Laughter and the link with cancer

There is NOTHING funny about cancer, but choosing to laugh throughout the journey is like a boost to your resilience, free from nasty side effects and, hopefully, unexpectedly enjoyable.

October, marking the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, may be over, but I think breast cancer stories should be told often and any month of the year. You never know when someone needs to hear it.

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women. (Only lung cancer kills more women each year.)

The American Cancer Society’s estimates for breast cancer in the United States for 2021 are:

  • About 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women.
  • About 49,290 new cases of ductal carcinoma in situ will be diagnosed.
  • About 43,600 women will die of breast cancer.

I have been a breast cancer survivor for 24 years. My mother died of colon cancer, my uncle died of lung cancer, my mother-in-law died of ovarian cancer, and my younger sister died of breast cancer. So, yes, everyone in my family hates all cancers!

Find a bump

Robert works with a therapist at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital to navigate his first set of prosthetics.

My cancer story began with what might seem like an unrelated event. When my only child, Robert, was five, he woke up one morning with a high fever. He was delirious and nauseous. He was sent by rescue plane to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. He was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis and almost died. Two months later he had to have both feet amputated.

Almost a year since then, I detected a lump in my breast. Somehow I knew exactly what it was because I had been under high stress with Robert for 12 months. I believe that stress levels can lead to a host of medical problems.

I wasted no time making an appointment with my OB / GYN. I had a mammogram a month before and everything was clear. This time she did an ultrasound. His recommendation was to wait a few months and check again.

It wasn’t good enough for me. I called a friend who was an internal surgeon and she did a biopsy. This indicated that I had early stage ductal breast cancer. I wanted it!

I made an appointment with a breast cancer surgeon. I went for the works, a bilateral mastectomy. It was my choice, even though I could have had a lumpectomy, I didn’t want to wake up everyday worrying if the doctor had all those sneaky little cells. The good news was that there was no evidence that it had spread to my lymph nodes.

Chemotherapy stinks

My surgeon referred me to an oncologist. I couldn’t have had a better one. Dr Anthony Greco invented the cocktail against breast cancer. It was a mixture of 5-fluorouracil, Cytoxan and methotrexate.

Big words. Scary words. But I trusted him. I knew he was one of the best. In my mind, I always thought I was injecting poison into my body. In a way, I was.

My younger sister, Sherry, took me to every date. We laughed the whole way. Tell jokes and listen to funny tapes. Yes, cassettes were a thing back then.

She would come to my house and bring us fun movies to watch. We laughed hysterically.

I would recommend this book written by Breast Cancer Survivor Christine Clifford to anyone going through chemo and hair loss.

A friend brought me a book, “Not now… I’m going to go a day without hair.” It was humorous for people with cancer. This one particularly resonated with me because my doctor had told me that I would probably lose weight and may not lose my hair on chemo. I lost almost a pound and lost most of my hair.

There is something about losing your hair for us girls that is sort of devastating. The Bible helps make sense of this feeling.

But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory for her: because [her] the hair is given to him for a blanket. 1 Corinthians 11:15

My mother-in-law bought me a sparkly jacket for Christmas and I topped it with a sparkly baseball cap. At this point, I still had a few strands of hair left. Sherry and I made up a common joke about looking like cats had sucked my hair.

I made the most of this “hairless day” of my life by wearing baseball caps. I had them in all colors. My sister and I finally found a wig that looked like my hair before it fell out. Funny thing though, as the weather warmed up wearing the wig irritated me to the point that I went back to baseball caps.

The next chapter

A few months after the end of my chemotherapy treatments, I was ready for reconstructive surgery. This process from start to finish took about three months. The first expanders are inserted and in the coming weeks then filled over time with silicone, saline, or, with today’s advancements, gel.

After some research, I chose a saline solution. I figured that if I ever “leaked” the saline solution would be absorbed into my body, but the silicone in this situation could create other medical problems.

Again, Sherry accompanied me to every appointment. Yes, she was a great support system but, in all fairness, the plastic surgeon was incredibly good-looking, so it wasn’t a huge imposition on her.

After successful reconstructive surgery, I was ready to move on to the next chapter in my life which included a return to television. It turned into a blessing in more ways than one. I have become an advocate for early detection, mammograms and providing support through Relay For Life programs and, due to my career, I have been invited to speak on behalf of cancer patients. and survivors from the southeast.

I’ll tell you what I told groups of 20 to 2000, laughter is the best medicine! One of my favorite quotes, which I have always shared in speaking engagements, is from Jim Valvano, coach of the 1983 state basketball team, who died of glandular cancer. “If you can laugh and think and cry everyday, it’s one hell of a day. You do this seven days a week, you’re gonna have something special.

Cancer rears its ugly head again

I have to admit that for the first two years after surgery and chemotherapy, I was a little anxious, especially around mammograms and follow-up oncology appointments. Eventually those feelings eased and I felt like God had given me a second chance. It was almost like being reborn.

My sister, Sherry, was not so lucky. In 2006, she discovered a lump in the breast. She was diagnosed with lobular cancer. After months of powerful chemotherapy drugs, some experimental, it just wasn’t enough. She died in 2007. She was 45 years old. Sherry was my youngest sister, my best friend, and one of the nicest, strongest women I have ever known. I guess God needed her more than we did.

The Oxford sisters from left to right, Mitzi, Sherry, Angela and Janice. December 1991.

In late 2007, my sister, Angela, had a cancer genetic mutation test for the BRCA2 gene due to our family history. She tested positive, which means she had an 80% chance of developing breast cancer. She decided to have a bilateral mastectomy.

So far our older sister, Janice, has had no signs of breast cancer.

If you have a family history of breast cancer and men can get it too, get tested. Be afraid of what you don’t know, not what you find out!

Lessons learned

Your healthcare provider is a good place to start asking questions, and there are many other great resources, including the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute. If you have a family history of breast cancer, contact The Sister Study, part of the National Institutes for Health, a landmark research effort to find the causes of breast cancer. Knowledge is powerful and can be of great help if you or a loved one is diagnosed.

Here are some other nuggets of wisdom that I have gleaned during my cancer journey and the tribulations of our family medical trauma:

  • Learning to ask questions through my mother’s battle with cancer and my son’s meningitis taught me how to be my best medical case manager.
  • These experiences and my own cancer journey have taught me that life is short and that you have to seize every minute of every day.
  • Breast self-exams are important!
  • Losing your hair is no fun, but better than letting the groundhog deliver your mail.
  • Try to locate the silver liner at every step of the journey.
  • Laugh, think and cry everyday!

If you know someone who is battling breast cancer or any type of cancer, contact them, especially if you are lucky enough to be a member of the Survivor’s Club. They have been where you are or where you are heading. We all need an Amen corner and something to laugh about!

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