Breast Cancer: One Survivor's Story
When 30-year-old Melinda Dee was told she had breast cancer, she was angry. Angry, because she had gone through treatment for cancer before. When Melinda was 17 years old, she developed Hodgkin's disease. "I was told then that the radiation treatments would place me at a higher risk for developing breast cancer. But, I never believed it would happen to me."
"I thought I had had my share," she explains. "I was so mad when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It just seemed crazy to me," states Melinda. "The treatment that had cured my earlier cancer had now caused this cancer."
But, Melinda also felt thankful. She was thankful that her Newton-Wellesley gynecologist, Sibel Bessim, M.D., knew about the threat that radiation posed for teenagers with Hodgkin's. Dr. Bessim wanted Melinda to have a mammogram at her six-week appointment following the birth of her first and only child. She did, and it was positive.
Melinda was diagnosed with stage two ductal carcinoma in two areas of her right breast. Cancer was also present in four out of twelve lymph nodes she eventually had removed. There was a 50% to 70% chance that, even after surgery and treatment on her right breast, cancer would eventually develop in her left breast. Those odds were daunting. With her husband, Melinda made the decision to have both breasts removed and to have breast reconstruction surgery with implants. "I didn't want to take the chance of the cancer affecting my other breast. I also didn't want to be in a place of constantly wondering if or when that would happen. I wanted to deal with it all and get it over with," she explains. Her surgery was followed with chemotherapy at Newton-Wellesley Hospital where she had chosen Caroline Block, M.D. as her oncologist.
Quite quickly, the anger Melinda initially felt was transformed into a very motivated, "fighting back" attitude. "I had beaten this once before, and I was going to do it again," she says. Her resolve was bolstered by the fact that she had a new baby who needed her to be well - both physically and emotionally.
Melinda Dee gives credit for her success in going through this process to Dr. Bessim, Dr. Block, her parents, her husband, and his family. She got exactly what she needed from them all.
"I needed women doctors because I felt they could really appreciate what I was going through. I also needed doctors who were up-to-date with the latest technologies and research about my condition", she says. "At one point", Melinda explains, "I had consulted with an older doctor who I didn't feel comfortable with. Not so much because of his age, but I got the impression that he just was not knowledgeable in terms of the most current information."
Melinda, on the other hand, was knowledgeable. In fact, her first piece of advice for anyone diagnosed with cancer is to, "research, research, and research." "It was empowering for me to educate myself about everything related to the cancer. Doing so, allowed me to not only feel in control, but to know what questions to ask of my doctors, and to be able to understand their answers. If their answers were too much 'doctor speak', I just kept asking the questions over again until they explained to me in language and concepts I could understand," she states.
What did Melinda want from her family and friends?
"I didn't want anyone to feel sorry for me," she says. "I wanted their help with going on with our lives and the things that were normal for us before I knew I had cancer," she explains. "I also needed it to be okay for me to be feeling whatever I was feeling at any given time - anger, sadness, or fear. I just needed listening. I also needed support. What felt supportive was my family helping me network to find the best resources".
Wanting her daughter to be as unaffected as possible from her illness was a major concern for Melinda. Her own mother and father recognized this and helped her keep her daughter's environment stable. "My Mom is a teacher in Pennsylvania. Because of her schedule, she was able to come here for the summer -- just after my surgery and while I was going through chemo. It was a tremendous support."
Melinda's husband comes from a big family -- seven siblings! "One of the things that his sister organized, was our entire family walking with me in a five mile Cancer Society walk. I felt so much support from that," she exclaims. "I wasn't alone. My battle was their battle. Everyone was in it with me. That was tremendously supportive," states Melinda.
Now 35 years old, this human resources specialist with a Boston investment firm, is more than willing to talk candidly about her experiences with cancer. Her daughter is nearly 5 years old, and Melinda is nearing 5 years of being clear of any cancer. She volunteers with the American Cancer Society, and suggests that women diagnosed with breast cancer become involved with one of the numerous support groups offered through a variety of sources. "It is very important to meet and talk with other women who are going through the same questions, thoughts, feelings and experiences that you are."
How has breast cancer changed Melinda's, life?
"I actually now see both of my cancers as gifts," she states. "The result of having Hodgkin's at 17, made me realize that life and every person is precious - not something to be wasted and unappreciated. The experience with breast cancer has enhanced that view. I now look and see beneath the surface of things, especially people and their behaviors. I tend to see the suffering that many people experience, and how it is at the root of behaviors we tend to recoil from. I now make an extra effort to try to understand what is really going on with someone - to listen, to discover what they need, and to see if I can give anything that might help."
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