In times of fear and uncertainty, our true self comes out to guide us. For Sandy McDade, a 15-year breast cancer survivor, she found strength within herself that she never knew she had, providing insight into the person she is today.
On January 23rd, 2003, McDade went to the doctor for a routine checkup. She had had a history of breast lumps, something that affects women of all ages, and knew that each time she felt one, a trip to the doctor was necessary.
“I had had numerous lumps removed, so when I found the lump, I was particularly concerned,” McDade said. “But my doctor suggested that I have a biopsy done. Knowing my history with breast lumps, I went ahead and made an appointment with my surgeon to have it removed.”
She had the biopsy on a Friday and scheduled the surgery for the following Monday. When she went in for her appointment that Monday, McDade, though to this day she does not know why, she had her husband and daughter come with her. It was as if subconsciously she knew she would receive news that would change her life.
“I went to the appointment and I explained that I had the biopsy done that Friday, but I didn’t expect to have any results,” she said. “The surgeon went to check on the results and when he came back, he told me he had the results and I did have breast cancer.
“I looked at him and I told him, ‘No, I don’t. There must be a mistake,” she said. “The results don’t come back that fast, so I was adament that they had given him the wrong person’s test results. And he said that wasn’t the case and I did have breast cancer.”
Like anyone who is told they have cancer, McDade was not sure what to do, what to say, or what to think. When her family came in to the hospital room, she recalls that she was fine, that she was holding it together, until they asked what the doctor said.
“When my husband and daughter asked what the surgeon said, I lost it,” McDade said. “I couldn’t even say that I had cancer. They kept asking, ‘The test results were okay, right?’ All I could do was shake my head, ‘No.’”
For the next two weeks, it was a whirlwind. The diagnosis lead to treatment options, which lead to second opinions and scheduled treatments. A masectomy was recommended, but the second opinion recommended a lumpectomy, along with chemotherapy and radiation.
“I told the second doctor that I would not have radiation, but I would have chemotherapy,” she said. “The doctor said, ‘Well, it looks like you’re getting a masectomy.”
Only a few short weeks after she was diagnosed, McDade went into the hospital again for her masectomy, followed by chemotherapy for six months and appointments with a plastic surgeon for reconstructive surgery. Her diagnosis and her recovery became a major part of her life. Cancer has the capability to do that, but with the support of her family and their constant help during this eight month ordeal, McDade’s cancer only became a part of her life instead of all of it.
“My family was everything to me during this time,” she said. “My son was currently serving in the Navy, so, of course, it was very difficult for him and his family to get away. But my daughter and her family were in Valparaiso. They were able to come and help whenever I needed to get my prescription, or something taken to the doctor’s office. She was working, but her boss let her take the time she needed to help me when I needed it.
“My husband was the same way. He worked in construction for the phone company, but whenever I would call and say I needed him, he would be on his way home. So they all were amazing, no matter where my family was. I would not have been able to get through it without them.”
But while the support she received from her family helped her overcome so much, there were others who offered her words of wisdom, which allowed her to look deep inside herself to find strength she never knew she had.
“I remember during my first chemotherapy appointment, I sat down and they hooked me up to the machine, and I just started to cry,” she said. “I could not stop crying. My oncologist came out, she pulled up a chair, and she said, ‘What are you crying about?’ And I looked at her and I said, ‘I don’t know!’ And she just said to me, ‘Stop it! You’re okay! You’re going to be fine. I will not do anything to hurt you and if there is anything to worry about, I will let you know.’ And I quite crying and that was the end of that.
“You know, people look at me funny when I say this, but while I don’t want it to happen again, I’m glad it did happen. Because I learned a lot about myself during the eight months cancer was the main focus in my life. I realized that I am a lot stronger than I thought I was,” McDade said. “My daughter took me to lunch after I had finished a treatment one afternoon and she said, ‘Mom, I got to tell you. I thought by now you would be sitting in a corner playing with your shoelaces.’ And I said, ‘Quite frankly so did I.’”
Strength can often be found within, just waiting to come out when we need it most. For McDade, it came in the form of completing treatments and staring cancer in the eye, ready to take it on. It even came when she needed to stand up for herself, her body, and her life after her surgery and treatments.
“I wasn’t sure what I was more afraid of, dying or that I was somehow going to live through this and be deformed in some way,” she said. “But I did have one woman, who I thought was a friend of mine, come up to me after my masectomy and ask me, ‘So how do you feel about being deformed?’ And I just said, ‘Really? I didn’t know I was deformed. I just had my breast amputated, I’m not deformed.’ I realized my breasts don’t define me any more than owning a car makes me a mechanic.”
That strength and boldness have continued to carry McDade through check-ups, doctors visits, and 15 years of remission, but she hopes that she can inspire strength in someone who may be struggling in a similar situation.
“You have to find whatever positives you can,” she said. “You got to laugh through whatever you can, because if you don’t, it is going to overwhelm you.”
Life is full of moments that test our will, patience, and strength. We can either let those moments overtake us and become us, or we can move forward. For Sandy McDade, she looked ahead and for the past 15 years, has yet to look back.