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Cheryl ElliottEleanor Roosevelt said, “A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” My hot water was an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis last year.

Tepid waters
I finally went to see my lady doctor for all those annual exams that I had conveniently avoided for a couple of years. The blood work showed high cholesterol, which I attributed to stress, and I promptly resolved to live a healthier lifestyle and exchange my chocolate meals for broccoli. The mammogram, however, wasn’t so easily dismissed. Because I had had false indications before – just dense tissue and shadows – I wasn’t concerned about going back for additional tests. However, the 1.5-centimeter mass was easy to spot on the monitor. The radiologist coming in to chat was my second clue that all was not well.

Two biopsies were promptly scheduled to check the mass and another area with calcifications. Because I freaked out about being strapped tightly in the mammogram machine, they used ultrasound to biopsy the mass. They would wait to test the calcifications. After the procedure, I felt overwhelmed, exhausted, numb, disoriented. What was I facing? Was it just another false alarm? Would it be cancer this time?

After the traumatization of the biopsy, I just wanted to go home. To do so, I needed to drive an hour across Afton Mountain back to Fluvanna. Should I go home or to my sister’s house north of Harrisonburg? I decided that I didn’t want to be alone. I believe that decision was God’s way of protecting me. If I had turned south on I-81, I probably would not have survived the trip. The biopsy procedure turned out not to be routine.

Simmering waters

About an hour after the procedure, I started feeling a lump in the back of my throat, like something was stuck that I couldn’t wash down. Stress, I told myself, and had another drink of water. I felt very tired, but again thought it was due to the morning’s stress. My face started swelling, making it feel as though my mouth was filled with marbles. I started having difficulty breathing. While my sister searched for missing car keys to take me to the hospital, I managed to reach the car. Suddenly overheated, I attempted to get out of the car when my vision and hearing started tunneling. I collapsed onto the gravel driveway, crying, “Please help me, I can’t breathe.” No, something definitely wasn’t right.

For four and a half years as emergency services coordinator for Fluvanna County, I served as an advocate for fire and rescue agencies. My job was to make sure the crews had everything they needed to provide the very best emergency response for those in their darkest hours and in the most vulnerable of positions. But it was at that moment on the driveway that everything seemed to culminate. Few providers, including myself, have seen the inside of an ambulance from the patient’s perspective. That was about to change.

Boiling waters

The ambulance ride with lights and sirens was precipitated by a severe anaphylactic reaction to the Lidocaine used during the biopsy. Before I was released from the hospital two days later, I got the results of that biopsy: stage one invasive ductile carcinoma, which is the most common type of breast cancer.

Often there is no rhyme or reason to whom this disease strikes. My journey through this disease, experiencing the whole gamut – chemotherapy and its ugly side effects, breast surgery and reconstruction – has reminded me exactly how strong of a woman I am. I think I must be a rich, dark, fruity black tea!

Here is a bit of back story. On New Year’s Day, my brother sent this message: “May 2016 be a year of adventure and blessing!” I really like the idea of pairing adventure and blessing. A friend poo-pooed the idea, saying, “Adventure isn’t always a positive thing. Sometimes it turns out very wrong.”

The dictionary says an adventure is “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.” It’s a daring endeavor, calling for enterprise and enthusiasm, especially in exploration of an unknown territory. Since I tend to look at everything in life as an adventure, why not treat breast cancer as an adventure? But could I see it also as a blessing?

A blessing is God’s favor and protection, conducive to well-being and happiness. Teamed together my brother’s message could be phrased: “May this breast cancer adventure bring unusual and exciting experiences, bursting with God’s favor, protection and well-being!”

As it turns out, my breast cancer diagnosis has brought both adventure and blessing. As a result, I wish my experiences to bring encouragement and hope to women facing similar hot waters. But recounting that journey is a story for another day.

This is the first of a two-part series examining Cheryl Elliott’s experience with breast cancer.