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'Who am I now?'

Re-examining life after breast cancer

Published 10/06/2010 12:00 AM

The quartz dome summit of Georgia's Stone Mountain outside Atlanta towers nearly a third of a mile in the air, and on this 100-degree, August day, climbing the steep trail in the scorching sun will be no easy task.

I adjusted the backpack on my shoulders, inhaled deeply, and began the trek up the gray expanse of bare rock.

For most of the past two decades, when I lived in southeastern Connecticut, I headed to Waterford Beach Park during the times I needed to consider life's most challenging problems. A short walk down a sandy path led me to the tranquil shoreline with a breathtaking view of Long Island Sound and azure sky.

The breezes and sea air served as the perfect backdrop for tackling tough decisions.

But down in Atlanta, there are no oceans nearby and tranquility is hard to find in the midst of the concrete jungle and vast suburban sprawl. Since moving there in 2007, I've made the trek to Stone Mountain whenever I seek peaceful moments or a place to find answers.

When I was asked to contribute an article for Grace to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the magazine's editor suggested I write an update about my own experiences with breast cancer, which I originally chronicled in The Day some 13 years ago after I was first diagnosed. At the time I worked for The Day and was known by my then-married name, Chris Kotrba.

It's been a while since I've written about my struggle with breast cancer and I eagerly agreed to what I thought would be a simple assignment.

But as the weeks passed, I found myself putting it off. I realized the task was somewhat daunting because I wasn't really sure what role cancer currently plays in my life.

I headed over to Stone Mountain to try to clear the writer's block.

"Who am I now?" I thought as I pulled myself up a particularly steep stretch of ravine. "How have I changed over the last 13 years? Has the cancer diagnosis at the age of 33 shaped who I am today at 46?"

To this day, I feel terribly uncomfortable whenever anyone labels me a "cancer survivor" or proclaims, "You beat cancer!"

Those labels don't seem right to me, and I fear that using them will lull me into a false sense of security. I've heard far too many stories of recurrences to allow myself to declare victory and think the battle is won.

It's best to remain vigilant, I believe, to realize the power of this disease, and to understand that someday, the unwelcome visitor might return.

As I walked up the mountain, I gazed at the quartz slabs underfoot, many carved with names and the dates of their visits. Hikers commemorated their journeys, sweethearts immortalized their love, and others paid tribute to the departed with the initials R.I.P.

I felt a strong connection here to past, present, and future. I remembered a time when my own future was not certain, and it seemed I might not live to see my 35th birthday.

Those memories are tough to relive. I will never forget that day in July 1997, when Dr. David Reisfeld came to my room in Lawrence & Memorial Hospital and said, "You have breast cancer."

Nothing could ever be the same again.

My prescribed treatment plan of high-dose chemotherapy, mastectomy, bone marrow transplant and radiation was completed in July 1998, exactly one year to the day since the initial diagnosis. It was a day of great celebration for me, but no one prepares you for life afterward. How do you live now that you've been given a second chance? How do you maximize every moment? Can you ever really prepare yourself for the possibility that this silent invader might strike again?

What about the others who didn't survive? Why are you still here, when they are not? There are really no textbook answers to these questions, and each person must chart their own path of self-discovery.

On Stone Mountain, I've just passed the halfway point of my journey. I paused for a moment at the wooden lean-to, caught my breath, and pressed on.

I had the opportunity to move down South in 2006 due to a new marriage. I eagerly embraced the chance to live in Florida, Mississippi, and finally, Georgia, where we ultimately made our home. I wondered if I somehow needed to leave Connecticut to start fresh and erase the painful memories of the cancer battle.

These days, life in Atlanta is somewhat ordinary. I work as a manager and a bilingual interviewer in a call center in the suburb of Norcross, which allows me to practice my love of writing and to use my Spanish language skills. Thankfully, I'm in good health. I like to believe that I've retained an upbeat attitude and my sense of humor.

I try to live a well-balanced life that includes working out at the gym, getting plenty of sleep, and a relatively healthy diet, apart from my recent addiction to key lime pie. I go out of my way to avoid stressful situations and the people who create them. I still feel an awful sense of vulnerability when it's time for my annual mammogram, knowing that the exam - while necessary - could possibly discover something unpleasant.

Thirteen years later, I still have not opted for reconstructive surgery following the total mastectomy of my left breast. Honestly, it's the furthest thing from my mind because rebuilding a breast is a complex operation that can have painful side effects. After hearing the stories of others who had reconstruction, I decided not to put my body through further assault. I continue to wear the prosthesis that fits into a specially made bra, and that works fine for me. I'm thrilled to be alive, and don't often dwell on the fact that my C cup doesn't runneth over.

From time to time, I think of the many wonderful people in New London County who comprised my cancer support team. They included my oncologist, Dr. Mandeep Dhami, and the Norwich Cancer Center staff who administered my chemotherapy; my surgeon, Dr. Reisfeld; Debbie Zlatin of the Community Cancer Center at L&M Hospital; and the staff of L&M's Radiation Department.

I am sure that to them, I was just one of thousands of faces that have passed through their offices over the past 13 years. But to me, they were fellow soldiers in my battle, and they left a lasting impression on my life.

There are constant reminders everywhere of the presence of cancer.

I stopped to chat the other day with an elderly neighbor who was watering plants on her back patio. I immediately noticed patches of baldness on her scalp and the fatigue in her face. Before she disclosed her medical condition, I knew she was battling cancer.

Earlier this year, my friend and former Day colleague, Margie Prachniak of Stonington, passed away from ovarian cancer while in her early 40s. This past week, actor Michael Douglas disclosed he's undergoing treatment for throat cancer.

I am approaching the top of Stone Mountain now. The slope is much steeper here and the hot sun makes each movement even more exhausting. But the sight of the pinnacle gives me the impetus to place one foot in front of the other until I reach the topmost point.

The panoramic vista is breathtaking. Viewing the terrain, trees, and distant hills from this altitude inspires a feeling of clarity and renewal. Young children shout with glee as they explore pools of rainwater in the crevices. An elderly couple holds hands as they pause for a moment on the rocks.

Yes, I conclude, cancer changed me. It's given me an awareness that I never asked for. I've had to come to terms with my own mortality. The scar I see reflected in the bathroom mirror each morning is a constant reminder that the sands are constantly sifting through the hourglass.

But I've learned the importance of seeing the beauty contained in each new day, because tomorrow is not certain for anyone. After cancer treatment, life goes on. New problems will arise to replace the old ones. In my case, the relationship that brought me to the South did not work out for us. But I now know that it had a greater purpose overall. Had it not been for cancer, I may not have had the courage to make the move and undertake new adventures.

It was time to begin the trip back down Stone Mountain. I descended with renewed vigor, passing others who were on the way up. We are all making the same journey, I realized. Climbing. Descending. Dealing with the ups and downs. What is important is what we take away from these experiences. I realize that for me, cancer was not the end, but the start of a new chapter.

I gazed out on the horizon and squinted toward the Atlanta skyline - distant skyscrapers shrouded in a blue haze. It was much different than the view from Waterford Beach, 1,000 miles away, but similar in its ability to inspire clarity in the mind of a sojourner.