I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer on September 23, 2002. At the age of 42, life was very busy but great when I was diagnosed. I was married and was raising two beautiful children, aged 12 and 6. After 12 years of hard work on the job, I had just been promoted to a full professorship at the Sam Houston State University. The promotion meant a lot to me because in the summer of 1983, I came to the U.S. with only two pieces of luggage to pursue a Masters Degree in Sociology. At that moment of success, I felt the sense I had accomplished the American dream. The experience was like that of a person who had climbed to the top of a mountain, ready to sit down to relax and enjoy the view. Thus, the cancer diagnosis became akin to someone suddenly, unexpectedly kicking that me from behind and pushing me down the mountain toward the bottom of the valley.
In addition to disbelief, shock, fear, and sadness, my initial responses to my cancer diagnosis were also preoccupied with hopelessness. My only prior personal knowledge about breast cancer consisted of seeing two of my close relatives (my uncle’s wife and a cousin’s wife) diagnosed with breast cancer in their ‘40s. Both died within a few years after their diagnoses. A cancer diagnosis was viewed as a death sentence. I didn’t see a future ahead of me. However, as a mother with two young children, I told myself that I needed to fight the disease with the best resources of professional help and personal strength I could find. Thus, I went to the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center for my treatment (6 months of chemo, mastectomy, and 6 weeks of radiation). Because my tumor was Her2/ neu positive, I also participated in a clinical trial involving a new drug, Herceptin. I have survived 8 years, which I never imagined during the time of my initial diagnosis. Praise to the Lord!
One of the major reasons why my initial responses to my cancer diagnosis were so overwhelmingly negative was due to my lack of knowledge about cancer. Even though my father died of lung cancer, he had been a long-time smoker. I didn’t smoke or drink. Cancer seemed like someone else’s disease. I didn’t know that cancer is non-discriminatory. Everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion, education, and wealth, can get cancer. I didn’t know that cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. There are more than 12 million cancer survivors in U.S. today.
As long as it is detected early, cancer can be curable regardless of its sites – with appropriate treatment, life can be prolonged, and quality life is achievable. Since my diagnosis, I have met many incredible individuals; some have been living with cancer for decades, and some have had multiple recurrences or have been living with 2 to 3 different types of cancer. Often, from the outside, you can’t distinguish these individuals from others who live without cancer. Their lives are as productive and rich as many others without cancer.
Although I was not prepared to be a cancer patient, God blessed me with the best support systems throughout the 9-month treatment. The medical team, led by Dr. Daniel Booser and Eileen Briggs, provided such comprehensive and personalized care that I often felt I was the only patient at M. D. Anderson. This team also helped me regain my trust toward medical professionals, which had been damaged by some of my previous experiences.
Several months before my diagnosis, I began seeking medical help for discomfort with my digestive system as well as back pains. I was losing weight. I was considered pretty healthy before. I rarely took medications and the only surgery that I had was a Cesarean section for the birth of my son. However, after X-rays, an upper GI endoscopy, and a CT scan, the diagnoses were acid reflux and depression. One doctor even told me that I was so severely depressed that I needed to take anti-depressants immediately. I remembered vividly what he said to me: “Six or seven out of ten women walking into my office have a depression problem, but they don’t realize it. You owe it to your husband and kids to take this medication. I guarantee you that after 4 weeks, you will feel much better, and if this medicine doesn’t work, there are several other types you can try.” He was an internal medicine doctor, not a psychiatrist nor a psychologist.
One night during the process, I discovered a lump in my left breast which I hadn’t felt before. I didn’t worry much at the time because I already had my first mammogram about a year prior. It was negative, and I was under the impression that it takes several years for a tumor to grow. But to be sure, I went to see my gynecologist. After an examination, I shared with him that I hadn’t feel well. However, he looked at me and said: “It is a fibrosis. You are young, an Asian, and have no worrisome family history. You are not likely to have breast cancer.” I asked: “Do I need to have a mammogram to check it out?” He said no and recommended that I take 800 IU of Vietnam E daily instead. Since he was the trained expert, I listened and continued my life.
