Imagine having the “I’m in my 30s” excuse in my brain and finding a lump that I could not deny. That was 20 years ago when I was 39 years old. My breasts were small and the lump was large enough that my only choice was to have a mastectomy. I elected to have both breasts removed and had reconstruction in the same surgery.
For a number of years, I felt I was not a true survivor like others in the small Idaho town I lived in at the time. Other women I knew had to have chemotherapy and radiation; I caught my cancer at such an early stage that the mastectomy was all I had to do. My oncologist told me I killed a mosquito with a tank. I did not have to go through the other treatments, I was not like them or at least I did not feel as if I were.
But in time, I came to realize that I was, indeed, a breast cancer survivor. The word survivor is such an odd word, but it really is how you make it out to be. I made a choice back then: I was not going to let breast cancer intimidate me. Instead, my breast cancer diagnosis inspired me. I became involved with a small Idaho nonprofit that raised money strictly for breast cancer research. I made a five-day backpacking trip up Mount Whitney to raise awareness. I became involved in a local breast cancer group here in Boise and lobbied on Capitol Hill for three years with the National Breast Cancer Coalition. I am a steadfast advocate for cancer research to this day.
If a friend calls about a diagnosis, I always recommend the same book that helped me understand what was happening and what was going to happen, “Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book.” I do not shy away from a hospital visit. Being present for a friend in need is a priority. And what used to be important is no longer, and what was not so important has an entirely new meaning for me. Life is more precious than you think until you have been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.
Instead of celebrating a milestone birthday this fall, I am celebrating my 20-year cancer-free mark. Much more important.
Laurie Barrera is a Realtor, 2011 president of Ada County Association of Realtors, an Idaho resident since 1984 and lives in the Live Work Create District in Garden City.