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What breast cancer has taught me

Dr. LaurBerman ~ Photo: Steve Liss

Dr. Laura Berman ~ Photo: Steve Liss

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Updated: July 12, 2012 10:44AM

Here’s a secret only a few of those closest to me know:

In December, after receiving a firm reminder from my primary care doctor, I went for my annual mammogram.

It was a day before my family’s trip to Florida, but the next thing I knew, instead of packing, I was having a biopsy done on my left breast. Two weeks and many tests later I got my diagnosis: breast cancer. I was the proud owner of a left breast containing DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ).

DCIS can be considered either stage “0” cancer (or pre-cancer), which occurs when malignant-looking cells in the lining of the breast duct start to clone themselves and proliferate but don’t spread outside the duct to other tissue in the breast. The chromosomal changes are so similar that scientists now believe that DCIS could be a precursor to invasive breast cancer, and thus they treat it aggressively.

On Jan. 19 I said goodbye to my left breast, losing her to a mastectomy, and now begins the reconstruction. Happily, my right breast came out relatively unscathed.

I consider myself extremely lucky. The cancer was discovered very early. The mastectomy was necessary because the DCIS was too diffused for a lumpectomy, but I do not need chemotherapy or radiation and am now considered as cancer-free as the next girl. And, as of last week, back to work and life as usual.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned so far:

1. There is no substitute for independent judgment. This is something my husband always says, and boy did it ring true in this experience. I was shocked by the amount of double mastectomy peer pressure I received! It seemed like every woman I know who has been through this, and even some of my doctors, were telling me to “just get rid of both of them.”

After all, I’ve had my children and won’t be breastfeeding again, so why take the chance?  And wouldn’t it be nice to have new perky breasts?

I wavered. My mind was full of “what if’s” and, let’s face it, part of me was tempted by the perky breast thing. But I love my breasts, and never planned on plastic surgery, nor did I want to cut off any unnecessary body parts!

After much ambivalence, talking to my doctor and doing my own research, it was clear to me that once the DCIS was removed, my chances of developing breast cancer again were only slightly higher than the average population. For many women, depending on their cancer or genetic predisposition, a double mastectomy is a must. In my case, there was no medical reason for me to have a double mastectomy, only emotional/anxiety reasons. So my right breast remains, a little perkier than before after all, to match her new sister.

2. I am convinced that one of the greatest gifts of cancer, for anyone, but especially women, is that we finally are able to take and receive without guilt or shame. I realized that much of the time, I’ve been saying “yes” to things I don’t want to do and “no” to things I do, just so I wouldn’t be a nuisance! Cancer gave me the opportunity to reverse this crazy dynamic and it feels so much better.

3. I let go of expectations and resentments. As many people in crisis discover, not everyone is capable of being there for you in the way you need.

So many took amazing care of me, especially my husband, my kids and my wonderful friends. But as I found myself getting frustrated or hurt, feeling victimized by those who weren’t stepping up, a close friend and life coach, Diana Chapman, reminded me to just try to have no expectations for a change. Instead, she helped me to see that when I look at others with love in my heart, it not only feels so much better and easier than resentment, but it brings the love back to me a million-fold. Everyone’s just doing the best they can.

Finally, I have to compliment some amazing Chicago medical professionals who were so wonderful to me and made this journey as painless and effective as I could have ever hoped. This includes my wonderful general practitioner, Dr. Vesna Skul, and Dr. Ahmed Farag at Diagnostic Imaging Specialists of Chicago.

I can’t say enough about the amazing professionals who cared for me at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where I am on clinical faculty: Dr. Kevin Bethke at the Lynn Sage Comprehensive Breast Center; Dr. Neil Fine in plastic surgery; Dr. R-Jay Marcus in anesthesiology, and their amazing teams, especially registered nurses Leondra Howard and Michelle Work. And to the fabulous nurses and staff who took such incredible care of me as I recovered on the 14th floor. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I sprinkle my better-sex fairy dust on all of you!

Each of us has to be our own best health advocate. This means visiting your general practitioner and, ladies, getting a mammogram every year after 40. It means not sweeping those lingering health concerns under the rug just because you can’t bear to hear bad news. We deserve the best health care and to ask questions and get second opinions.

Most of all, we have to take care of ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally, and make the tough choices and lifestyle changes necessary for our health. When I first heard the news I had breast cancer, I thought I was going to die.

Now here I am, on the other side, and I’m healthy and clearer than I was before the diagnosis. It’s been quite a journey. 

Visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc. at national for more information on breast cancer and for resources in your area.

Dr. Laura Berman is the author of Loving Sex and director of Dr Her television show, “In The Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman,” airs on OWN.

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