Breast cancer taught me what it means to ‘woman up’

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In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October’s essays will all be from breast cancer warriors, survivors and thrivers.

By LaKisha Cargill

When the going gets tough, the tough…well, you know the rest. For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has said this to me but in fewer words. When times are tough or if I feel knocked down, she tells me to, “Woman up!”  These words stick with me every day.  If someone else gets the position I want, she says, “Woman up.”  When I haven’t done as well as I’d hoped on an exam, she says, “Woman up.” Whether she is there or not, whenever the road gets a little rocky, I recall these two words and they remind me who and, better yet, what I am.

Never before have I had to fervently summon this sentiment than when at 28 years old, I heard three devastating words:  You have cancer.  I remember it like it was yesterday. We had been in the doctor’s office for hours. After a mammogram and an ultrasound, I needed a biopsy. They asked if I wanted to come back. I said no. After all, I had found the lump months before I saw my primary doctor.  He said I was too young to have cancer but scheduled my appointment anyway. Now I was being asked if I wanted to wait some more after the initial battery of tests. No, let’s do it today, I said.

In that tiny exam room, the doctor cut pieces of tissue out again and again and again. Even after numbing the area, I could feel each snip and my body jerked with pain. I lay there with tears rolling down my cheeks and blood pooling under my back. Finally, it ended. The doctor called in a team of pathologists. We waited for them to arrive. Eventually, three people in white coats entered the room. They said their introductions and got to work. The two men left while the female pathologist stayed behind. As she prepared to examine the samples under the microscope, she asked me things like where I worked and told me how pretty I was. But when she looked in the microscope, her easy chit chat hushed. She slowly turned and uttered, “You are so young and brave.” Then she escaped.

One by one, the white coats came back to look at the ultrasound screen again or at the samples. They stared at the screen and talked to each other. The door opened again.  It was one of the male pathologists who could not raise his head to look me in the eye.  Finally, they all left the room again, leaving my mom and me alone with our thoughts.

At first, we did not speak a word.  Then I finally said, “It’s cancer. Did you hear her say how brave I was? And he wouldn’t even look me in the eye.” Just then the door reopened, and the doctor said, “I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?” It didn’t matter. He continued, “The good news is that I don’t need another sample. The bad news is you have cancer. But the good news is we are going to get rid of it.”

A rush of emotions flooded my body and poured out of my eyes and mouth. I let out a loud sob as the doctor patted my hand and told me to take all the time I needed.  As the doctor prepared to leave the room, I continued to cry. My mom was holding my hand and sobbing too. But as he walked away, I could feel the pounding in my heart.  I heard those two little words echoing, “Woman up. Woman up.”  Before he could turn the knob, I rose and wiped away the tears. I said, “No. I am ready. What are we going to do to get rid of it?”

At that moment, I was scared out of my mind. But just as quickly as the fears swirled in my head, those two words — Woman up — rushed in and pushed down the doubts. I thought, “Cancer doesn’t HAVE me. He was right. I have cancer.” And I was going to show it just what it meant to ‘woman up.’

To woman up meant I would turn this negative into a positive. In the midst of my treatment, I joined the Young Supporters Board of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. Serving on the board afforded me the privilege of raising much-needed research funds and visiting with patients. I drew strength from their stories and their fight.

To woman up meant I was more determined to live life now. Prior to my diagnosis, I always dreamed I would travel the world… someday. I realized someday was here and I took to the sky. Alaska. Croatia. Italy.

To woman up in the face of cancer reminded me to go for what I wanted. So, when opportunity knocked again, I applied for another promotion and got the job.

To woman up meant calling upon that source that strengthens me. For me, that was family, friends, and faith. I was surrounded by loving family, friends, coworkers, and doctors, and nurses that became so much more. And I called upon the strength of my Lord.  As I waited to head into surgery, a gentle stream of tears washed over my face and the doctor said, “I don’t know what you believe but God is here guiding us today. We got you.”

LaKisha Cargill is a Birmingham creative who loves sharing her voice through written and spoken word. She is a freelance writer and blogger at www.sizablechic.com

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