It was September 1, 2002. Not only was it my first wedding anniversary, it was also the weekend I moved to Oklahoma City from Dallas. My husband, Steve, and I were embarking on a new season of life. We were both eager to see what God had in store. Steve had gotten a transitional job at a local car dealership and I was hired to work at a local church. Everything seemed to be moving along nicely. We were really settling in to living in Oklahoma.
Around January 2003 I was getting ready for work one morning and I did a breast self-exam in the shower. I had been doing self-exams since I was eighteen because that’s what my doctor had encouraged me to do. She wanted me to know what my tissue felt like, so I would know if there were any changes as I got older. I thought I felt something on my right breast, but wasn’t sure. I figured it was nothing since I was so young... after all I was only twenty-five.
A couple of months went by and I noticed the lump was beginning to grow. It was time for my annual visit to the gynecologist, so I scheduled an appointment with a doctor a friend had recommended.
The doctor was an older woman. I explained to her what I felt and she assured me it was nothing because I was too young. I trusted her. She was the professional. I left that day feeling like I was being paranoid or a hypochondriac.
Over the next month I could tell the lump was continuing to grow and it was tender to the touch. I started researching cancer online... bad idea. From what I could find cysts hurt and cancer didn’t. I convinced myself it was nothing to worry about, but Steve insisted I go back to the doctor for another look. I made him go with me this time.
Stupidly I went back to the same doctor. As we were sitting in the room I felt so silly. The doctor wasn’t very warm or sympathetic. I got the impression she thought I was making a mountain out of a mole hill. However she reluctantly gave me a referral for a mammogram because insurance wouldn’t cover it because of my age. She still contended it was probably nothing.
Because she was so insistent it was nothing I waited a couple more weeks before I made the appointment for the mammogram. The day finally came for my appointment. I told Steve he didn’t need to come because I was sure it was nothing and it was probably just a cyst. As I walked in the imaging center I was definitely the youngest woman there. I began to feel very uncomfortable. I was a little embarrassed I was actually there for a mammogram at twenty-six.
They called me back and showed me to the dressing room. As I sat in the waiting room amongst the other women I kept thinking “I’m such an idiot. I can’t believe I’m making such a big deal about this.”
The technician called my name and we went back for the mammogram. Afterwards the tech took me to a room and said the radiologist would be in to review the films with me. As I sat there waiting all I kept thinking was he would come in and put me at ease and reassure me there was no reason to be concerned. I didn’t expect to hear what came out of his mouth. He explained he wanted to do a biopsy because the mammogram was showing signs of cancerous cells.
At this point my mind was on overload. I didn’t really know what to think. It was so surreal… everything was happening so fast. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought this really couldn’t be happening to me. I was so young. I had only been married for a year. I hadn’t had children yet. This wasn’t supposed to be something I had to think about. This was something I thought my mom, aunt or grandmother would be facing… but not me.
The following day I had the biopsy. Later that day my doctor called to advise me it was cancer and referred me to a surgeon. In fact, she had already made the appointment for me.
Everything progressed very quickly from that point. The next week I went for a consultation with Dr. Jackson, my surgeon, who recommended a lumpectomy, followed with radiation. He explained while he was in surgery he would remove the mass and biopsy the surrounding tissue, so he could have it tested while he was in surgery to verify the excess tissue wasn’t cancerous too.
By the end of the week I was in surgery. Afterwards Dr. Jackson came out and explained to Steve he had biopsied the surrounding tissue. Although he couldn’t confirm it without the pathology report, he strongly believed the breast cavity was still cancerous. We went home that day anxiously awaiting the call to hear the results of the pathology report.
Dr. Jackson called the next morning. I was home alone and I’ll never forget what he said. He said, “Sarah, it is still cancer. Because of your age I want to recommend a double mastectomy.” He was confident he could get all the cancer with surgery and I wouldn’t have to go through extensive therapy. I could go on to live a long, healthy life. I hung up the phone and my heart sunk. I didn’t know what to think or how to feel. I just sat on my couch staring at the wall feeling numb. It was so surreal. I couldn’t even cry. I was in disbelief.
The next week I was back into surgery for the double mastectomy. Five hours later I remember waking up and looking at Steve, then I fell back asleep. The next time I woke up, I was in ICU. I kept asking Steve what was going on and why I was there. He was too afraid to tell me in the moment, so the nurse explained I had overdosed on morphine and stopped breathing. They brought me to ICU to regulate me.
I stayed in the hospital for four days, so they could monitor me and make sure everything was okay before they released me to go home. Thankfully my doctor was able to get all the cancer with surgery. Only a little had spread to my lymph nodes, so I didn’t have to undergo radiation or chemotherapy. Praise God!
What I didn’t realize was the surgeries were only the beginning of a long and painful reconstruction process. You don’t realize how long the journey of cancer can be until you’re in it. Whether you have surgery, reconstruction, chemo or radiation… it’s a long road.
