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April 8, 2021

“Scars Are Like Birthmarks with Better Stories.”

Today I slept in because I didn’t have to be in Houston at 8am for treatment. I took a long and hot shower and washed the red and blue marks from my chest, the remnants of radiation. I put deodorant on for the first time in over four weeks. Today is a big day. It’s my 57th birthday, and it’s my first day as a cancer survivor. Wow, it’s weird to type that sentence because, frankly, being told, “You have breast cancer.” was something I truly never thought I would hear. But then again, who does?

This journey started on January 19, 2021, the day after I went in for my yearly mammogram and I got a phone call from my radiologist’s office. “Your mammogram was ‘mostly normal’ but the doctor did see an area that he would like to look at more closely. Can you come in tomorrow for an ultrasound?” This is a road I’ve been down before. What can I say, I’m lumpy, and consequently have had a few ultrasounds and even a biopsy and lumpectomy in years past, that all, happily, turned out to be nothing. This one would prove to be a different matter. The ultrasound showed two areas of concern. “I think we need to biopsy them.” Dr. O’Sullivan told me. They scheduled my appointment for the next day. As I left, I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was concerned. The next day, getting ready for my biopsy appointment, I put on a t-shirt from a recent girls getaway to Charleston. Even though only my husband knew what was going on, I needed the spirit of my tribe with me for this visit. After the biopsy, my husband and I had barely made it out of the office doors before I burst into tears as I told him that the doctor was fairly sure one of the lumps was cancer. Less than 24 hours later, the doctor had the lab results, and our fears were confirmed. As he was explaining the preliminary findings, he emphasized that everything was caught early and he didn’t think that the cancer had spread past the tumor or into the lymph nodes. “If we are going to give it a ‘stage’ I’d say it’s Stage 1,” he told me, “which is the best we could hope for.”

I won’t bore you with a play-by-play of the treatment plan other than to say we are blessed to have one of the best cancer treatment centers in the world less than 2 hours away, so we made the decision to pursue treatment at MD Anderson and haven’t regretted it for a second. And as far as cancers go, mine was the best-case scenario. It was caught early, wasn’t caused by genetics, and has a low risk of recurrence. We settled on a treatment plan that included a lumpectomy and radiation. Here’s one of the wonderful things about MD Anderson: they’re a teaching and research hospital which allows them to provide treatment plans that other facilities can’t. As a result, I was given the opportunity to participate in a clinical study for the radiation portion of my treatment which meant I only had 5 days of radiation rather than the traditional 15. This is probably the most fulfilling aspect of my journey; knowing that my diagnosis and treatment will affect the way women are treated for cancer in the future. I really love that!

So, here I am, 80 days later. Eleven weeks from diagnosis to completed treatment! I have to be honest, on some level it feels like I didn’t even have cancer, but it’s a good lesson in the reality that everyone’s path, no matter what the journey, is unique. I’d love to say that throughout those 80 days, I was a model of grace under pressure, but, well, I wasn’t. I had days where I cried. Days that I pouted. A whole bunch of days that I couldn’t string two coherent thoughts together. I even dropped the F-Bomb on a few, okay, a whole bunch of, occasions. But, truly, I had more days where I chose to be happy and live my life to the best that my addled mind would allow.

Looking back, there’s so much that I’m proud of. I’m proud that my husband and I faced this challenge as a team, listening to each other and considering our options and making our decisions together. I’m proud that I allowed myself to have bad days rather than pretend that everything was wonderful as my life was going off the rails at 180 mph. I’m proud that I have surrounded myself with a tribe of amazing women, from my sister to my cousin to friends near and far that I love and cherish. This group of women where there for me every step of the way and made the journey a lot more bearable and even more fun!

Last week my sister got a tattoo that says, “Scars are like birthmarks with better stories.” As I look at my new scar, I have to agree. There are funny stories like my sweet plastic surgeon and only guy doctor on my medical team, who explained in great detail how he would ensure that my privacy was maintained throughout his exam, and I responded, “Dr. Hassid, at this point half the people in Houston have seen my breasts so I’m not so concerned about my modesty anymore!” There are sweet stories, like the nurse who could tell I was nervous before a procedure and held my hand until the doctor was done. There are stories that make me smile, like my 5 radiology techs who chased me down the hall with Sharpie markers in hand to ask me to sign the copies of my children’s books that I had given them after I finished treatment that morning. But most of all, there are loving stories, and these are the stories that I will remember and cherish the most! I’ll remember all the simple text messages from my family and friends, checking in to see how I was doing. I’ll remember my husband putting a pillow and blanket in the car in case I got cold or uncomfortable during the ride home after my surgery. I’ll remember my office staff going out of their way to handle the things I couldn’t while going through treatment. I will remember feeling incredibly loved.

I’ve really debated whether or not I wanted to share this story publicly. During treatment, when my life felt so out of control, I latched on to control the only thing I could: the conversation. Consequently, only a handful of people were aware of what was going on. Now that it’s done, my fear is that I don’t want to be defined by this disease with people looking at me and saying, “Oh, she had breast cancer.” I want them to look at me and see a wife, mother, friend, author, photographer, business owner… because there are so many things I’m much more proud of accomplishing then surviving this disease. Really, all I did was show up to my appointments. The real heroes in this story are the medical professionals who did their jobs and did them very well with love and compassion every step of the way. There’s my OB/GYN, Dr. Suarez, who threatened to rat me out to my sister if I didn’t get my yearly mammogram. Dr. O’Sullivan, who not only discovered the tumor, but got me through a mammogram, ultrasound, and two needle biopsies with results in one week! Dr. Valdez, my pathologist, who got my results back in record time and was there throughout my journey whenever I had a question. Then there’s my medical team at MD Anderson who were nothing short of amazing! Dr. Miggins, Dr. Hassid, Dr. Bloom, and Dr. Saleem. There was great comfort in knowing that all of them approached my treatment plan as a team, consulting each other and making the decision as a group on the best way forward. From the clerks who checked me in to the nurses that took my vitals to the PAs who answered all one thousand of my questions to the surgeons who did their thing and made me healthy again… everyone, and I mean everyone, always greeted me with a smile and made me feel like I was their most important patient.

So, obviously, in the end, I have decided to share my story with the world. My friend, Amy, told me that if it helps one women, changes one life, or gives just one person comfort, that it’s worth sharing. So, today, I’m sharing where I’ve been for the last 11 weeks. Also today, I will be wearing deodorant; my chest will no longer be covered with red and blue sharpie lines and looking much like a dry erase board in need of cleaning; and my body will be cancer free. It really is true, “Scars are like birthmarks with better stories.” When I look at the 4” scar on my chest, the story it tells me makes me smile and it reminds me to be thankful, for I have oh so much to be thankful for.

About the author

Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson has developed quite a following as a wildlife photographer working under the pseudonym “Backyard Bird Nerd.” Her photos have been featured in magazines, websites, and art galleries. As the owner of an advertising agency, writing has always been a part of her life and career. Her literary work has included producing text for websites, brochures, television and radio commercials, and a variety of magazines articles. Delving into the world of children's literature has been an exciting and challenging adventure, and pairing these books with her love of photography has proven to be the perfect outlet for her passions and talents. When not prowling around in nature looking for something to “fly” by her lens, she lives in South Texas with her husband, two daughters, and dog.

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