (Mardi Gras), and I was in the exam room of the plastic surgeon reviewing options for breast reconstruction. Feeling a bit cheeky and tired of exposing myself to everyone, I demanded some beads in return when asked to open my robe. My husband, familiar with my headstrong nature, simply shook his head. A nurse hustled out and returned with a birthday party favor, the kind that you blow into and it unravels and makes a noise, you know the kind. Apologetically she offered, “Sorry, this was all I could find.” We all laughed. The irony of a party celebration wasn’t lost on me, and I bared my chest yet again. I learned to keep laughing, not to take everything so seriously, and that laughter can take the tension away for a moment.
One of my bigger concerns about battling breast cancer was losing all my hair. My friends took me wig shopping, bought me fancy earrings and head coverings, taught me how to put on eyelashes, and told me I was beautiful. Before my hair started to fall out, I preemptively cut it into a short bob. After my first round of chemo, I decided to shave it off completely. Armed with clippers and scissors, I let my three teenagers loose on my head. It was a party. My friends cleaned up the fallen hair and my fallen mood. Eventually, I lost all my hair — eyelashes, eyebrows, everything. I learned that hair doesn’t define who I am. I learned to be confident being bald. I learned how kind words from friends and strangers gave me the lift I needed.
The initial rounds of chemo left me feeling incredibly sick. Aptly nicknamed the “Red Devil,” it took a toll on my body. I leaned on my friends and church family. They took turns accompanying me to chemo three days a week, fed my family, sat with me on bad days, and walked with me on good days. They carried the conversation and made me laugh when I didn’t have the energy to talk. They rubbed my back, texted my kids, and even cleaned my house. How do women navigate cancer without an extensive support system? I learned I will never pass up an opportunity to serve and help another woman along her journey. We need each other.
During my year of chemo, I felt weak and fatigued in every sense — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I lacked the energy to engage in most activities, think deeply and make decisions, or concentrate. I didn’t work, I didn’t cook, I didn’t take kids to activities, I didn’t take care of the house. I didn’t do all the things that I had always done, things that I thought had to be done, things that I thought showcased my value. These things are important but don’t define my value. I am of worth, even when I lay in bed sick. I learned that my value and worth are inherent, and I don’t have to do things to earn it.
People love to use words like fighter, survivor, or warrior to describe breast cancer patients. Initially, these words made me feel uncomfortable because I didn’t feel like I was fighting as much as I was simply enduring. I came to understand that these words were less about me and more about the individuals using them as they honored the memory of their sister, friend, mother, spouse or heaven forbid, child. These words symbolized their grief and loss. With humility, I learned to accept these compliments and recognize grief in others. I learned compassion. I learned it’s not always about me.
Cancer changed me. It aged me about 10 years, and I’ve got all sorts of negative repercussions from it. However, I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned. I’m not sure how I would have learned them if not for surviving breast cancer.
About the Author
Annette Woodruff is the owner of 904 Outfitters, North East Florida’s premier T-shirt and hoodie brand. She and her husband live in St. Johns County. Their three children have graduated from high school and left home to attend college. Annette enjoys riding horses, lifting heavy weights at the gym, eating sushi and cheesecake, and going to bed early. You can find her ridiculously cool tees at 904outfitters.com or on social media @904outfitters.