As I was going through the reconstruction I continued working and trying to go on with everyday life. However it was a very strange time for me. I felt different. My perspective of life had changed, but I couldn’t make sense of how it had changed me. I had no idea how to cope with cancer… I mean, who does? I felt an array of emotions and I didn’t know how to work through them.
On one hand I felt I needed to be strong, positive, to press on, and not be overly emotional. On the other hand I felt weak, scared, angry, and sad. I felt very alone. My husband desperately wanted to help, but I didn’t know how to articulate to him what I was feeling. To be honest I couldn’t even identify what I was feeling for a long time, much less try to talk it out. I didn’t know any other survivors at the time, so I didn’t have anyone to talk to who could relate to me. As a result I became very withdrawn and isolated myself.
In addition my faith was rattled. I knew God loved me and I knew He was there, but I didn’t understand why. For a year after my surgeries I struggled with all this stuff. I felt like I was hitting a brick wall. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t want to be perceived as weak. My head told me I should pull up my big girl pants and kick this, but my heart was broken. I would try to coach myself through the emotional roller coaster, but the more I tried the deeper I went into depression. I couldn’t shake it.
About a year had gone by at this point and I finally laid down my pride and reached out to talk with a counselor at the relentless encouragement of my husband. The counselor was a breast cancer survivor too. For the first time I finally had someone who understood the language I was speaking. I felt like I could breathe. It was a like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
As I gave up trying to be strong and have the image I knew how to deal with this, I could see God begin to heal my heart, mind, and spirit. For the first time in a long time I felt free. In my weakness His strength took over.
My counselor helped me look at things from a different perspective. She validated me, and challenged me to learn how to cope with this traumatic situation.
She taught me to embrace the sadness of losing such an intimate part of my body. No one had told me about a grieving process survivors go through. She showed me how to work through the anger, bitterness, sadness, fear and truly grieve.
I know a lot of people who become paralyzed by determining “why” they got cancer or why unexplainable things happen in their life or in the lives of people they love, but throughout my journey God has shown me to ask “what.”
What does He want to teach me?
What can I learn?
How does he want to use our experiences to bring glory to Him?
I believe God has a special purpose and plan for each one of us. We are all on our own unique journey to live out His will for our lives, if we will only give Him the liberty to be the King of our lives.
I know I would not have made it through my journey without the love and support of my husband. We knew one day we would want to have a family, so we had a discussion my oncologist.
Since he had never had such a young patient with breast cancer, he recommended we wait at least two years before we started a family.
Little did we know, God had a different plan in mind. I finished my reconstruction in October 2003, and found out I was pregnant the following March. My son, Colin Hudson, was born on Thanksgiving Day of 2004. He was the biggest gift God could have given us coming through such a challenging time.
We were head over heels in love with our “little bear.” He was a tremendous blessing. Steve and I were moving forward and loving this new season. When Colin was six months old God blew us away again. I found out I was pregnant again. Our daughter, Tatum Elizabeth, was born on St. Patrick’s Day of 2006. What a flood of blessings! God was showering us with His love.
I thought after we made it through the reconstruction and had the kids we might have a breather and life might slow down… boy was I wrong. That was a challenging season. Not only were we trying to adjust to being parents of two, but we were also adjusting to our “new normal” after cancer. Often time’s people don’t realize after they’ve gone through a life changing experience they will experience what doctor’s call the “new normal.” It was challenging but God’s grace continually saw us through each season.
Over the next eight years God continued to stretch us in so many ways. We learned a lot about ourselves. One of the biggest lessons we learned was how little control we really have. We learned how to surrender our circumstances and trust God wholeheartedly. He took us to a deeper level in our faith.
We had another surprise in August 2011. I went for a routine MRI. While I was there I mentioned to the technician a knot I found on my right side by my rib. They decided to do an ultrasound as a precaution. I sat in the room waiting for the Radiologist. It felt like deja-vu.
In my mind I immediately went back eight years ago. All I kept thinking was… here we go again. The next day the doctor called and said “yes, you do have breast cancer.”
I had a lumpectomy and forty treatments of radiation that lasted for eight weeks every day. It was different this time because I was older, I felt familiar with this world of breast cancer, I had two children, I had been married for ten years, and I had grown a lot personally.
This was one of those curve balls of life. Who expects to have cancer once, much less twice? So many things were racing through my mind and my emotions were up and down, but my faith remained the same. Even though I don’t understand why certain things happen, I trust God. His ways are higher than our ways. I know He has a specific plan and purpose for each one of us. We’re all created in His image to bring glory to Him with our lives.
Now more than ever I’m convinced God has given me a vision to offer comfort and encouragement for the breast cancer community. This disease tries to steal our live, joy, and peace. I’m burning with passion to embrace, equip, and empower the people affected by this terrible disease that there is fullness of life beyond cancer.
- Sarah McLean