Even Mules Get Cancer
By Beverly L. Rittner
I am a mule. Not the four-legged, long-eared, cute furry-faced type. I have two legs, normal sized ears, definitely not furry-faced, and I have not been called cute since my childhood days. But according to my ex-husband, who at the time said it was a term of affection, I am a mule. It was a compliment of how hard I work and the stubborn attitude I had (have). And over the years, I have continued to see myself as a mule; hard working, prideful, and stubborn. This mule mentality is what got me through the hardest, scariest, most death defying time in my life. On May 19, 2006, this mule was diagnosed with breast cancer and I knew, from that moment on, it was going to be a fight to the death. Or life.
The moment I first felt it, I knew it was cancer. It was May 7, 2006. I had been working in the yard that day and had come inside to take a bath and fix dinner. I removed my sweaty clothes and pulled my soaked bra off when my hand brushed over an unfamiliar lump on my left breast. My head immediately jerked down, my eyes staring in horror at the large, egg-shaped lump that seemed to appear from thin air. My mind raced, trying to think, “Where did this come from?”, “How long has it been there?”, “How did it get to be so big so fast?”, “Oh my God, what am I going to do now?” These things plus many more crowded in so fast and at the same time, I was trying not to start screaming, because I knew it was cancer. Do not ask how I knew, I just did. I pulled myself together and went to find Alan, my boyfriend, who was also an operating room nurse at Wake Med Cary. I was trying so hard to be brave. “Can you feel this and tell me what you think?” He felt the lump, looked at me and asked, “When?” After that question, I am not sure what all we said, but I do remember lying in bed that evening staring at the ceiling, trying not to keep touching it for fear it would take over and leave nothing of me behind. Alan knew how upset I was, because he kept telling me it was going to me alright. And most importantly, he was not going anywhere.
Mother’s Day weekend found Alan and me in the mountains, helping our friends with their season opening of the Lodge and the campground. Before that weekend, I had gone through an ultrasound and a fine needle biopsy that confirmed the lump was cancer, but what type was still unknown. All I knew, the fight for my life was real. Cancer had met its match.
The final core biopsy results came in on May 19, 2008. I was at work and got the results over the phone; it was infiltrating ductal carcinoma, which is one of the deadliest types of breast cancer known. And it was big. And it was fast growing. And it was time to get down to serious business.
My surgeon, Dr. Sabah Hamad, had me come in to make decisions and to learn who I was to be on my breast cancer team. Now, I can tell you, I have been on softball, track, volleyball, cross country, and bowling teams before, but this was a whole new ball game. My fellow “teammates” were: Dr. PJ Singh, my oncologist; Dr. Sailor, my radiation oncologist; Dr. Hannah, my plastic surgeon; Dr. Greg and Elizabeth Gibbons, my general practitioners; and Wake Med Cary, my hospital. So many questions, decisions, and tests had to be made before I could go forward. I took a cram course in breast cancer so I would know what the doctors were talking about and so I could make informed decisions about what I was getting myself into. After doing a lot of the research, I knew upfront that certain things were not negotiable. Bilateral mastectomy HAD to be done. I read all the horror stories of women who had only one removed and had gone through the treatments, only to be diagnosed within a year that the other breast was cancerous. Also, my implants were to be a “B” size. I did not want great big boobs after the fact- they tend to interfere with my golf swing. And most importantly of all, my oncologist was to take me to the “brink of death” with chemotherapy.
Seven years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I am in remission. With a lot of faith, hard work, determination and just the plain stubbornness of a mule, I refused to give up or give in to cancer. Over a million dollars was spent to bring me to today: eighteen surgeries, six rounds of chemotherapy, thirty one rounds of radiation, eight shots of Arenesp, six shots of Neulasta, one set of expanders, one set of permanent implants and two portacaths. But it wasn’t all bad. I received a promotion at work, am finishing the last two classes for my two degrees here at WTCC, I finished my diploma in Office Systems Technology, a lot of pink t-shirts that say “Race for the Cure”, and a new lease on life. I still work hard in the yard, around the house, and I put in long hours at work. Not too shabby for a mule with cancer. A million-dollar cancer survivor mule.