Mine is a story of healing. And of hope.
In November 2007 I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. The triple-negative diagnosis simply means that the cancer cells tested negative for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and HER2. Approximately two out of every three breast cancers test positive for hormone receptors. And about 20-30% test positive for HER2 receptors. Triple-negative breast cancer is rare (about 10-20% of all breast cancers) and it is aggressive.
The bad news about triple-negative breast cancer are the many statistics that make it pretty scary. It is typically found in women in their 30’s and 40’s. I was 43. Women don’t start having annual mammograms until they are 40 so if you are in your 30’s it was probably found when you could finally feel a lump. Given its aggressive nature you can go from a clean mammogram one year to Stage III cancer the next. Statistically, triple-negative breast cancer is most likely staged at three, which means cancer is in your lymph nodes. And it means the tumor is more than 2 mm in size. It also has a high rate of recurrence in the first three years after treatment. Thankfully I did not know any of this until after my treatment and my doctors declared “no evidence of disease.”
Given its triple-negative nature, triple-negative breast cancer does not respond to hormonal therapy or Herceptin (a therapy that targets HER2 receptors). Triple-negative breast cancer is typically treated with chemotherapy and radiation; both of which I received. But my story does not begin with my diagnosis and treatment plan. It began months before.
My friend “P” is a very spiritual man. I would not call him religious in the sense of following a strict doctrine of a particular religion. Rather, he is a man of deep convictions and Christian faith that embraces many life style choices of the Buddhist faith. His faith, convictions and prayer life are holistic and consistent. He started praying for me months before the October doctor’s appointment that would change my life.
The most difficult phone call I had to make was the one to my mother. I received the official news on a Friday and did not call her until the following Saturday. About eight days. It seemed like a month. How do you say the words “I have breast cancer” to your mother? [My husband had been with me the whole time so I never had to say those words to him. The fact that he had been with me at that initial conversation with the doctor is another miracle of God’s hand. But that's another story]. My mother is also a very religious person. More than that, she belongs to a church that has the gift of prayer. Well, my mother has the gift of prayer as well. I tell people that if she is praying for you, God is listening!
So after breaking the news to Mom that Saturday morning she went to church the next day and wrote a simple prayer request to put in the prayer box: “For Heather who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.” The church does not care who you are, or even if you specify your need. They pray. And God listens.
My husband’s home church, the one he grew up in, also prayed. They still pray for me and my health. In the end I had dozens of people praying for me; some I don’t even know. God heard voices from all over New England asking that I be healed.
I surely should have received bad news because looking back I realize I had symptoms that I did not identify with breast cancer. After all, it wasn’t in my family history. Also, the symptoms subsided. But I think about those symptoms and the statistics associated with a triple-negative diagnosis and I realize it could have been worse. I was ultimately diagnosed with Stage I cancer.
About 18 months after my treatments were finished I asked P if he had known what was wrong or did he simply know something was not right. He told me that all he knew was that something was wrong so he prayed. Yes, prayers before a tragedy that protected me from the worst possible diagnosis. And prayers during treatment. It should have been worse. Even my doctors are amazed at how well I did. The truth is, it is difficult to write about being touched by the hand of God; even though I have told my story to numerous individuals. But here it is.RESOURCES: www.breastcancer.org; www.tnbcfoundation.org; www.cancer.org