THROUGH THE FIRE: ’Tis the Season

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trishamurakawaBy TRISHA MURAKAWA

This year has not been the best, at least for me.

In August 2013, I went in for my regular mammogram. A couple days later, the office called and told me I had to return to get another one. A week after that, I had a magnified mammogram and an ultrasound.

Afterward, the radiologist showed me pictures that looked like a constellation. He said I had clusters of calcifications but the pictures were not clear enough so I had to get a biopsy and an MRI.

After the biopsy procedure, they told me to return in two days and bring someone with me to hear the results.

So two days later, the case manager nurse told my husband and me that my results were inconclusive — I didn’t have cancer, but I had irregular clusters of cells and I should have an MRI for more clarity.

Cut to nine weeks later at the appointment to hear the results of my second biopsy. I didn’t bring my husband with me this time and I was meeting with the oncologist this time, not the case manager nurse.

It was a long road from August to October with many weeks of tests and waiting. At this appointment, it was more a matter of formality for me to hear the doctor say I had breast cancer.

He was very nice about delivering the information. He told me it was very early stage and laid out the options for me. The nurse case manager was there as well and she gave me information about breast cancer diagnosis, the types and stages of cancer and treatment options. She was very nice and supportive and shared that she was also a breast cancer survivor.

So after hearing the news, the doctor told me I should think about my treatment options. I listened but I knew going in to the appointment that I was going to move forward with surgery. I figured the utility of my breasts were complete; my kids were no longer nursing age, and besides, living in a beach city in Southern California, with a set of fake boobs, I would fit right in.

The nurse case manager gave me a list of surgeons and plastic surgeons. She told me to do my research, check out their backgrounds and websites, and choose one of each. After I did that, she would work with me, the surgeons’ schedules and my insurance company to set everything up.

She was very professional, very nice and very helpful. In early December, we set a mid-January date for the surgery.

The next thing I had to do was share the information about my health situation with family and friends. That proved rather difficult, not so much for me, but for them. It’s not a pleasant subject, it’s very personal information that no one really wants to know and it’s awkward.

But because my health, believe it or not, affects other people’s lives, I felt the responsibility to share the information with them so the role I played in their lives or their affairs would be filled.

I also had to tell my kids. It was challenging trying to find the best way to share the information with them without creating anxiety and scaring them. So my husband and I just sat them down and started by saying that I wasn’t going to die. Then we told them about the diagnosis, the surgery and what that would mean for them.

They seemed to take the news fine. There was no crying and the question was asked anyway — “You’re not going to die, right?” Upon receiving a “no” answer, the mood was very “matter-of-fact.”

Leading up to my surgery, among some of the people who knew about my situation, particularly the ones I wasn’t close to but needed to know, I almost felt like a pariah. They didn’t do it purposely but they made me feel uncomfortable. It is difficult to explain and it could just be the way I felt, but it was awkward nonetheless.

During my entire ordeal — from the initial testing phase that started in August, to the diagnosis phase in October to the surgery and recovery last winter to the reconstruction this past fall — I have been asking myself what I am supposed to learn from the experience.

A couple thoughts come to mind.

The first is that no matter that a Canadian study conducted over the course of 30 years released results, a week after my surgery, that said mammograms are unnecessary for women until they reach their mid-70s. Their results said that mammograms are not effective tools to diagnose cancer and that the rate of diagnosis and mortality are the same regardless of mammogram history.

I was livid. If I had waited until the age recommended in the study, I would not have been diagnosed, and I am not near age 70. How irresponsible.

Further, it was not the mammogram that led to my diagnosis, it was the second biopsy. The mammogram only showed a questionable picture that needed further investigation.

So one big lesson for me was to help others to not gain a false sense of security and believe that regular mammograms are not important. I felt the need to share my health information with my women friends and friends with young daughters to refute the irresponsible findings of this study because, at least for me, the findings would have yielded a devastating result and perhaps even premature death.

The other lesson I think I was supposed to learn, which is a hard one for me, is that I had to let others help me and take care of me during my recovery.

I am used to being the one to care for others, not the other way around, so it was challenging.

In terms of my business, my colleague and friend took care of my business while I recovered. She handled all client services and communications for me. Her whole family prayed for me and she visited me and kept me company, and of course, brought some work for me to keep my mind occupied, but I know it was really to bring me some sense of control since I had none over other parts of my life.

Her sweet husband introduced me to a wonderful woman, another breast cancer survivor. He set up a meeting for us before my surgery to help bring me peace of mind, offer guidance and support to me, and I was a stranger to her. She called me, texted and prayed for me before, during and after my surgery. She is so wonderful and I am so grateful to her and to my friend’s husband for introducing us.

Another stranger, a nurse and fellow breast cancer survivor who started a nonprofit organization to help breast cancer patients, also called me before my surgery. She offered support, guidance and advice. She told me exactly what would occur, what to expect, and she told me what kinds of clothing and things I should get to make my recovery easier and better. She helped me think about how I would manage the tiniest of details that we all take for granted in living our lives.

My mom came to my house every day for weeks to help me get around, do the grocery shopping and cooking for me and my family so my husband could carry out his regular work and kid responsibility-filled routine with limited change.

My dad drove my kids around during the day to all their activities because I couldn’t drive for weeks.

Friends brought food to the hospital while my family waited for me during my surgery and to our house afterward. More friends bought me comfortable clothing and drove me to my doctor appointments. My primary care doctor, who is also my friend, came to see me when I got out of surgery. She took me to my first follow-up appointment and came to my house for home visits every day after my surgery for weeks to check my drains and on me.

My kids and my husband were very supportive and helpful to me during my recovery and did all kinds of things only family members can do.

There are so many more gestures of kindness and love to add to this list, and for all of it and to everyone, I am so thankful and appreciative. I know that my situation was not nearly as serious as so many others, but while I really wanted to look like Angelina Jolie after my surgery, I am nevertheless very thankful to be cancer-free, and to have the support and love of my family and friends.

’Tis the season to reflect and to celebrate. But it is always the time to be thankful, to be kind, and to live.

Trisha Murakawa is a strategic communications and public affairs consultant based in Redondo Beach. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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