By Sharon Napolitano
October Is Breast Cancer Awareness Month . . .The American Cancer Society estimates that about 231,840 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the United States in 2015. Sharon Napolitano, a Connecticut Children’s employee, is one of those women. As a new breast cancer survivor, Sharon shares her personal journey with breast cancer and the courage, hope and support she has found along the way.
A cancer diagnosis is a life-changer. Whether it affects someone you love or it affects you personally, it can change your life in an instant. Like a sucker-punch to the gut, a cancer diagnosis can take your breath away and set in motion some of the worst fears imaginable.
It can also redirect and redefine your life and help you realize what is most important.
When I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in March of this year, the news couldn’t have been more unexpected or more frightening. As a former health magazine editor, I had written about breast cancer and other forms of cancer for years, interviewing medical professionals, patients and survivors.
As Communications Manager at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center Foundation since 2012, I have gone on to meet and write about many other courageous patients and families touched by cancer. I just never expected that I would one day be among those with a story to tell.
Poster Child for Mammograms
Like a “Poster Child” for mammograms, I had been undergoing annual screening mammograms with follow-up ultrasounds for years. I was never thrilled with the two-step process that always required two separate appointments, but I went to both without fail. As someone who had “dense breasts,” my mammogram films were harder to read, necessitating the more aggressive screening plan.
For years, I left these appointments without trepidation, but all of that changed in February 2015. This time, something was different – and it needed to be confirmed by biopsy. On March 5th, my worst fears were realized when I was told that I had a cancerous tumor in my left breast with lymph node involvement. This meant that the cancer had spread to a lymph node.
About one in eight women in the United States (approximately 12 percent) have a risk of developing invasive breast cancer in their lifetimes, and I was now a member of this club.
A Journey of Many Miles
In the days that followed, my brain would remind me of my new cancer status each morning when I awoke. (Was it all just a bad dream? No, it was a nightmare and it was real.). But as I embarked further upon my new journey, I replaced fear with determination. If I allowed myself to be perpetually afraid, how could I take the steps necessary to rid myself of this cancer? If I let fear consume me, how could I go to work or even get out of bed in the morning? Fear was something that had to be cast to the side.
It was time to gather my courage and fight this thing.
On April 9th, I began chemotherapy, which involved eight infusions over a 16-week period. This left me without hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, and caused continual numbness and tingling in my hands and feet.
While I escaped the nausea and vomiting that often occurs with chemo, my nemesis was the shooting, stabbing pains in my legs that would creep up on me days after my final four infusions.
On July 16th, I completed chemo with much ado and began mentally preparing for the next step of the journey: a double-mastectomy and reconstruction surgery on Aug. 18th. Through it all, my colleagues at the Foundation cheered me on, encouraging me every step of the way. I was able to continue working and found comfort and normalcy in doing so.
Finally, following a 10-hour surgery, 12 hours of anesthesia, five days of hospitalization and six weeks of recovery time, I happily returned to the Foundation Oct. 2nd – sans wig – eager to begin working again with some of the greatest people in the world!
A Strong Support System
Throughout my cancer journey, I have been fortunate to have an excellent care team and a strong support system. Without the encouragement and support of my family, friends, church family, and colleagues at Connecticut Children’s, I don’t know how I would have been able to take the first step, let alone come this far.
As I undergo physical therapy and prepare for radiation – the next step of my journey – I would like to express my gratitude to all who have “walked” alongside me. It has been a long road with many twists and turns, but I am grateful for the support I have received and the courage and hope I have found along the way.
To all breast cancer patients and survivors everywhere, battle on!