Coping with breast cancer at just 29, Audrey Graves — a teacher at the Nebraska Center for the Education of Children Who are Blind or Visually Impaired — says her husband, son and her enduring sense of humor gave her the strength to deliver a knockout punch to the disease.
SheKnows: How old were you when you were diagnosed? What was your initial reaction? How did your friends and family react?
Audrey Graves: At the age of 29, the last thing I expected was breast cancer. My initial reaction was confusion, shock and disbelief. When I found the small lump in my right breast, I was told not to worry because it was common for women to have lumpy breasts. I wanted to relax, but deep inside, I had a bad feeling about the lump. Even my doctor told me not to worry because he felt there was a 99 percent chance the lump was nothing.
After the biopsy, my doctor felt extremely guilty for putting me too much at ease (since the diagnosis did end up being cancer). I think that he was in as much shock as I was.
That night, I called my family and friends and received reactions of shock and disbelief. I never thought I would have to call my parents and tell them that I had cancer. However, the phone calls became almost therapeutic; having to say, “I have cancer,” over and over, almost made it easier to accept.
SheKnows: What kind of treatment options were you offered? What did you opt for? How did they affect you?
Audrey Graves: Since I was so young, my doctors recommended a very aggressive treatment plan. I had to choose between a lumpectomy and a mastectomy. I chose to have the bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction because I wanted to be aggressive with my treatment as well. During the mastectomy, I also had a sentinel lymph node biopsy, and one of my lymph nodes tested positive for cancer.
Three weeks after my mastectomy, I went back in for surgery to remove the remaining cancerous lymph nodes from my right arm. Over the next few months, I endured eight rounds of chemotherapy. Going through all of the surgeries and treatments helped me feel that I was doing something to stop this disease from taking over my body. When the treatments stopped, I was excited but a little nervous and anxious about getting back to my “normal” life. The surgeries and treatments were exhausting, but my inner drive kept me going day to day.
Battling the disease
SheKnows: What was your battle with cancer like? How did you feel emotionally and physically throughout?
Audrey Graves: My battle with cancer was very emotionally draining. Being diagnosed the day before my son’s first birthday really put things into perspective. Not being able to physically pick up my son for seven weeks post-surgery was absolute torture. Not being able to care for my son due to sickness and fatigue made me feel like a terrible mother. There was so much physical and emotional drain that I wondered if I would ever feel normal in my body and in my life ever again. As time passed, I was able to get back to my daily life.
SheKnows: What’s been most important in your fight against cancer? How did you get through it?
Audrey Graves: The most important aspects of my fight against cancer were the support of family and friends and maintaining a positive attitude. My husband was truly put to the “for better or for worse” test.
A lot of the drive that kept me going was looking into our son’s beautiful blue eyes, and thinking, “I will be here for your first day of kindergarten, your graduation and your wedding.” Ethan (our son) gave me the strength to keep going, even through the roughest days.
I also got through everything with a sense of humor. Instead of dwelling on the terrible parts of cancer, I chose to look at the “perks” of the disease: The ability to go through puberty again (only this time, I got to choose the size of my breasts); being able to try all of the short hairstyles that I never thought I could pull off; and having a hair-free body. How great!
Advice to others
SheKnows: What tips or suggestions would you offer people who have just been diagnosed with cancer or to those who are gearing up to battle the disease?
Audrey Graves: The first thing I suggest for newly diagnosed people is to get all of the information you can to help you make informed choices. You need to be able to advocate for yourself and do what is best for your body. Also, seek out the best doctors and make sure that you feel comfortable with them, because you will be spending a lot of time with them. Don’t be afraid to accept help. Your friends and family want to be there for you, so let them. Lastly, keep a positive attitude and a sense of humor. Laughter is the best medicine!