Cancer was my greatest teacher. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not in any way saying it was a ‘gift.’ I am saying it is my life’s greatest lesson. The hardest lesson I have ever had to learn. And I am still learning.
In September 2019, following a routine mammogram that showed abnormalities, my doctor advised me to schedule a biopsy. Routine mammograms had always made me anxious because I worried about having breast cancer. That anxiety persisted as I awaited the biopsy results to determine if the spots in the mammogram were cancerous.
I’ll never forget the moment when my doctor shared the biopsy results: I had breast cancer. When I heard the news, time stood still. I could not fully grasp what my doctor was saying to me. My thoughts flew to my family and concerns about my teenage daughters growing up without me.
I thought of my father, who had died when I was 16, and I was scared my life would take the same turn. My worst fear was coming true.
After absorbing my new reality, I shared the news with my husband, daughters and friends.
Initially I was petrified, but over time, I began to lean on my new spiritual journey. I reflected on my fear of dying. I learned to love and accept myself. I realized I could have faith and still be scared. I began adding what I call ‘The Fab Four’ into my life: gratitude, prayer, meditation and faith.
Then one morning, a feeling of absolute peace and calm came over me. I realized that removing my breasts would be the best option.
My doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital helped ease my intense fear. At the first meeting with my breast surgeon, Michelle Specht, MD, she sat with me for more than an hour explaining what to expect. Eric Liao, MD, PhD, my reconstructive breast surgeon, was also incredible, and his team was always there to answer questions throughout my treatment.
I often refer to my Mass General doctors as “unicorns” because they truly are superhuman. On Nov. 18, 2019, I had a double mastectomy. As anesthesia lulled my body to sleep, I remember Dr. Specht holding my hand and telling me that I was going to be OK. That is care beyond medicine.
My Mass General team gave me a second chance at life.
As someone who has lived with breast cancer, patient advocacy is important to me. It was so hard when I was initially diagnosed to even think about questions or to try to help myself. That is why I volunteer at Mass General, to help and support other patients, and also why I chose philanthropy. Both have been essential to my healing.
Mass General has given me and my family so much. There is not a day that goes by that I do not realize how incredibly lucky I was to be at this amazing hospital with the best team.
I wrote The Waiting Room to help women facing cancer. Mass General provides the book, at no cost, as a helpful tool for women looking for resources.
I never want patients to feel alone — through the donation of my books and patient advocacy, I hope that every person who walks into the waiting room at Mass General feels a little more prepared and a little less lonely.
– Joanna Chanis