Obstinate, “She-Warrior” and the Power of HOPE | Breast Cancer Awareness

LWMSeptOct2014-Final_Page_19The call came at 8:21 am on Friday, May 31st, 2013. A memory that will be forever etched in the granite of my life. I had undergone an excisional biopsy earlier that week which was the surgical culmination of my breasts being extensively tracked, monitored, examined, poked, squeezed, mammo’d, ultrasounded, MRI’d, and needle biopsied since 1996. May 31st is made even more memorable because I was in the bathroom sitting “mid-stream” when my cell phone rang. I looked down and saw it was Dr. M – and wished like heck I had done more kegelling.

“As I hurriedly “clamped down” before the call kicked to voice mail, I was immediately consumed with good news-bad news anxiety. Do doctors call at eight o’clock in the morning with bad news? Or does bad news keep til business hours?”

“Eileen, you have breast cancer. It’s called DCIS… ductal carcinoma in situ.”

Later, after further pathology, we learned I had extensive DCIS from my chest wall to the nipple and also LCIS. And so I was issued my membership in the pink ribbon union. This was just the first step of a million along a path of unknown terrain. I am still working every day to navigate it, some good, some not-so-good.

I had entered a whole new world and nothing…not even my 24-year career as a US Air Force officer and pilot with combat time…had prepared me for this. But I am not one who “goes gently into that good night” –  it is just not part of my DNA. I dove head-long into educating myself on breast cancer and quickly figured out that it is an industry unto itself with its own unique protocols, medical jargon, conversational lexicon, and culture. Hours at my dining room table in front of my laptop turned into days which turned into weeks as I struggled to understand my form of breast cancer, what the standard of care is, how I should be treated, where I could be treated, and what my recovery would consist of.

Most difficult and destabilizing of all, however, was the fight to figure out how I was going to pay for it all. Despite having both military retiree health insurance and being a service-disabled veteran, I could find no breast team capable of performing my surgeries and treatment that would take my insurance, and amazingly (perhaps not) my VA medical center had no knowledge of the standard of care for treating breast cancer. Somehow it never occurred to me to be in fear of losing my life.

Denial is a power that sometimes cannot be reckoned with. The She-Warrior prevailed carried on the wings of my God and strengthened daily…literally and figuratively…by a humor-rich network of angels: legions of friends, my amazing family, my business community, my extremely skilled and always wellaccessorized breast surgeon, my most gifted physical therapist, and, most of all, my spouse, Becky, who has the heart of Aslan. We threw a “Ta Ta to the Ta-tas Party” and, several bottles of wine later, the group had produced a list of 78 different terms and phrases for “breast.” Who knew?

When complications arose from my bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction surgery that necessitated leech therapy (yes, leeches), we named them Thelma and Louise, Bert and Ernie, and Jacques and Pierre in tribute to their Montreal origination. When those same complications yielded me a reconstructed breast on the right and a permanent implant on the left, I
named them Thing 1 and Thing 2. I decided that Dr. Seuss was as capable as anyone to help me through this. (I do not know if I like green eggs and ham.) But nothing…nothing…can eclipse the day my surgeon proclaimed me CANCER FREE. They had gotten it all!

No chemo…no radiation…no tamoxifen. I promptly made an appointment with the local FAA medical examiner for a flight physical…and passed. It will be a little while longer before I have the upper torso and arm strength back to feel comfortable piloting an airplane. I have several more surgeries to go, and pain management and physical therapy remain a major
focus. But how far I have come in the last year…it is exactly one year ago today, August 15th, as I write this that my breasts were amputated. I do not yet have the reflective perspective that comes only with time and distance along this million step path. But it will come…one step, one angel, one day at time. And I will be here to embrace it.

By Eileen Isola

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