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Living With It: Breast Cancer Is a Lifetime Diagnosis

I detest Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Before my stage IIIC inflammatory breast cancer diagnosis, I was like most people—vaguely mindful that I should get a mammogram, donating to "the cause," and aware that pink ribbons meant breast cancer. I thought that breast cancer was not that big of a deal. If you get it, catch it early, and you'll be OK. It was not a big concern. The reality is that nearly 40,000 women and men will die of breast cancer this year.

Pink ribbon culture doesn't paint an entirely accurate picture.

When I faced my breast cancer diagnosis in 2007, I discovered what an inaccurate picture I had in my mind. I was very blessed to have incredible support from my community. I was a single mom, and people cared for my young children, brought meals, ran errands, and did many other things that I didn't even know to ask for. The one thing that I had to do alone was face the terror. When all your friends have absorbed the pink-ribbon message and assume that you'll be OK, you face the terror alone. My odds of making it to the 5-year mark were less than 40 percent. I didn't know that at the time, but I knew I was scared. I was diagnosed when I was 45 years old. My 50th birthday was the best of my life.

Breast cancer has a high incidence of recurrence.

What many people don't realize is that breast cancer bites back. Breast cancer can recur decades later. What's good and bad about an aggressive cancer like the one I had is that it usually bites back quickly. That means that the first 3 years are scary, and then we can breathe a little easier. The threat never really goes away; it just recedes into the background on good days.

Statistically speaking, I will always be living with breast cancer. I am NED, no evidence of disease. My doctor thinks I'm cured, but I will always be under surveillance. The little aches and pains most people don't worry about will always scare me until I talk with my oncologist. I face the reminders daily: the scar on my chest, the awareness that if I overuse my left arm it will swell up, the occasional brain fog that swallows short-term memory. Even so, I got off easy. After eight months of intense treatment and another four months of milder chemotherapy, I was able to slowly get back to my life. So many others aren't so fortunate. These are not the faces we see during "Pinktober", as so many of us call it.

October is breast cancer "In Your Face!" month for survivors.

With each passing year, I achieve more days of being able to forget about breast cancer. Most days are like that now, except October. Every October, breast cancer is in my face everywhere I go. It's at the grocery store, inviting me to donate to "breast cancer charities" that none of the staff can identify. It's on Facebook, as the little virtual bra goes flying through the pages of my friends, and I let it pass. Where's the "foob" (that's what we call our fakes)? That's not a pink and pretty story.

Breast cancer is a lifetime diagnosis, and real breast cancer awareness should happen all year long. In the meantime, I'll do my best to hide during the month of October.

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