Hello everyone. Thank you for inviting me here tonight. I am honored to be back at my Alma Mater. It has certainly changed a lot since 1991. I have never spoke to a group before so please bear with me. I will probably shed some tears as I speak and my husband said he would finish it for me if need be.
I want to start with a little humor a cousin sent me on face book:
We flash them, we smash them
We push them way up…
We shake them, we stuff them
In the wrong sized cup…
Our husbands all crave them,
Our children have drained them
Some of us have even named them…
We go through our lives and
Knock them about..
One thing is certain…
One thing I must shout…
Our boobies have been there
Through thick and through thin
And life is too precious to
Let cancer win
Seriously, though, cancer sucks. But I’m living proof that you can get through to the other side of cancer.
I am here tonight with my husband, Bob, and my beautiful niece, Jackie. Bob has been my rock of support. At times, when I fell down and didn’t think I had the strength to get back up, Bob was there nudging me along and picking me up. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come here and speak tonight. But Bob and a very close friend of ours convinced me I should. A friend of ours had died that day from cancer at the young age of 47. That kind of news hit me deep in my heart and I realized they were right. I needed to be here tonight. I then told them I would probably cry and they said there was nothing wrong with that.
I was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer on January 23, 2012. My life was forever changed in a split second. I will always remember that ordinary Monday night. The doctor called and I heard his voice say, “I’m so sorry to tell you, but you have breast cancer.” I collapsed to the floor when I heard those words. My husband was there to pick me up and wrap his arms around me. He has stood beside me every step of the way and he continues his support.
It’s so very hard to describe the fear. It was all consuming and I could feel my life spiral out of control. I later wrote a poem about those 5 minutes. Imagine driving 100mph down the highway and a concrete wall suddenly pops up. You have to push on the brakes with both feet and pray that you don’t die. That is cancer saying hello.
At first we were so overloaded with information. Thank God Bob is so level-headed and calm in a crisis. I am just the opposite. I only remembered about 20% of the information the doctor told us.
My cancer journey started with a routine mammogram. If my doctor hadn’t insisted on a baseline at 35 and yearly starting at age 40, I would not be here tonight as a survivor. My tumor could not be felt by me or my doctor. The mammogram found it. My doctor thought it was calcification and I only had a 1 in 5 chance it was cancer.
Triple Negative Breast Cancer is very aggressive, especially in younger women. I was glad to hear I am still considered young! To all the women in this room, know your family history, get checked, have the women in your family checked. I discovered that many of my friends over 40 had never had a mammogram. If you take no other information from me tonight, take this one: Mammograms save lives. It saved mine.
I had 3 surgeries, an MRI, Ct scan, Bone Scan, all sorts of blood work, and a lot of poking and prodding all in a six week time span. Then came chemotherapy. 16 rounds of chemo followed by 33 radiation treatments. There were a ton of side effects and many are still with me today, but they are a reminder that I won. I won’t bore you with all the details of my treatments, but it was a roller coaster ride. There were many days I felt as low as I could ever go. The unknown can grip and paralyze. There was a day before I started chemo that I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. I sat on the bathroom floor and cried. I prayed for strength, for something, anything that would get me through that stage of my journey. Looking back, I do believe I had to reach the bottom before I could start the climb.
So many people would tell me: stay strong, stay positive. Those can be the most annoying words for a cancer patient. Of course we want that! But that is not what we want to hear. Tell me you love me, tell me you will be there holding my hand, tell me you will hold me close when I need to cry, tell me when I fall down you will pick me back up, tell me you will be there every step of the way not just when it is convenient for you. Cancer did teach me that there are friends and that there are friends who show up. My best friend, Dawn, and I would always say there is a reason for everything and someday everything will all make perfect sense. So for now, laugh at the confusion and smile through the tears. She was there every day along with Bob. She would send me an inspirational message every single day and I wrote them all down in a notebook. Here are some of them:
You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.
The human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it.
Tough times never last, but tough people do
It’s okay to cry and show weakness. Strength can be born from the tears we shed .
Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.
Now cancer can do many things. Here are a few:
Cancer awoke in me my love of writing. I had actually forgotten about having a writing minor. Life gets busy and some things disappear. But one of the first things I did after my diagnosis was to grab a notebook and start writing. I would write about how I was feeling in any given moment, fear, hope, lines to my future poems, faith, how each test made me feel, chemo, anything and everything. I could put my true emotions on a piece of paper and I didn’t feel as weighed down.
Cancer makes me more thankful for everything.
Cancer has taught me compassion.
Cancer has helped me to forgive.
Cancer has shown me that there are still good people out there.
Cancer has introduced me to a support group of women who I’m proud to call my friends.
Cancer has shown me how much my family and friends love me.
Cancer has shown me that prayer does work.
I have learned that if God brings you to it, He will bring you through it.
Cancer has shown me that there is always hope, no matter how deep you may sink.
Cancer gives you courage. That courage is still being afraid, but going on anyway.
Cancer makes you tough.
Cancer brings to the surface strength you never knew you had.
Cancer gives you the determination you need to persevere.
Cancer is a word, not a death sentence.
The Will of God will never take you where the Grace of God will not protect you.
Moments of weakness prove we are all human, but does not prove we are weak.
Life is precious, enjoy it every day.
I have made peace with the things I cannot change.
Never under estimate the love of a good man.
Cancer made me take control of my life back! I took the road blocks and made them stepping stones.
Sometimes I look at what cancer took from me. But I also look at what I wouldn’t let cancer take:
I was able to be there for the birth of my granddaughter and I will be able to watch her grow up. There are so many things to look forward to. Life goes on but I do believe cancer will always be a part of my life. I feel strongly about trying to find a way to pay it forward every day.
I look at how lucky I am. Ithaca has an excellent Oncology staff and I could be treated and stay at home with no need to travel. I am cancer free with the help of people like the ones in this room tonight. You are the ones who unselfishly give of your time and money to help save me, a complete stranger. Never under-estimate the impact each one of you is making.
Here I stand before all of you a year after finishing treatment. My life will never go back to what it was before cancer, but that is ok with me. I have a new normal now. Cancer has made me a better friend, a better person. There is still that thought buried in my brain that cancer could return. But I think of all the good there is to live for. There are women being diagnosed every day and I truly hope they will have a strong support system like I have had. My family, my friends, my co-workers, my employer, they all played an important role. I am proud to wear pink for them and for myself.
I had a tattoo drawn especially for me to symbolize my victory over cancer. I have had critics ask why do I wear my heart on my sleeve? I tell those people that they could never understand unless they walked in my shoes. Every time I look at my arm, I am reminded not of cancer, but of the love of family and friends, the support of strangers who became my friends, and the faith of a compassionate God. But most of all the strength and determination I had and still have.
Thank you so much for inviting me to share my story.
I’m a survivor…a living example of what people can go through and survive. And I am stronger than cancer.
Karen M. Fries
Ithaca College “Save the Boo-Bees” Event
Colleges Against Cancer
October 22, 2013