Cancer Warrior Gemma Wilkinson
I turned 38 in January 2014 and was making my way through my annual doctor's visits. It was a Thursday, and I sat impatiently waiting for my Nurse Midwife in the OBG’s office for my annual exam. We have a great relationship, so felt no shame in trying to speed-up her thorough exam process. As she performed my breast exam, she asked what I was doing after our appointment, stating she’d like me to get my first mammogram which could be done just across the hall. I responded, with sass, “Thank you, but no. I have to get to work.” She lovingly, and with equal amounts of sass, told me I was going next door. Within 45-minutes I found myself alone, in the worlds most comfortable medical gown, sitting in a private waiting area looking at this huge poster-board with an image of a pink ribbon and some pre-printed text surrounded by hand-written, personal dedications. I remember sighing and thinking how sad that was. Sitting from this place of privilege, oddly detached from anyone living a life that involved breast cancer. And completely oblivious to what was happening.
After the mammogram on Thursday, a diagnostic mammogram on Friday followed by an ultrasound of my left breast and then a needle biopsy I faced a weekend of waiting. I can still access the fear, recall most of the events, the faces of concern, the WTF text messages from those four days. I can also tap into the love felt while I waited for biopsy results, the hands that held mine and the beautiful distractions of that weekend. I got the call around 3:15 Monday afternoon from my Radiologist informing me that while they were still waiting for the final report, she could confirm stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma. I had breast cancer.
As shared by others, there was an immediate flurry of practitioner phone calls - CNW, ONC, GYN, Surgeon, Breast Health Navigator, Geneticist, Plastic Surgeon, friends, and family. There were so many appointments to be scheduled and then actually show up to, information to try and process and decisions to make. A true blessing for me was the help of a breast health navigator that not only assisted with those initial appointments but also accompanied me, took notes when necessary and was a 24/7 support.
My big decision at that time was choosing between a lumpectomy or mastectomy. More test, more time, more tears helped guide me in my decision to undergo a bilateral mastectomy with expanders inserted post breast tissue removal and ultimately reconstruction.
2014 turned into the year of breast cancer, saying goodbye to my boobs and nipples, injecting saline into my expanders, finding new shit to laugh about, two fat-harvests, trying to adapt to the new reflection in the mirror and leaning into my alone-ness. My Oncotype DX test came back with a score that allowed me to avoid chemotherapy and despite my Oncologists recommendation, I declined the daily Tamoxifen.
One perspective it took over a year to see (thanks to a very close friend) was I didn’t deal with my cancer. I wanted to check the box of cancer, saying I did it and all that came along with it and move forward with my life which revolved around doing for others. And not because I’m some altruistic service-oriented contributor to society. But because that was the world I created for myself, it was familiar, and I felt safe in my angry space full of resentment. This “life” I had built was ugly and comfortable. So in 2015, I tried to find more meaning in what I created, attempted to love others when I didn’t love myself, made decisions from a place of desperation and scarcity and tried to dig myself out from under cancer. I dodged and weaved my opponent, breast cancer, believing that I had the power to beat it down and “win.” Over the course of several months, this tiny voice in me got louder. I started questioning my path, my diagnosis, found a new therapist, got curious about how I was spending these precious hours of my life. I eventually realized life isn’t a fucking boxing match. I began to embrace the belief that I needed to spend time mourning the unsatisfying life I created, the sadness of my diagnosis, and get quiet with myself. Once I did that, over the course of many months – grabbing moments when I could - that I was able to let the toxic particles of my everyday existence go … one bit at a time.
In 2016, two days before my 40th birthday, no longer able to ignore my inner voice, sweating and scared, shaking so hard my teeth were chattering I went into my bosses office and resigned from my job.
It’s interesting how when we get quiet, truly seeking to connect with ourselves, something I hadn’t done in my entire life, we gain the ability to give ourselves exactly what we need. I believed I was finally getting in touch with my inner wisdom. And it told me I had work to do. It turned out my dad’s cancer had returned; his doctors recommended that he no longer live alone. In May of that year, facing my fear of leaving my comfort zone, I moved to South Florida to be with my dad. I was with him - supporting, advocating, loving and caring – until he took his last breath on September 14, 2016. I believe that because I got quiet, listened to my inner wisdom, I created the gift of being with my dad in his last months of life.
In mid-October, driving across the country heading home, and this weird thing started to happen in my chest. I’ll spare you the gross details. I was able to reason that because I had used dairy cheese as a coping mechanism while I was in Florida this was my bodies way of revolting. I convinced myself I needed to go vegan, quit the cheese (and excessive amounts of wine), and that would likely fix this oddity. It happened infrequently enough that I didn’t question it further.
In March of 2017, I went to my ONC for my 3-year cancer marker blood work (2.5-year markers were done in Florida and were perfect) and to also, understandably, revisit the Tamoxifen decision. The appointment didn’t go as expected. My CEA levels were elevated, and after a few scans, we learned there was a nodule on my right lung. I had lung surgery in May; the surgeon shared he got clear margins, however, was quite confident it was cancer. Final pathology revealed it was metastatic breast cancer and Tamoxifen was the treatment. Since I started the drug at the end of March, between scans to see if the nodule would react, had gotten over the side-effects and was still responding well, my ONC decided not to mess with it. Then she dropped the “Getting your ovaries removed will give you the best chance of survival” bomb. After more research and consults in August had an oophorectomy (ovary removal) and full hysterectomy (removal of the cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes).
Here it is 2018, and I am finally healthy, regaining my energy, leaning-in to this newest version of myself, experiencing my first summer in full-on surgical menopause, building a life I feel blessed and honored to live every day, despite the hot flashes. I’m building my own business and also started a nonprofit geared towards bringing the healing powers of laughter to cancer warriors and their community. The organization name is Cancer Hates Laughter, something my dad said often. It’s this project that led me to Sara and the Cancer Warrior Foundation. I have found so much more in her and CWF then I ever expected.
If I could visit my early-in-diagnosis self this is what I would tell her: find a tribe of cancer warriors you can relate to – it will be hard and exhausting and immensely worth it * accept help – your cloak of stubborn independence isn’t needed here * bring someone who loves you to every appointment if you can – the strength of their hands squeezing yours will infuse strength you don’t realize you need * listen to your body and rest when you need to, nothing else matters as much as loving your body at this very moment * ask for what you need; you’re not a burden * and lastly, you will get through this. You will be scarred, exhausted, scared, and bruised but eventually will feel vibrant, clear, driven, intentional, and immensely loved.
Whatever it is, you’ve got this, Warrior.