Because my discomfort remained, I started physical therapy for my back pains. After a few sessions of arm lifting, I experienced sharp and shooting pains coming from my left breast, which continued for about two weeks. Then one day I went to visit a good friend and complained to her about the pains. She suggested that I get a second opinion about the lump in my breast. First, I resisted because I already had a doctor check it before. But she insisted and reminded me that I was fortunate enough to have good insurance coverage and that it wouldn’t cost me to have a second opinion. She asked me to see her gynecologist because he didn’t take lightly the appearance of a lump in women’s breasts. I met with her gynecologist two days later. During the appointment, he examined my breast and ordered a mammogram and an ultrasound for the next business day. I started to worry and asked: “Is it bad?” He replied: “I don’t know, but let’s find out.” I quickly reminded him that my own gynecologist told me that it was a fibrosis. He said: “If I were you, I would throw him against the wall.” My heart started to sink…
On Monday, I went to the hospital for my mammogram in the morning, and the technician asked me to go out for a quick lunch and come back for an ultrasound. When I came back, I noticed they had already prepared for a core needle biopsy. On Tuesday shortly after 8 am, the nurse of my primary care physician called me and asked if I knew the other contact number for the gynecologist who ordered the tests. Immediately, I sensed the worst. So, I asked her “Is it about yesterday’s biopsy? Can you tell me the results?” She said that she couldn’t tell me but needed to find the doctor who ordered the tests. I hung up the phone and drove to the clinic. That’s how I found out my breast cancer diagnosis.
Compared to my journey before diagnosis, the rest of the journey with medical professionals was a treat – and so was the support that I received from my family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and church. One sweet niece, Jenny, flew from Taiwan one week after my diagnosis and stayed with my family until I completed chemo and surgery. I also reclaimed my faith, which had helped me understand the meaning of physical sufferings and how to face the possibility of death in spiritual ways, as well as reset the priorities in my life.
When I began to look back on my cancer journey, one voice kept lingering in my ears: if a person as educated as I am could be so ignorant about cancer, what about the knowledge levels of those new immigrants who couldn’t speak English or people who have limited resources to access the health care system? In 2006, I started volunteering with a local Chinese cancer support group – the Light and Salt Cancer Support Network. In 2007, with two other breast cancer survivors and funding from the Susan G. Komen For the Cure, Houston, we started the first Chinese breast cancer support group in Houston.
As I mentioned earlier, cancer is a universal concern. However, responses to cancer diagnoses are very private and personal. Often, a person’s up-bringing and cultural background also dictates how a person reacts to a cancer diagnosis or even the treatment process. During my treatment, I benefited tremendously from talking to other breast cancer survivors because they had been there, done it, and survived it, with inspiring amounts of strength and grace. A culturally and linguistically-sensitive support group is crucial in providing encouragement and assistance for those who cannot speak the language and have limited resources. Statistics show that eighty percent of the Asian-American population in Houston consists of first generation immigrants, and 40 to 50 percent of them speak English less proficiency. This speaks to a need for community action to address this gap with appropriate social support services that promote education and assist with access to resources and knowledge.
When we started the breast cancer support group, there were about 20 breast cancer survivors. Today, about 110 breast cancer survivors subscribe to our mailing list. I believe that every one of them is a hero and represents the importance of hope in our community. I remember one time I visited a lady who had just started her chemo. She told me that I didn’t have to say anything, that my presence alone was enough for her to feel hope: “If you could do it, I certainly can survive it.” The most devastating thing to me is seeing a person who delayed their diagnosis or treatment because of ignorance, misconceptions about cancer treatment, or misinformation about the availability of resources.
Today, I am still busy, but my life is much more fulfilling. For me, cancer was a disguised blessing from the Lord. It helped me reset the priorities in my life, and the experience has expanded my life spectrum beyond my imagination and continues to do so. I enjoy more with my family and anyone I encounter. I treasure living in the moment more than awaiting the future. At the minimum, I have learned to eat healthier and to be kinder to my own body physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I also don’t take anything for granted. I still remember during the last two rounds of chemo treatment, the side-effects (physically and psychologically) were so strong that I couldn’t even stand just being at M. D. Anderson and in particular, the smell of M. D. Anderson. The minute I walked in, everything inside of me wanted to get me out of there. However, after my surgery, on the first day of radiation treatment, when I walked down the hallways of M. D. Anderson with chemo behind me, I felt so good. It was the first time in my life, that I simply enjoyed being able to breathe and walk freely, actions that I accomplished without much awareness or thought for more than 40 years in my life but had never considered something that I needed to actively appreciate.
As for my tips to other cancer patients, I believe you must learn and get to know your disease if you didn’t know of it before. Be your own self advocate; find and focus on the positive aspects of your journey, and make sure to let someone help you when you are feeling weak. Cancer taught me that life is not about how long you live, but it is about how much love you consistently receive and give.
My name is Furjen Deng and I am an eight-year-survivor of stage II breast cancer.
Category: Faces of Cancer