Chai Survivor – Celebrating 18 years and turning 50
By: Bonnie Stein, Sharsheret Peer Supporter
I do not believe my story to be unique, my journey special or my life inspiring, even though for years people have been telling me just that. I will admit that being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 at the age of 32, the mother of two small children (then ages 5 and 3), married for nine years, and working full-time outside the home did put me in a club that I was not looking to join, where few others my age were to be found.
Have you heard of people having a sixth sense? That is the only explanation I can think of for the fact that I received a mammogram at such a young age. I had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right and after calling my internist to inquire why women should wait until they are 35 to receive this test; my doctor chose to think outside the box and send me for a mammogram based on my instincts. On April 21st, 1992 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three days later, I had a modified radical mastectomy with 16 lymph nodes removed. Two positive nodes were found, which put me at Stage 2, but other than that my body was completely clear of any cancer. It was ironic hearing medical personnel continually call me an “otherwise healthy 32 year-old.” On April 26th I was released from the hospital with drainage tubes. The next day my daughter came down with chicken pox and two days later, my son began the itch. I went from patient mode to mother mode and never looked back.
Enduring eight months of chemotherapy (my doctor warned me that it would be very aggressive because he never wanted me walking through his doors again), one hospital stay, one blood transfusion, and enough viral and bacterial infections to last a lifetime, I had learned things about myself, my husband, my family, and my friends that would make me look back at this time and actually be grateful.
December 1992 marked the end of chemotherapy and beginning of preparations for plastic surgery. In an ironic twist, silicone implants had just been taken off the market for all breast reconstruction “except for breast cancer patients.” My doctor and I actually laughed when he told me this as we wondered what message was embedded in that sentiment. Needless to say, I chose the saline implants. Today there are so many options and so many advancements in treatment that it can almost be tailor-made to each situation.
I did not survive breast cancer – I lived it and lived my life every day. I made a commitment to my family that we would not let this define me or us. We would continue to do everything we always did. I would not miss a concert, recital, school conference or work. With the help of family and friends, we thrived and I would like to think I set an example of empowerment for all of them. Today, my children are 23 and 21 years-old. My son goes to the doctor regularly and listens to his body. My daughter is very knowledgeable about breast cancer and Jewish genetic diseases. She is proactive with her own health care and knows the importance of regular check-ups.
While attending the University of Wisconsin, my daughter joined the Jewish sorority AEPhi. As it happens, Sharsheret is AEPhi’s national philanthropy and as soon as my daughter told me about the organization and how she raised breast cancer awareness on campus, I immediately went online to find out how I could get involved. I signed up as a peer supporter and hope to help other women facing breast cancer through sharing my own experience.
My husband and I will celebrate, and we always celebrate good things, 28 years of marriage this August. It has been 18 years since that April day when I had my breast removed. My sister-in-law asked me a day before my surgery, “How do you feel about having your breast removed?,” and my answer was and would still be, “They can take my arm, leg or any other body part, because that is all they are, body parts. I just want to be here to see my kids graduate high school.” Well, I made it and I’m looking forward to weddings and grandchildren!