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By Jennifer Thomas
San Antonio, Texas, Cancer Survivor
I had just turned 39 when I reached over my shoulder to turn off a lamp, and in so doing, felt a funny “spot” on my breast.
Having no history of cancer in my family, I can’t say that was my first thought. But since it WAS October—Breast Cancer Awareness Month—I did call my husband into the living room to see if he felt it as well.
This was late January of 2006. Despite being told by everyone the spot was “probably nothing,” I got it checked out and was diagnosed with Stage 1 IDC, fast-growing (grade 3) by the first week of February.
I don’t remember getting a second opinion, doing any research, or even asking what my options were.
I just know that a week after being diagnosed, I was in surgery getting a lumpectomy, and my breast surgical oncologist was even younger than I was! In 2006, lumpectomies with radiation were the surgeries of choice. There was a pervading belief that breast cancer was always worse with a recurrence, so younger women were treated with as many weapons as possible to prevent this occurrence down the road.
Surgeries and Big Life Changes
So even though I didn’t have the most conservative surgery option (a mastectomy), I had the lumpectomy and re-excision surgeries along with 33 radiation treatments. The arsenal of oncology weaponry at the time was dose-dense chemotherapy every other week—3 hour infusions of Taxol for a total of 13 infusions. That was a pretty heavy protocol for someone with Stage 1 cancer.
I then went on to have three reconstruction surgeries, completing the last one in December 2008, the month before I moved to San Antonio from my home in Dallas (January of 2009).
My husband had told me he wanted a divorce and had moved out of our home before my final reconstruction surgery in December.
Since my mother was coming up to help me move to San Antonio in January, I was on my own during the reconstruction phase of that final surgery. This was the worst time in my life thus far. The divorce was harder on me than the cancer!
I had already lost my breast and—in my opinion at the time—my looks. Now I was losing my husband and stepdaughters, my financial security, my home, even my health insurance!
I had to move to another city so I could live with my parents, as I had nowhere else to go. I’d stopped working while having fertility treatments the first half of our 9-year marriage, and since my husband was conveniently unemployed toward the end, I had no income.
During that January, I put all my furniture and beloved items I’d collected all over the world in storage, along with most of my clothes. I left my friends and my support network. I alternatively felt like a 12-year-old in my parents’ home in San Antonio and the oldest newly 42-year-old in the world.
The Ongoing Journey of Cancer Survival and Womanhood
Since I’d had a complete hysterectomy the year before (including having my ovaries removed), I was in full-blown menopause.
I still had lots of residual weight from the steroids in my chemo. I felt ugly, abandoned, and terrified.
I literally had to start my entire life over. Slowly—SO slowly—I did that very thing. I had many setbacks, including a second bout with breast cancer in 2012. This time I had a double mastectomy with concurrent reconstruction. I was 45 and I still felt like “damaged goods,” at least from a dating perspective. Ironically, however, my hair grew back with a vengeance, longer than ever before. The weight took years to lose, but lose it I did. I opted for smaller implants with this reconstruction, and I felt they made me look more like my original, pre-cancer self.
These changes didn’t make me feel more attractive to the opposite sex, but they did make me feel more attractive to MYSELF. And confidence can be very attractive.
One night, I was feeling a little crazy, and I ended up posting a profile on an Internet dating site. I received close to 100 messages from interested parties, and that made me feel better about myself as well.
I only met two of those 100 people, but long story short, I ended up dating one of those men for a year and a half. I’m not going to say it was easy. He wasn’t sure how he’d handle my health issues. I wasn’t sure how I’d handle dating again.
But I was finally starting to view myself as a woman again, not just a breast cancer survivor (no small feat, and something of which to be proud, though it took me several years to get there).
We eventually got married. I officially “started over” in the marriage department at age 47.
It hasn’t been easy in the least. It’s hard to live with someone new the older you get. Being menopausal, we have had several sexual issues with which to contend. And we both had a bit more baggage than first-timers.
Counting the Blessings
I’m not going to lie and say that my life was fuller after breast cancer bout #2 than it was when I was well-off, unafraid, young, healthy, and newly married to my first husband. My gains didn’t “fill in” my losses. And my confidence, though improved, still wasn’t where it needed to be. So not all of my decisions were made from a fully recovered bedrock of wisdom—including my decision to marry again so quickly after contending with cancer again.
