Laughter and the cancer connection

There’s NOTHING funny about cancer, but choosing to laugh your way through the journey is like a boost to your resilience, with no unpleasant side effects and hopefully some unexpectedly pleasant ones.

October, the end of breast cancer month, may be over, but I think breast cancer stories should be told often and in every month of the year. You never know when someone needs to hear it.

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women. (Lung cancer alone kills more women every year.)

The American Cancer Society estimates for breast cancer in the United States for 2021 are:

About 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women. About 49,290 new cases of ductal carcinoma in situ will be diagnosed. About 43,600 women will die from breast cancer.

I am a 24 year old breast cancer survivor. My mother died of colon cancer, my uncle died of lung cancer, my mother-in-law died of ovarian cancer, and my youngest sister died of breast cancer. So yes, everyone in my family hates all cancer!

Finding a nodule

Robert teams up with a therapist at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital to navigate his first set of prosthetics.

My cancer story began with what may seem like an unrelated event. When my only child, Robert, was five years old, he woke up one morning with a high fever. He was delirious and nauseous. He was sent by life flight to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. He was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis and nearly died. Two months later, both feet had to be amputated.

Almost a year after that date, I discovered a lump in my breast. Somehow I knew exactly what it was because I had been in a stressful mode with Robert for the past 12 months. I believe that level of stress can lead to a myriad of medical problems.

I wasted no time making an appointment with my OB/GYN. I had a mammogram about a month before and everything was clear. This time she did an ultrasound. Her recommendation was to wait a few months and check again.

That wasn’t good enough for me. I called a friend who was an internal surgeon, and she did a biopsy. It indicated that I had early stage ductal breast cancer. I wanted it out!

I made an appointment with a breast cancer surgeon. I went for the works, a bilateral mastectomy. That was my choice, even though I could have had a lumpectomy, I didn’t want to wake up every day and worry about the doctor getting all those sneaky little cells. The good news was that there was no evidence that it had spread to my lymph nodes.

Chemotherapy stinks

My surgeon referred me to an oncologist. I couldn’t have had a better one. dr. Anthony Greco invented the breast cancer cocktail. It was a mixture of 5-fluorouracil, cytoxan and methotrexate.

Big words. Scary words. But I trusted him. I knew he was one of the best. In my mind I always thought I was injecting poison into my body. In a way I was.

My youngest sister, Sherry, took me to every appointment. We laughed all the way. Tell jokes and listen to funny tapes. Yes, cassettes were a thing back then.

She would come to my house and bring funny movies for us to watch. We laughed hysterically.

I would recommend this book by breast cancer survivor Christine Clifford to anyone going through chemo and hair loss.

A friend brought me a book, “Not Now…I’m Having a No Hair Day.” It was filled with humor for people with cancer. This one especially resonated with me because my doctor had told me that I would probably lose some weight and not lose my hair with the chemo. I barely lost a pound and lost most of my hair.

There is something about losing your hair for us girls that is somehow devastating. The Bible helps to understand that feeling.

“But if a woman has long hair, it is an honor for her: for [her] it is given to her as a covering.” 1 Corinthians 11:15

My mother-in-law bought a glittery jacket for Christmas and I topped it off with a glittering baseball cap. At that point I had a few tufts of hair left. Sherry and I came up with a running joke about how cats seemed to have sucked my hair.

I made the most of that “no hair day” part of my life by wearing baseball caps. I had them in all colors. My sister and I eventually found a wig that looked like my hair before it fell out. The funny thing, though, was that as the weather got warmer, wearing the wig annoyed me so much that I went back to baseball caps.

The next chapter

A few months after my chemo cycles ended, I was ready for reconstructive surgery. That process from start to finish took about three months. Expanders are inserted first and over the next few weeks and then over time filled with silicone, saline, or with the current advancement, gel.

After some research, I chose saline. I thought that if I ever caused a leak, the saline would be absorbed into my body, but silicone in that situation could cause other medical problems.

Again, Sherry accompanied me to every appointment. Yes, she was a great support system, but to be honest, the plastic surgeon was incredibly personable, so it wasn’t a huge burden for her.

After a successful reconstructive surgery, I was ready to move on to the next chapter of my life, including a return to television. That was a blessing in more ways than one. I became an advocate for early detection, mammograms and providing support through Relay for Life programs, and throughout my career I was invited to speak on behalf of cancer patients and survivors in the Southeast.

I’ll tell you what I’ve said to groups of 20 to 2,000, laughter is the best medicine! One of my favorite quotes, which I always shared in my speaking engagements, is from Jim Valvano, coach of the 1983 NC State basketball championship team, who died of gland cancer. “If you can laugh, think and cry every day, that’s a great day. If you do that seven days a week, you have something special.”

Cancer rears its ugly head again

I have to admit that the first few years after surgery and chemo, I was a little anxious, especially when it came time for mammograms and follow-up oncology appointments. Eventually those feelings disappeared and I felt like God had given me a second chance. It was almost like being reborn.

My sister, Sherry, was not so lucky. In 2006 she discovered a lump in her breast. She was diagnosed with lobular cancer. After months of potent chemo drugs, some experimental, it just wasn’t enough. She died in 2007. She was 45 years old. Sherry was my youngest sister, best friend and one of the nicest, strongest women I’ve ever known. I think God needed her more than we did.

The Oxford sisters from left to right, Mitzi, Sherry, Angela and Janice. Dec 1991.

In late 2007, my sister, Angela, was given a genetic cancer mutation test for the BRCA2 gene because of our family history. She tested positive, meaning she had an 80% chance of developing breast cancer. She decided to have a bilateral mastectomy.

So far, our oldest sister, Janice, has had no evidence of breast cancer.

If you have a family history of breast cancer and men can get it too, get tested. Fear what you don’t know, not what you discover!

Lesson learned

Your healthcare provider is a good place to ask questions, and there are many other great resources, including the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute. If you have a family history of breast cancer, contact The Sister Study, part of the National Institutes for Health, a pioneering research effort to find causes of breast cancer. Knowledge is powerful and can be very helpful if you or a loved one is diagnosed.

Here are some other nuggets of wisdom I’ve gathered during my cancer journey and the trials and tribulations of our family medical trauma:

Learning to question my mother’s battle with cancer and my son’s meningitis helped me learn how to be my own best medical case manager. Those experiences and my own cancer journey taught me that life is short and that I must make the most of every minute of every day. Self-breast exams are important! Losing your hair is no fun, but better than the marmot delivering your mail. Try to find the silver lining in every step of the journey. Laugh, think and cry every day!

If you know someone battling breast cancer or any other cancer, reach out to them, especially if you’re blessed enough to be a member of the Survivor’s Club. They have been where you are or where you are going. We all need an Amen corner and something to laugh about!

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