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"This summer I’ve reached an important milestone: I am officially a five year breast cancer survivor! I was rather young to be diagnosed with breast cancer: age 37. Although most American women do not undergo mammograms or other screening for breast cancer before the age of 40, my obstetrician/gynecologist recommended earlier screening for me due to my family history of the disease. My mother and aunt had both been diagnosed with premenopausal breast cancer. Thus, I had my first 'baseline' mammogram at age 30, prior to becoming pregnant. After pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding of my two children, I began regular yearly mammograms at age 34.

"At age 37, my annual spring-time mammogram detected a few areas of concern throughout my left breast. I was directed to immediately schedule an appointment with a breast surgeon, who recommended an excisional biopsy. I had my biopsy, and within a week my surgeon called to tell me the results: 'Unfortunately they did find something,' she said. Still, I felt very, very lucky that it was an extremely early stage diagnosis (DCIS). I will always be thankful for the advice I received from my ob/gyn to begin undergoing yearly mammograms in my 30’s. If not for this advice, my cancer might not have been detected until large enough to feel by breast self-exam.

"Upon receiving the news, I scheduled appointments with a genetic counselor, a radiation oncologist, and two different reconstruction surgeons for consultations. Everyone was in agreement: the best course of action for me would be a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction with implants. Within three weeks of my biopsy, I underwent a double mastectomy and placement of tissue expanders. Over the next two months I had my expanders gradually filled, and then in the fall of that year I had my exchange surgery for permanent silicone implants.

"Now, at 42, my diagnosis and treatment are just a part of my history, a hurdle successfully leaped and diminishing in my rear-view mirror. At times, I even hesitate to call myself a 'Survivor' because I feel so lucky in my early-stage diagnosis and (mostly) uncomplicated recovery. And yet, the breast cancer experience very much informs who I am today. This past year has been a very tumultuous time for me. I am in the process of a divorce, and therefore I’ve been confronted with the challenge of reconfiguring my own identity -- a paradigm shift in the way I view myself. Throughout this experience, however, I find myself constantly reminding myself that, just as I survived the shock, physical trauma and emotional upheaval of breast cancer, I will get through this difficult period in my life. There is a great strength derived from the knowledge that yes, I AM a Survivor, and I intend to survive this and whatever future challenges the universe presents to me.

"I recently heard myself saying, 'I’m tougher now than I used to be,' in conversation. When the words tumbled out of my mouth, I was surprised to hear myself say it out loud, but upon reflection, it’s very true. When I was diagnosed, my daughters were quite young: ages 4 and 7. I was so very worried about what to share with them, and when. I fretted about how my growing daughters would react to my body. How does one explain the concept of breast reconstruction to a four year-old? The answer for me was: one doesn’t. As my daughters grew older, however, I gradually explained more of the details of my treatment and reconstruction. They easily accepted it, as children do, and I found that I had wasted so much time worrying about this issue for no reason. What had seemed like an insurmountable problem at the time turned out to be quite easily resolved, and I learned a valuable lesson about what is worth worrying about, and what isn’t.

"Since my diagnosis I’ve also gained a tremendous amount of self-confidence about my body. To anyone who doesn’t know about my experience, my body appears the same as it did before my diagnosis. But I am now so grateful for this body I have. I am hyper-aware that the breasts I now have are 'replacement parts' and I am so very thankful for them. I understand that outward beauty, like everything in life, is fleeting, and I feel that I’ve earned the right to own my beauty, such as it is, and even, at times, to flaunt it. I’ve made a conscious decision to celebrate what I’ve got, today, because what tomorrow brings may be most unexpected.

"When I was diagnosed, I felt very strongly that I wanted to handle the challenge of breast cancer with as much grace and dignity as possible. Today, I find myself expressing that same wish: to get through my current life challenges as gracefully as I can. So I wear my pink wrist band, the one that says 'STRENGTH' as a reminder that I survived once before, and I intend to survive whatever is next.

--Anonymous - Pennsylvania, United States

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