We were married less than two years, and those were two LONG years.
The next year or two, I began to develop a greater appreciation for my blessings, and I don’t take them for granted like I used to.
My relationship with God has become deeper and more meaningful, and He has become the “mate” I was looking for in a romantic relationship. Do I wish I’d never gotten cancer and never been abandoned? Absolutely!! But I’ve learned a lot from my two experiences with breast cancer.
I decided I’d share with you what I wish I’d done differently during those experiences, and finish with how I’ve benefited from them.
‘What I Would Have Done differently’
If I knew then what I know now, what I would have done differently is:
- NOT get a hysterectomy. The relationship between breast cancer and uterine cancer is minimal, and hysterectomy as a 40-year-old made ME feel less feminine (my cervix went with it, as did other pleasurable parts of the female genitalia).
- NOT get an oophorectomy (permanent menopause overnight is a huge change for a woman’s body, mind, mental acuity, sense of sexual identity…I have numerous reference articles referencing these topics).
- My chances of getting pregnant, no matter how high-tech the method, were permanently eliminated by this choice.
- Menopause is tougher on thin women because any residual estrogen is stored in the fat cells.
- I have experienced a complete loss of sexual desire.
- I wish I had at least kept a few options open by freezing my eggs.
- Wouldn’t have isolated so much because no one I knew (who was remotely close to my age) could relate to what I was going through.
- Wouldn’t have considered my life “over,” so that I didn’t give up on my marriage when my husband said it was “over” – and would have tried to start my post-Cancer life over again in my home city (Dallas) instead of moving to San Antonio to be closer to my mother and starting over in a completely new place (one I’ve never really made my “own”).
The Good Side of a Breast Cancer Experience
- I have gotten more involved in volunteer work and support groups. I’ve realized I have a lot to share with the breast cancer community, even if it’s just telling my story.
- I’m not as frightened of pain, disease, and loss. Not that I enjoy those things—that would be masochistic—but they’re not as terrifying as I once thought they were.
- God indeed gives us beauty for ashes—and I mean our hair grows back, we can still dazzle with our smiles, we can flirt and engage from a much deeper place—a place of empathy and caring and love towards others. Even “Big Bad Cancer” can’t steal our ability to sparkle radiantly and beautifully when we share this part of ourselves with others.
- And if all potential romantic partners see is a future with us is “health problems” or more illness ahead, we don’t need to surround ourselves with such people. It’s too easy to get depressed thinking about what we’ve already lost; let’s try to remember our blessings. There is always someone who is suffering more than we are. We need to learn who that person is and give him or her what we have to give—it might be just what he or she needs. We might not feel we have much to offer, but we can always listen.
- And trust me: sincerely listening with care and concern when another is in pain and needs to have a good cry IS a LOVELY gift, a precious use of time, and a terribly underrated skill.
- I have believed all this to be true, and it’s because I have trusted in the Lord and watched Him give me second and third chances to live as fully as possible.
Learning Anew, at 52
The last two or three years, my health has stopped improving and has steadily gotten worse.
I’ve acquired an extremely rare neurovascular disorder that causes chronic pain, chronic kidney disease and the side effects that go with it, nausea and vomiting, and extreme discomfort with ambient heat and exercise/physical exertion.
These physical limitations have resulted in further isolation, and I don’t see myself as the loving and caring person I once was.
I’ve gotten in the habit of feeling sorry for myself, and this has increased the ubiquitous anxiety and depression I thought I had outgrown as my cancer experience became smaller and smaller in my life’s rear view mirror.
So I am learning something new as the now-52-year-old Jennifer in Life As It Is Now: I’m learning that I need to cry again instead of listening. I’m learning what fear feels like again, now that it’s come back to visit and isn’t just a memory. I’m learning I need to reach out and ask for help, admit I’m still hurting and have much to learn. And that I probably always will.
Thank you to those who cried with me at the end of that recent chapter of my story. I feel listened to and loved, and you, my Pink Sisters, do it better than anyone else!
Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of guest blog posts from Breast Friends Forever (BFF) in San Antonio, Texas (64% Latino). BFF is a support group that enables young breast cancer survivors to share stories and experiences, developed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio (the team behind Salud America!) and Susan G. Komen San Antonio. Email BFF or Visit BFF on Facebook. The main image above features Jennifer Thomas of San Antonio (left), along with her sister.