By Lorraine Hutchinson
The year 2012 was the best of times and it was the worst of times for me.
In May 2012, after graduating from National University, it seemed that my busy life would slow down and I could catch my breath. In addition to going to school I was managing the Logistics Division of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. As the Deputy Chief of that Division, it was my responsibility to manage the process of purchasing, maintaining and replacing fire stations, apparatus and equipment. Due to limited funding, this position was a very stressful one for me.
But this was soon going to change — after graduation I was voluntarily reassigned to the Operations Division as a shift commander. With this reassignment I was back to shift work, managing the seven battalions that comprise the City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. The best thing about the change in assignments was that I would have more free time and days off to accomplish things in my life that I had let go. One of those things was following up after my annual mammogram.
Before Breast Cancer, Type 2 Diabetes
My health journey started several months before my breast cancer diagnosis. In August 2012, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I had been pre-diabetic for a couple of years but failed to make the necessary changes to prevent this diagnosis. Needless to say, the diagnosis devastated me. I sat in the doctor’s office and tearfully asked. “What can I do?”
You see, I have a family history of diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension. I watched my paternal grandmother control diabetes through diet and exercise. Conversely, my father had not been so diligent and now suffers from many other illnesses because of diabetes. It has been painful to watch him, and from the moment of my diabetes diagnosis I declared that I would not follow that same path.
The doctor told me that losing weight could bring the diabetes under control and probably help me avoid diabetes drugs.
I immediately joined a medically supervised weight loss program as the quickest way to accomplish this. I started a liquid fast (mostly shakes, soup and protein bars) on September 29, 2012, and religiously stuck to it until I received the breast cancer diagnosis on November 6, when I was advised to discontinue the program. In that 6 weeks I had lost 35 pounds, and I have managed to maintain that weight loss.
What I Didn’t Know About Cancer
Back to that really busy time when I was going to school and working in that stressful position: I had gone in for my annual mammogram. Shortly after my appointment, I got a voicemail asking that I return for a follow-up visit, but there was “nothing to worry about,” the voice said. “Just give us a call.”
I’m really ashamed to admit that I didn’t hear anything past “nothing to worry about.” I thought, “I’m too busy, I don’t have a family history, so I know I don’t have cancer.” I couldn’t have been more wrong!
I’ve since learned through my own research that most women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a family history. If a person with my medical background (firefighter, paramedic and a medical assistant before joining the department) can think this way, it certainly happens way more than we know. I hope others will hear my story and learn from it.
‘I Have Cancer’
Months later, when my life finally settled down, I did return for my follow-up mammogram. I had the repeat mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy all in one day. I knew at the time that it didn’t look good. Four days later my worst fear was realized; I was diagnosed with left breast invasive ductal carcinoma.
While it took me some time to adjust to the fact that I HAVE CANCER, it didn’t take me long to realize that this was not the time to break down, but for me to show that strength that I am known for. I needed to take control of the situation by learning as much as I could about this disease and ensuring I get the best care possible. I did not want to die. I hoped that the cancer was caught in time and that it had not spread.
Weeks after undergoing a left breast mastectomy, the pathology report came back and my cancer was typed as Stage I. There were three tumors, with the largest one being 2.0 cm. The other two were 0.5cm and 1.0 cm. Staging is based on the largest tumor. The good news is that the surgeon obtained clear margins, which means that all of the cancer in the breast was presumed to have been removed. There was no cancer in the lymph nodes, which was very good as my type of cancer would tend to spread there first. It was recommended that I have four rounds of chemotherapy due to my age and the fact that there were multiple tumors, and to help ensure if there was cancer anywhere else it would be taken care of.
Sticking to My Weight Loss Program
In the big scheme of things, I believe that my cancer diagnosis could not have come at a better time. I was already in a “healthy” mindset, and for me it always takes a while to get there. When I got the cancer diagnosis and had to discontinue the diabetes weight loss program, I knew that my recently developed healthy lifestyle would help me in this new challenge as well, and it has. It’s a lot easier to stick to a program when your life depends on it. But I will submit that making small consistent changes is definitely a more desirable way to achieve good health.
My A1C Test continues to be normal and shows no signs of diabetes, and this is without any medication. I am completely controlling my diabetes through diet and exercise. I could have done this when I was pre-diabetic, but sometimes it takes a wake-up call. I cannot change what I did, but I can control the present and the future, and if my story helps just one person I can feel good about that.
I credit my survival to my faith in God, my healthcare providers and my family and friends who continue to support me. In a blog post where I updated my support network on my condition, I wrote, “My sincere prayer is that this experience helps me to grow in a positive way, coming out on the other end of this challenge a better person spiritually, emotionally and healthfully. I also want to be a voice for this disease and to help others through my experience.” Little did I know that I would have the opportunity to fulfill this promise so soon and in such a big way.
I have been given an amazing opportunity to represent Susan G. Komen San Diego as their 2014 Survivor of the Year. It is my goal to bring awareness to this disease and the resources that are available. I was astonished to learn that one in eight women in the United States will evendually be diagnosed with breast cancer! Just as disturbing is the fact that while African American women are less likely to develop breast cancer, they are more likely to die from it than women of other ethnicities. Both are staggering statistics and I commend Komen California taking action in the form of an initiative to address disparities at both the system and individual levels. I will use my voice, my face, my story, to assist in this endeavor.
3 Things I Want Women to Know
1. I want to ENCOURAGE women to advocate for their health. Women who are due for a mammogram should get one. We’ve all used the excuses — “I don’t have time,” “I don’t have a family history,” “It’s uncomfortable” — but I am here to say that none of these excuses are acceptable and NONE are worth dying for. Some women are uninsured, underinsured or in some way disenfranchised and cannot afford a mammogram. Susan G. Komen and other breast cancer groups provide free services to qualified women for every step of the breast cancer journey, including diagnostic mammograms, life-saving screenings, surgeries, temporary financial aid for living expenses, meal deliveries, education, outreach, research and more.
2. I want to INSPIRE women by sharing my story of survival. I am in better health today than I was before my cancer diagnosis. No one wishes to have cancer but I do believe that the diabetes and cancer diagnoses woke me up to serious health issues. I remain diabetes- and cancer-free and I hope to inspire others to take control of their health. It’s work but it’s worth it.
3. I want to MOTIVATE anyone hearing my story that regardless of the challenges or adversities you face, focus on the positive and try to make every day count. Going through tough times built inner strength and character. I have been a firefighter for 24 years and advanced through the ranks of firefighter, engineer, captain, battalion chief and now deputy chief. Those are significant accomplishments by anyone’s standards for an African American woman in a predominantly male profession. However, nothing compares to the accomplishment of having survived breast cancer.
I choose not to dwell on the negative side of cancer — losing a breast, the lasting effects of chemotherapy, or the psychological issues (low self-esteem, low confidence, depression, etc.) associated with breast cancer. Early on, I vowed that I would beat this and then I would help others. I continue to work on self-improvement as it is a continuous process. Most importantly, tomorrow is not promised so I must make each day count. When the going gets tough, push harder!