Their stories: ‘I am a completely different creature’
Once the word is out there, once “cancer” is said, life is neatly sliced into BC and AC: Before Cancer and After Cancer.
Before cancer, Mary Vaughn worried. About everything.
She fretted over work, her daughter, her life, things she could and couldn’t control. Sometimes, she was depressed.
After cancer, she smiles. She breathes in and out, radiating a golden calm.
Before cancer, she did everything she had to, rarely the things she wanted to.
After cancer, she makes herself a priority. It’s hard — as a woman and especially as a mother, it sometimes feels a selfish — but she knows she must.
Before cancer, she often couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
And after, she wanders among the trees on a sunny Sunday, sorry that it took cancer to make these changes. She’s grateful all the same.
“I am a completely different creature,” she says. “I am a manifestation of the divine. And I am so blessed to be diagnosed with cancer because it saved my life.”
She knows how that sounds, but here’s a snapshot of her life before cancer: She worried constantly about money, about being a good mother to her daughter, who will be 17 in November, about her job as a registered nurse and researcher at the Regional Cancer Center. She was in a bad-for-her relationship. She had anxiety attacks. She was treated for depression.
Then, one Sunday, she noticed a nipple had pulled in.
As a nurse, she knew that was bad. So early Monday morning she sat outside Dr. Diane Melancon’s office, vibrating with nerves.
When Melancon arrived, Mary told her, “You need to feel this for me.”
Just like that, 38-year-old Mary was having a mammogram and, after lunch, an ultrasound and guided biopsy.
The next morning, Sept. 9, 2009, the results showed what was in her breast was malignant. She was stage two.
Odds were in her favor because she caught it so early, “but I was terrified,” she said. “I am a single mom, I had my daughter to think about. I’ve worked in oncology for a decade, but you never know what it’s really like until you’re in this position.”
She wasn’t a candidate for a lumpectomy, since the tumor was attached to her nipple. She had to decide whether to have a unilateral or bilateral mastectomy.
Finally, she gave herself permission to make the decision that would help her feel good. “As a young single person, I had a desire for symmetry and I had to tell myself it’s OK to want that,” she says.
Over the past year, she had three surgeries: a double mastectomy, a breast reconstruction and a nipple reconstruction. The pain after each was intense, her recovery time measured in weeks or months. She had her tumor sent for onco-typing, an intensive process in which 16 tests determine a patient’s chances for cancer reoccurrence and the best course of treatment.
With her oncologist, Mary ruled out a need for chemotherapy or radiation. Instead, she takes Tamoxifen and closely monitors her health.
Mary makes it clear that breast cancer made some external changes and internal changes. Externally, she got perky new breasts and an unplanned — but gladly received! — tummy tuck during the nipple reconstruction (surgeons used tissue from her abdomen for the reconstruction). She got excellent medical care.
Internally, she got an awakening. She confronted her own mortality and realized the cares and worries that consumed her were an illusion. She reconnected with her Zen Buddhist beliefs.
Through the surgeries and recovery, her family, friends and doctors encircled and carried her. That, she realized, is what matters: those relationships, that love.
She worried less about saying what was on her mind. She and her daughter created art. She gave herself permission to take a day every weekend for herself.
“I feel free now,” she says. “Yes, cancer really sucks and I hurt every day. And it could come back and get me someday, I know that. But in the meantime ...
“In the meantime, I want to do everything I can in this life to ease the suffering of others, to give back. You hear people asking, ‘Why? Why me?’ Well, why not me? I think it’s what you do afterwards that matters. And I needed this to be more fully human. I would not take it back. I will take my lot and I am honored.”