By Maria Saporta
When I got the call that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer on the morning of Oct. 13, my first reflex was: “I don’t have time for this. Take it back.”
After all, breast cancer had not been part of my life’s plan. There was no history of breast cancer in my family. And although I have had fibrocystic breasts for decades, countless biopsies had the same result – the cysts were always benign.
It got to the point where I didn’t even want to go get a mammogram anymore because I knew they would inevitably lead to more biopsies and more negative results.
Lesson No. 1: Don’t ever assume you are immune to cancer.
Lesson No. 2: No one plans to have cancer. No one has time for it – the ongoing tests, doctors’ visits, surgery and treatment. Instead, it hits you upside the head and tells you to wake up and make time for yourself and your health.
So when this reality hit, I decided I would embrace it as another one of life’s experiences.
The good news is that my cancer is Stage 2. For people who have a breast cancer vocabulary – I’m learning it as I go – it is 100 percent estrogen-fed, which my surgeon’s nurse, Jennifer, said was really good news.
The bad news for me is that taking post-menopausal hormones would be in the past, and uncomfortable hot flashes would be in my future. I’m convinced that if there were more female medical researchers, we would have more post-menopausal options.
The cancer also is slow-growing – a 15 on a scale of 0 to 100.
Jennifer had told me initially it was in at least one of my lymph nodes. That was puzzling to my breast doctor of many years – Dr. William Barber. He explained to me that once cancer is found in a lymph node, the common assumption is that chemo will be necessary.
Lesson No. 3: Don’t make assumptions.
Dr. Barber told me he questioned whether chemo would be effective for my kind of cancer. “If it were me, I would want to have the Ocnotype DX test,” he told me in a two-hour, one-on-one visit. The Oncotype test would tell us whether chemo was necessary or effective.
The problem was that insurance rarely pays for an Oncotype test if the cancer has been found in a lymph node.
Lesson No. 4: Be willing to challenge the status quo.
The company that performs the test told me my insurance had said it wouldn’t pay for it. Would it be okay with me if they appealed that decision. “Of course,” I answered. “I want that test.”
“You will have that test,” the lady on the phone said. If the appeal were denied, the xompany would charge me the “in-network” rate – meaning it would be about the same as my co-pay. That was a no brainer.
So on Nov. 13, I had surgery – a lumpectomy plus the removal of 11 lymph. Cancer was in two of them.
The Oncotype test results also have come back. The risk of recurrence with chemo, radiation and hormonal therapy is 11 percent. The risk without chemo is 9 percent.
I’m going into such detail about something rather personal for two reasons. I want to be as transparent as possible with my family, friends, readers and the general public – with the hope that my journey can help others who may be going through a similar experience.
The second reason is so all of you can understand why I’m so thankful this Thanksgiving season. My prognosis is good. It appears I won’t have to go through chemo. But even if that weren’t the case, my brush with cancer is giving me an opportunity to reflect and reassess on what I treasure most.
I have come to welcome that reality check.
My children, my sister, my cousin in Paris and my extended family, friends and colleagues have been so supportive – making me realize we can never fully appreciate the love that surrounds us until we get such a wake-up call.
So far, I have been somewhat selective in who I’ve told. But I’ve come to realize there are so many more people I know and care about – making me even more grateful for my extended network of friends – including all the wonderful SaportaReport readers.
I want to publicly share my thanks to and appreciation for all of you – for being part of our team and community. I plan to keep you informed as I continue along this journey.
Lesson No 5: We are moving toward the individual diagnosis of different cancers based upon genes and DNA. As the medical profession moves to personalized treatments for our individual cancers, the insurance industry must keep up.
Lesson No. 6: I have realized I now have a whole new family of people who have survived breast cancer – a kind of sisterhood welcoming me into its fold. We all have a story to tell – and fortunately, most stories are of people who have beaten breast cancer.
Lesson No. 7: Another self-realization is that I love what I do. I love being a journalist, and it’s as much a part of me as the oxygen I breathe. When I insisted on working while I was recovering from surgery, I explained to my editors that work is therapeutic.
In short, I care deeply about what’s going on in our city, state and world. I want to do whatever I can to help make Atlanta better, stronger and livelier – and the best tool I have is as a journalist.
Lesson No. 8: As much as I love my profession, I also have come to realize I need greater balance in my life. The cancer has helped me take a deep breath – reminding me I need to enjoy life as much as I can. We all do.
So for all those lessons, I am especially thankful this holiday season.