My breast cancer story: learning to take care of the ‘me’ in the mirror.
This October I am 9 years out from Stage 2B ductal breast cancer. For those who don’t know, I was diagnosed on a mammogram at 43 years old in 2008. Actually, my radiologist felt a little lump that I think I might have felt a few months earlier but ignored while managing my mom’s care for non-asbestos, non-cigarette-related mesothelioma. I write this not as a ‘my situation was worse than yours’ but as a ‘we all go through stuff’. Or as they said on Monty Python’s Flying Circus ‘you never expect the Spanish Inquisition’. Thankfully, my mom lived to see me get through lumpectomy, sentinel node dissection, chemotherapy, and radiation. My hair started to grow back and I was well enough to help her and my family through her hospice at home in January 2009.
Breast cancer is no longer whispered. It is just too common.
At the time I was diagnosed, I had just commented to my nurses about how many of our patients were newly diagnosed with breast cancer. Now those days seem innocent: I’m no longer surprised to hear a patient report a new cancer diagnosis, even the less common ones like my mom’s. Whether it’s an epidemic, caused by changes in our genes or the environment or just the random roll of the dice, cancer is no longer whispered. It is just too common.
The flip side is that there are so many survivors like me! It’s only with hindsight that I’ve been able to understand my feelings about being a cancer patient and survivor. In retrospect, at the time, my response was a bit odd. Patients would ask how I was doing with chemotherapy and I’d say ‘it’s a nuisance’. I had to believe that at the time: I was in what I call ‘military mode’ – move forward and don’t look too deep. I had no choice and I looked at my cancer as ‘easy’ compared to my mom’s. I was most worried about making my patients’ comfortable so I prepped with a custom wig, eyebrow and eyelash cosmetics, and a smile.
Friends, family, staff, colleagues, and patients were so kind. As I wrote in the 30th-anniversary edition of the Women’s Dermatologic Society ‘Petals and Pearls’, if I ever had wondered whether what I did as a cosmetic dermatologist had meaning to my patients, their response at that time showed me it did. Rather than being upset at my reduced availability, they sent good wishes, hugs, love and even gifts to keep away the evil eye and protect my bald head and cold feet during treatment. My staff was particularly protective – they screened every patient for any potential contagion. And two weeks after a parkway policeman let ‘cancer girl’ off with a warning, when another gave me a speeding ticket, my nurses responded that it meant that I looked SO much healthier.
Remembering the ‘me’ in the mirror.
How does this relate to cosmetic dermatology? I was so entrenched in everything cancer, my mom’s passing and helping my mom’s mom and my dad keep it together that I didn’t really ‘look’ at me. It wasn’t until a wonderful colleague and friend, Rebecca Fitzpatrick, MD said “you know Heidi, a little Sculptra would be great in your temples”, that I started taking care of myself. She injected me while I was visiting her office in CA for a training session. About 6 months later, I repeated the treatment by another friend, and colleague Danny Vleggar, MD when he was in the US from France. Lo and behold, people I ran into who I hadn’t seen since my treatment would happily exclaim ‘Heidi, you look fantastic’ and ‘I’m so happy you look so healthy!’. And I did.
It hit me that I’d done everything necessary to deal with my cancer including starting an anti-estrogen pill I’m still taking (1 more year to go!), but I hadn’t dealt with the ‘me’ I saw in the mirror or that I presented to the world. As I’ve continued to take care of the post-cancer, post-chemo, and post-menopausal me, I’ve bolstered myself from the inside and the outside! A select few injectors on the planet including my friends, the wonderful plastic surgeons Arthur Swift, MD of Montreal and G Jackie Yee, MD of Miami, have continued any fillers I can’t (or safely shouldn’t) do on myself with my own tweaks in-between. And my great team has kept my face tight with Thermage and my body sculpted with Coolsculpting. As I get closer to 53, I can truly say I feel fabulous in my own skin!
Whether it is cancer, another illness, a severe injury, divorce, family tragedy or just overall stress, we have to step back and evaluate what we can do for ourselves. Whether it is personal, social or economic, our own response to our reflection and the response of others to our appearance feedback to us. While Billy Crystal’s old SNL line ‘it is better to look good than to feel good’ is extreme, it is really important to feel good about how we look. We stand up straighter, smile brighter, and respond better to the potential opportunities in our environment.
So this October, and this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I say please take yourself and your needs seriously. Take care of your health and your appearance and feel like your best you.