First Person

Reentry into the world after breast cancer treatment

 

atorres@MiamiHerald.com

The body image issues continued. How could they not? After breast cancer treatment, the woman in the mirror looked like a damaged mannequin. And even with breast implants, I felt like a creature that belonged on a different planet.

“I pity the guy who checks me out and dares to come up to me,” I told a guy friend over a text message. And when he asked why, I replied, “It’s like feeling sorry for a man who hits on a drag queen thinking he is a she.” He said I didn’t make any sense.

Three weeks after radiation therapy had ended, the injuries in my chest were starting to look like a sunburn. And nearly four months after the last chemo, my eyelashes were back, my nails were starting to grow stronger and my head had enough hair for people to assume that I was going for a rebellious punk look.

Never has the link to beauty and health been more obvious. I weighed 144 pounds; my ideal is 125. I hadn’t exercised in months, so I decided to show up to a spinning class at a gym in Miami Beach. I walked out of the class after 15 minutes and nearly fainted while walking back home.

“Are you kidding me? Why would you do that?” a friend asked. “You are not well. You really need to take care of yourself. Yes, now you don’t have to go to the hospital as often. Let’s keep it that way.”

She was right.

The past five months had felt like some one had thrown me into a pool, and I had been doing my best to swim back to the surface. But as much as I wanted to think that I was getting closer to the surface, I wasn’t.

I was in the gray zone. My energy level was low, but I was healthy enough to return to work part-time, and as I attempted to do so, I caught a nasty throat infection. I love and admire my co-workers. I wanted to hug, shake hands. A few days later, I had a fever. I showed up to Dr. Alicia Rodriguez-Jorge’s office without a voice.

She had not seen me since she had given me the green light for chemotherapy last year. As I attempted to whisper my course of treatment, I covered my face with both hands and broke down in tears. I couldn’t believe I had gone through everything I had gone through. I was terrified. I didn’t want to suffer any more.

“What’s important is that you survived,” said Rodriguez-Jorge, who has a private practice near Mercy Hospital in Coconut Grove. “If there was a good time to get cancer, this was the time. You are young, and have a capacity to recover. Not everybody does.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 229,060 new cases will be diagnosed in the United States in 2012. One in 31 women will die.

“You can slowly increase your level of activity. You can start doing some weight training to work out your legs when you start to feel better. No spinning yet,” said Rodriguez-Jorge. “Pneumonia is not uncommon after treatment. You need to get some rest.” She sent me to get a chest X-ray, lab work and antibiotics.

Before the cancer treatment, Valentine’s Day week would have been a busy one. I would have worked long hours. I also would have networked at the Social Media Miami conference, celebrated my brother’s birthday, gone to the boat show in Miami Beach, people watched at Premios Lo Nuestro in downtown and explored the Coconut Grove Arts Festival.

Now, thinking about the old me felt like I was thinking about a stranger.

Not many knew she was 33. She lived the life with the intensity of a healthy 23-year-old. She never thought about death. She enjoyed traveling alone, hiking, skydiving, paragliding and rollercoasters. Her approach to beauty was effortless. She wore lip gloss and flats during the day, high-heels and dark eye shadow at night. She wore her long dark brown hair to work in a bun. She usually dressed in black pants, black dresses, and rarely wore bright colors. She didn’t like pink.

She never thought about cancer. After years of being a vegetarian, she started to eat chicken. She loved energy drinks and coffee — specially caramel macchiato. She smoked “lights” or “menthols” occasionally.

She went from not drinking alcohol for seven years to drinking socially. Then stopped drinking again. And then while holding a rosé, she met a man who felt like magic. She guarded her independence zealously. She wanted a family but she wasn’t worried about time. Until one day everything changed.

“What’s wrong? I can hear it in your voice. Something is really wrong,” he said. She told him she had something important to tell him in person when he got back. “We haven’t been together very long, but if you are pregnant that’s good news,” he said jokingly.

“No, that’s not it.” Fate would not have it that way.

“I miss you. I’ve had a crazy week ... I can’t wait to kiss you,” he said. She didn’t say anything. She had decided she was going to break up with him. She had cancer. And even if she survived, her life would never be the same.

MY JOURNEY

Part 1: At age 33, I’m dealing with breast cancer

Part 2: Cancer treatment complicates dreams of pregnancy

Part 3: Hanging in when chemotherapy gets rough

Part 4: Tough surgery choices: Mastectomy vs. Lumpectomy

Part 5: Silicone implans are not the only way to go in breast reconstruction

Part 6: Rebuilding the breast from body tissue

Part 7: Body fat can be used to build breast

Part 8: Facing my fears after mastectomy

Part 9: Taking control of the fear that comes with breast cancer

Part 10: Doctor knows about being a breast cancer survivor

Part 11: Radiation therapy gives her hope

Part 12: Finding strength from others

Part 13: Facebook, medication help breast cancer patient deal with depression

Part 14: A new outlook on 2012

Part 15: Breast cancer patient faces genetic mystery

Part 16: Using diversion to cope with harsh reality

Part 17: After radiation therapy ends

Part 18: Friend’s breast cancer journey is not as fortunate

Part 19: Anti-tumor meds come with scary story

From the Editor: Journalist confronts cancer, takes readers along

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