First Person

Breast cancer experience shapes new values, priorities

 

Staff writer Andrea Torres chronicles her breast cancer experiences in Tropical Life. Read past columns at MiamiHerald.com/health.

atorres@MiamiHerald.com

Wednesday marks the first anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis.

This year has been one of transformation. Yes, my health and body have changed significantly, but so has my approach to living and to developing meaningful relationships in my life.

Albert Einstein was right when he said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.”

The suffering during treatment has molded my values. The meanings of the words “problem,” “urgent,” and “important” have changed. And my priorities have a new, healthier order. I have learned that balance is important.

After the first chemotherapy, it became clear that it was going to be impossible to maintain the 24/7 approach I took to my job, which I loved.

“I can’t see clearly. I am in pain. I don’t have energy. There is no way I can work from home,” I told a Miami Herald editor a few days after my first chemotherapy. I returned to the newsroom six months later, with a more balanced outlook. I now break for meals, go for walks and turn off my phone when I’m not on duty.

During chemo and radiation, I had a lot of time to think while I rested at home. Einstein has become one of my favorite historical figures. For him, time was not uniform and absolute. In 1955, when a friend died, he wrote, “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

My perception of death has also changed. It no longer feels like a distant reality. I now like the colorful Mexican skulls that painter Frida Kahlo adored. Their bold colors and flowing designs do not speak of fear of mortality, but of an acceptance of the inevitable.

My relationships have also changed.

Prior to my cancer, my younger brother and I had a distant relationship. Today, we talk frequently and get together at least once a week. We now touch upon difficult subjects and regularly express our feelings, a complete change.

I’ve also let go of expectations. The truth is that a helping hand doesn’t always come from the people you expect. During this process, I had many relationships end and new ones begin, often unexpectedly.

It wasn’t my family or friends who got me to call my gynecologist after I found the lump. It was two honest strangers I ran into while doing one of my least favorite things, standing in line.

While at the cafeteria at work, I met a woman who had long blond hair and looked like an energetic sales person. I didn’t know then what I know now — cancer is a silent killer. She was wearing a white hospital wristband like the one I would later wear for months. I asked her why she was wearing it.

“I have breast cancer,” she said. “They are doing tests, so since I have to go back to the hospital, I am not taking it off.”

I ran into the second stranger a few days later at Walt Disney World. She was young and bald. It was hot. She wasn’t hiding her condition with a hat or a wig. She didn’t look like the type who would choose to shave her head as a fashion statement. I noticed a pink ribbon on her shirt.

I realized you could be young, full of life and have cancer.

That Monday, I called my doctor.

Years ago, I had chosen Dr. Edward Michael Fidalgo as my gynecologist because he had an office close to my home on Key Biscayne, and he had a good reputation. I didn’t know then that he was a cancer survivor who had lost his fertility at a young age. I also didn’t know that his nurse, Ileana Caballero, also was a breast cancer survivor.

When I called to tell them about the irregularity in my left breast, they sent me to get a mammogram right away.Testsrevealed that the cancer had spread to my lymphatic system, but not to other organs. Fidalgo and Caballero saved my life.

My experience with cancer has taught me that human suffering is a powerful motivator. This year, I lost many things, but not my faith in science and innovation.

We have mourned many cancer deaths recently, but none more painful than Steve Jobs, who died of pancreatic cancer.

When the Apple inventor died at age 56 in October, I was getting chemotherapy. Jobs’ son Reed set an example. Instead of drowning in pain, he focused on becoming a cancer expert at Stanford University.

I hope to live to see him reach his goal.

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