Written by Sara Martinek
Almost everyone knows someone who has been affected by cancer. Like most people, I never thought it would happen to me. Then one day, there it was — a lump. I was 27 years old, married to my middle school sweetheart, with two beautiful children, and I had a job I loved going to every day.
Suddenly, my normal life felt like it came to an abrupt standstill, while other aspects of my life felt like they were flying out of control or were in fast-forward mode. I felt completely out of control of my own life.
Being a cancer patient quickly became my new full-time job. So, you can imagine the relief I felt when I realized how incredible the team of not only doctors, but the entire staff, were at Mayo Clinic Health System. When your life essentially is in the hands of medical professionals and caregivers, the security you feel from knowing you are on the right path is priceless.
There is so much information to take in with a cancer diagnosis. I was always given time to absorb, process and ask questions. More than once, I received phone calls in the evening just to share test results or after hours on a Friday, so I wasn't worrying all weekend.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I also was identified as a carrier of the BRCA1 gene. This gene mutation creates a high risk of breast and ovarian cancers, as well as a 40 to 65 percent chance of a second, primary cancer. I made the decision to have a double mastectomy with axillary lymph node dissection, followed by three reconstructive surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy.
As we dove into my cancer treatment both feet first, my greatest fear was that my children would feel abandoned. They were only 4 and 2 at the time of my diagnosis. Both understood that mom was sick but also were young enough for me to guard them from the severity of my illness. With that also came the heartbreaking knowledge that if I did not beat this, there was a good possibility they would not remember me as they grew older.
My son stayed by my bedside the entire time I was in the hospital. I never had to reach once for my cup of water. Once I went home, family and friends traded shifts being with me 24 hours a day, so my kids could be home with me. They learned my limits quickly, and we adjusted. Though, I'd have to admit, losing the ability to care for my own family was my greatest challenge during my illness.
Someone else had to clean our house, wash our clothes, make meals, and help me bathe and get dressed. When I could not do anything else, just being with my husband and kids gave me purpose and a reason to smile — even when I didn't want to. They are what got me out of bed and kept me going every day.
I have learned so much from my experience with cancer. I gained perspective on what is truly important in life: to pick my battles, not take life for granted, take lots of pictures, enjoy the little things, take care of myself and appreciate others around me.
This year, my Mother's Day was extra special as it fell on the three-year anniversary of my diagnosis. I may have been the one diagnosed with cancer, but the disease affected everyone in my life. It was because of their unwavering support and care that I am here today.
If there is anything from my cancer journey to share with others, it would be that cancer does not discriminate. Know your body and warning signs. Do not hesitate to get symptoms checked out. And never ever miss a chance to tell the people in your life how much they mean to you.