My journey with cancer began in 1993 at the age of 23 when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. My first words after the initial diagnosis were : “Am I going to die?”
The diagnosis came after many months of common colds, night-sweats, and difficulty breathing. I found a lump on my neck, the size of a jellybean. A couple more were discovered in my lungs after a CT scan. After further testing, the protocol called for surgery to remove my spleen along with other lymph nodes, followed by 44 radiation treatments. Most days I drove myself to radiation treatments, and then to my college classes in the city of Detroit. My skin felt raw and burned and I lost some hair, but I was fortunate enough to have a good prognosis and my youth working for me. My fake smile plastered to my face, afraid to freak out friends and loved ones.
I struggled with the meaning of the diagnosis at such a young age. Of course I asked the question: “Why Me?” At times, I pitied myself. I was in denial and shock, and I hated everything about my situation. I was sure I wasn’t going to make it to the age of 30. I tried my best to stay optimistic in front of people — forever the people pleaser. I used my self-deprecating sense of humor to say things they might be thinking.
I sought refuge through my faith, my journalism courses, and my best friend — now husband Mike — to get through that course of treatment and tough time. As I would drive myself daily to treatments that lasted several weeks, I carried many relics — my St. Theresa and St. Peregrine medals pinned to my bra or my hospital gown. I grew up in a Catholic home, attending Catholic school and college. I prayed a lot in the car and as I walked into the cancer center, oftentimes alone. I needed to remember, I was not alone. God is in both the small things and in the big things. For better or worse and for Him, there are no unimportant details or events.
However, my faith was truly being tested. Other patients in the waiting room and nurses would look at me with sadness and curiosity, most likely wondering what kind of cancer I had at such a young age. I would walk out of the dressing room with my hospital gown and be ready to lie in a mold or cast made to line-up my specially made tattoos (blue dots) to properly be given radiation treatment. I prayed so hard asking for healing and safety. I was very scared of everything — the machines, the process, my present and future. Fear was overwhelming. I leaned quite hard on God during those lonely times, because life can feel overwhelming and lonely. I wanted to stop the planet from spinning on its axis and wait for me to catch up. But less than one year before my diagnosis, Mike was placed in my life. A coincidence? I would later realize, it was most definitely not.
In the Fall of ’93, I finished treatment and didn’t look back. However, the trauma haunted me. Fast forward to October of 2007. I am now 37 years old and considered “cured” from Hodgkins Disease and am no longer being closely monitored; although I started to have a yearly mammogram along with regular check-ups. Mike and I were now married and at that point had two daughters, ages 2 and 7.. Both miracles in and of themselves, given my health history. Now a freelance reporter with the Midland Daily News, I had just returned from interviewing a breast cancer survivor for the newspaper. Little did this woman know that our meeting would soon be a small miracle.
On my way home from the interview — in my car — something very strongly nudged me to examine my own breasts. So when I arrived, I decided to hop in the shower. Amidst the warm, soapy water I found a lump in my left breast. “Are you kidding me?,” I said loud and clear. If I had not met and interviewed the brave survivor that day, and listened to that little voice that nudged me, I guarantee I would not have examined myself. Everything from that moment started to snowball quickly. Panic and fear took over. I could not wrap my head around any of it. “Hadn’t I paid my dues?” I questioned.
The next morning, I called my doctor and was seen as an emergency. I had a mammogram and ultrasound. A biopsy was scheduled and performed a month later. And when that biopsy revealed itself as another cancer diagnosis, it was devastating; to me, to Mike, and to our entire family. This time, it was triple negative breast cancer. My medical team called it radiation-induced breast cancer, a side effect from receiving the many doses of radiation all those years prior. What saved me years ago had its own risky consequences. I was warned then that breast cancer could be a side effect of radiation especially to young breast tissue. I felt betrayed by God, the universe and my body. I was angry and very let down.
I had a double mastectomy and 30 lymph nodes removed from my left armpit. It was January, a new year, and I would spend the next 6 months in treatment. All I could think about was Mike and our daughters. They need me. And I’m a wreck. I questioned and argued with God, but I tried to let go and let him do his work. I would need to muster the strength to move forward. I would have a month to recoup after my surgery and the treatment plan was in place — I was to have eight rounds of Chemo. Another dreaded C word.
I was so very grateful to God, to Mike, to our amazing families, and especially grateful for our daughters. They gave me strength and forced me to fight. To say I was reluctant and scared was an enormous understatement, but I had no choice. Following my second round of Chemo, I immediately lost my long brown head of hair — chose to shave it completely. I cried, I was angry and I felt sorry for myself. I hated everything about my situation. I’m sorry to say — I did NOT want to see another pink ribbon and wanted to burn every hat and bandana I owned. I wasn’t able to properly take care of my kids some days, and I had to ask for help; all things that a proud mama bear does not like doing. I beat myself up about it all and felt much shame.
It was a long winter, but the closer I got to the end of chemo, the closer I was able to breathe. Mike and I found small, silly ways to laugh and we joked a lot (at my expense). Our little girls loved me unconditionally, and there was going to be an end to our nightmare. Some people don’t get that outcome or prognosis. I was also getting closer to God. I was definitely not alone. A few days before my last round of chemo, we walked with some family members in the Race for The Cure in downtown Detroit. We donned our pink ribboned t-shirts and bandanas, reluctantly walked a pink carpet, and held onto the hope that this would soon be in our rearview mirror. All and all, it was about a year and a half from diagnosis till my last reconstruction surgery. I had some very dark moments, but I was very grateful to have my family.
Now, it’s 2016, and over 10 years have passed since that diagnosis. I was in the clear, but was still being monitored once a year. But one day when I was getting out of the shower, I glanced into the mirror and noticed a small, pinkish circle near a scar adjacent to my armpit. I touched it. It was a flat lump.
The room started to spin. My hands shook. I immediately started to cry and panic. “Please, NO, not again!” Mike rushed into the room, and I fell into his arms. At that point it could’ve been anything, but I was sure it was cancer. My doctor called me a few days later with biopsy results: “I don’t have the news you want to hear. It’s breast cancer.” I had to prepare myself both mentally and physically. Our daughters were now 17 and 12, They were able to better understand what was happening. They were scared for me, but were brave. They told me, “Mom, you’re strong. You can do this!” Their faith in me made me feel strong and loved. Seeing them so positive and reacting with such grace and courage made me realize that if nothing else, our family was strong, which made me strong.
After four rounds of chemo, I again lost my long brown hair and my pride went out the window. I bought at least a dozen hats — none of them pink — and a very nice, expensive wig. I chose not to be angry at anyone — especially myself — or anything. I chose to not feel shame, accept the chemo as a heat-seeking missile to kill any possible cancer cells lurking. I bombarded my doctors with questions, and I made sure they knew where I stood. Yes I had pain, discomfort and aggravating side effects. I did miss some of my daughters’ school events, but they completely understood. I successfully finished my last treatment in April 2017. And life continues to move forward.
There were moments I never thought I would make it to 30, 40 years or 50 years of age. But I did! I have much to look forward to now that my youngest will graduate from high school and my eldest will get married in the year 2023.
And through grace, life goes on.
By : Erika Hirschman