First person

Thank you to those who’ve lifted me up through breast cancer treatment

 

atorres@MiamiHerald.com

My brother’s friend flashed a smile when he saw me. I had not seen him in about three years and I felt butterflies in my stomach. He talked about his new life as the single dad of a 10-month-old boy. I did my best to summarize my ordeal after my Aug. 1, 2011, breast cancer diagnosis.

“Wait, what? Cancer?” His eyes opened up like he had seen a ghost. “I didn’t know you had gone through all of that.”

As we were getting ready to say good bye, he asked me if I was dating anyone. I said I had been dating, but did not feel ready for physical or emotional intimacy. There were scars left over from the bilateral mastectomy, surgery to remove my breasts. I have temporary implants and I’m set to undergo reconstruction surgery at the end of this year. And then there were the issues with fertility.

“It’s all very superficial . Real dating means complications. How do I explain these things to a new guy? And I have to explain it to them, because it wouldn’t be fair to anyone if I didn’t.”

He frowned. “That’s nonsense.”

Despite my fears, I agreed to go out on a date with him and met his son. Fear can deny us sparkly moments. Cancer has taught me more about life than death this year. While cancer treatment is painful and scary, we agree to go through it because it means more time with our loved ones. And because life is a beautiful adventure.

Cancer and the remnants of surviving treatment at 33 can make one feel less beautiful and capable. And the fear of a recurrence can be paralyzing. But I have promised myself that I’m going to live with courage.

After nine years with The Miami Herald, I’m looking forward to tackling a new challenge. I will be starting a job with Post-Newsweek station WPLG Local 10 as an assignment editor. When I announced the change on social media, a cancer survivor from Memphis, who has been following my journey since 2011, sent me a message:

“Hey, you continue living while you are living and don’t you dare let fear stop you. You have gone through too much to allow it.’’

Before making the decision to change jobs, I had two physical exams and an ultrasound, just in case. One of the doctors — whose mother and sister both survived breast cancer — seemed excited and said I was ready for my new job.

“This is great! You are going to do great,’’ she said. “It saddens me when I see cancer survivors who are too afraid to live, or feel like they are not deserving of love or new opportunities. They are not dead, but they are so depressed that it is as if they were.”

Today that is not me. I’m still passionate about journalism, and I’m determined to love myself with compassion. I went through a difficult experience that changed me, but I didn’t go through it alone. You and many other Miami Herald readers were there with me every step of the way.

While I have had family members who have yet to call me, there was a woman from Tokyo who wrote: “Stay strong. It will pass and you will wake up one day healthy again.’’

And there was a man from New York City who wrote: “You remind me of my ex-wife. She died because she refused to get a mastectomy. Don’t make that mistake. A man will love you for you and not for your breast.’’

And then there was the woman from Coral Gables, who was in her 80s. I think about her often. She said she survived cancer in her 40s and that “she was loving life’’ every day.

“It is likely that you will survive and you will live for many years,” she said. “There is also the possibility that one day, I will have to read your obituary. Everyone suffers from a disease called death. There is no cure, so my dear, you have to live every minute to the fullest.’’

Thank you. Thank you for your letters, calls and social media messages. Thank you for walking up to me in public places like the supermarket, gas station and the gym to tell me that you have read my stories. Your words of encouragement will continue to lift me up, as I enter a new stage of my life.

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