Lesley Draper was just going about her everyday life as an escrow officer for a title company when she felt a breast lump while doing her usual self-exam in the shower one day. After going through surgery, chemo and radiation, she appreciates life on a level she never did before. Now, she lives for today and takes much better care of herself because she has seen how fragile life can be.
In 2013, I was in the shower and I felt a lump while doing my breast exam, which I wasn’t good about doing regularly. I felt a lump and I thought it felt weird. I tried to ignore it, but then I thought it was best to get it checked out, so I went to my doc. She thought it just felt like a cyst, which relieved me a little bit, but she set me up for a mammogram to be sure. When nothing showed up on the mammogram, it was an eye-opening experience for me because I learned that about 50% of women have tumors that do not show up because they have very dense breast tissue. Everyone thinks the mammogram is the end-all-be-all of tests, but it’s really not.
Since my doctor knew something was there because she could feel it, she scheduled an MRI, which showed several spots, so I was scheduled for a biopsy. From the biopsy, they determined the spots were cancerous—which really threw me for a loop because it’s really one of those things I just never really thought about. Other people get that, not me. I was on the overweight side, but I felt I was really active and I didn’t eat a lot of junk food, didn’t drink a lot, didn’t smoke, and felt like I was doing all the right things. But, I had to face that I actually had cancer.
Within three weeks after the biopsy, my doctor and I went through all of the options and decided that since there were a couple of tumors that were pretty deep into the tissue, it was obvious we were going to have to remove the breast. I had really large breasts, and I didn’t want to just get rid of one, so I decided to have a full double mastectomy and then have my breasts reconstructed. They also found that the cancer was in one of my lymph nodes, so I also had to go through chemo every three weeks for six or seven sessions.
The chemo was worse than the surgery itself. I didn’t want to eat because everything tasted terrible, so I wouldn’t eat, and I’d lose 10 pounds. Then, I’d finally feel better and start to eat again, which made me gain the 10 back plus five more. So, it was this frustrating back-and-forth game of weight loss and gain, which was hard on me, too. Just when I started feeling normal again, I’d have to go back and do it again. I now have a lot of sympathy for people who have to go through chemo because that was the worst part of the whole experience.
After the chemo, I had to do radiation treatments, which was every day for five weeks. That wasn’t as bad as the surgery and chemo, though. They say that if you go through chemo, radiation is easy, but if you don’t go through chemo, radiation will be much harder. I needed some other surgeries after that for reconstruction, so it wasn’t just smooth sailing after that. It was still a process.
Though it was a difficult process for me, I think it's even harder on the family and friends who are caring for those with cancer. I gained a deep appreciation and understanding for the caretakers. It’s very hard on them. My significant other at the time and my sister helped with so many things throughout the process. Linda, my ex, helped me sit up and get out of bed after surgery, emptied my breast drains, changed bandages, brought me food and drinks when I didn’t want to eat and kept track of a multitude of meds, just to name a few. Both Lisa and Linda went to every chemo treatment, all the doctor's appointments and provided me with much needed emotional support and so much more. I'm extremely grateful for their support and love. The person going through the cancer is getting all of the attention, and the caretakers—who are working so hard to help their loved ones heal—don't have that same emotional support, even though they are also going through a huge ordeal.
My friends and family really didn’t want to share with me how scared they were, how concerned. My sister, Lisa, said that the day I had the mastectomy, she walked outside of the hospital and was just screaming and crying outside all by herself and yelling at God. When she was with me, she was always strong and supportive and didn’t show that fear to me. You really find out who the true friends and supporters are in your life. I found some important friends through this process, and it made me appreciate my friends and family so much more.
I have a story that so far, I’ve only told Lisa. When I came out of my mastectomy surgery, and I was in the recovery room and semi-conscious, it looked like fairy dust was floating around me. I remember trying to reach at it. I wondered if I was dreaming it, but it felt real. And right then it hit me: The fairy dust was everyone’s prayers around me. I could feel everyone around me, supporting me, encircling me, and it was such a great feeling. I felt so safe and so protected. I really didn’t feel any fear.
After going through this, I knew I needed to live my life differently. I looked at areas of my life that I could improve on. Doing things differently daily. A lot of it was about alleviating stress in my life. I still have a stressful job, but never again am I going to go back to what I was doing before and working the super long hours. I just told myself that I wouldn’t do that to myself again. Stress was the only factor that I could think of that caused the cancer. I know there are genetic factors, but I didn’t have any history of it in my family. It just came down to stress—working too much, taking on too much, eating crappy because I was tired and overworked. The majority of the time, I tried to eat pretty well, but that didn’t always happen with the hours I was working.
Today, I look at life more positively. Lisa is big into this, too, so she pushes me to be positive. She doesn’t like to allow negativity into her life. I try to alleviate stress, walk my dogs, and relax as much as possible. My daily routines have shifted. Even before I put my feet on the ground in the morning, I say, “Thank you God for this day.” And my days are filled with the “I ams.” “I am strong.” “I am courageous.” “I am healthy.” I even say my mantras on my way to the bathroom at work, and I constantly look for new ones to say to myself. That’s really helping me.
I also look at other aspects of my life that I can improve on, not just exercise. I’m working on eliminating sugar and I don’t eat meat. I’m more consistent with walking and being healthy. I take vitamin D and vitamin E because that really helps my bones. A lot of calcium is lost in the bones with radiation and chemotherapy. It leaches everything out of the system. But, I’m not obsessive about taking or doing any one thing. I just try to keep balance in my life now.
I noticed I was really starting to beat myself up, telling myself I was weak and I should be this or that. But, I’m still building my strength. The surgeries took a lot out of me. I still have a lot of numbness, and everything feels strange. Even just exercising feels strange. It’s like starting over with everything, and I have to not beat myself because I’m not able to do certain things and I’m not as strong as I was. Now, I just don’t go there. So what if I can’t do it perfectly? Just start and go slowly. And that's hard when you’re a competitive person like I am. I felt I needed to keep up. I liked being the older person in the workout class who was keeping up with the younger kids. That always felt good. But now, I just have to accept that I really am the older person! It’s just a matter of getting over what people think of me. That’s a huge part of it. Just do what you can do. Be who you are. Don’t compare yourself to other people. Gradually, I just started to feel better about everything through this process.
I don’t feel like I’ve done anything really special. I see all the women who go through this all of the time, and I feel I just had to get through it and do what I had to do. I don’t feel like it was anything great. But, my sister told me it really was a huge thing I went through. Growing up, she used to tell me I was a wimp and make fun of me (teasingly) because even brushing my hair would hurt. But when I went through this, she told me that even though she used to make fun of me, she thinks I’m the strongest person she knows. That blew my mind. I don’t necessarily think that about myself, but hearing her say that really makes me appreciate what I’ve been through. Maybe I really am stronger than I think I am.
Just recently, I had yet another PET scan. It was clear, so I’m now three years out—from stage three cancer to cancer free!