Breast Cancer Survivor

Strength and Support Go Hand-in-Hand

As Dr. Cassandra Graves ministered to one of her congregants who was facing advanced breast cancer, she never imagined she would have the same diagnosis just a few years later.

She credits that young woman with saving her life.

Today, Dr. Graves gains strength from fellow survivors and continues to minister and believe in the power of healing.

 

My symptoms started while preparing for a trip to Israel in 2016. The original sensation was that of a mosquito bite on my breast. After scratching, I noticed an unusual discharge around the area. I remembered Sarah, a young woman from my church who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. I ministered to her through her difficult illness, and it dawned on me I was experiencing the same symptoms. I called my doctor right away.

I considered canceling my trip. Instead, I went, and it was an encouraging, healing trip. Upon returning from Israel, I had diagnostic tests. According to the pathology results, the official diagnosis was metastatic breast cancer. I was shocked; however, I didn’t panic. I prayed into it, remembering I counseled others at times like this. I knew God was by my side, so with my head up, I chose to go through the process, whatever that may be.

The first thing I did was search online for the “best doctor for breast cancer in Philadelphia.” I found a doctor and made an appointment immediately. She was very kind, thorough and patient as she explained treatment options. A trusted friend went with me to hold my hand, and I’m glad because I don’t remember much of that conversation at all. When we left the office, I asked my friend, “Now, what did she say?”

My treatment consisted of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy. I was very private about the diagnosis. I chose to tell my sister, Jean, first. She is a breast cancer survivor. She advised me to read up on the diagnosis to learn the terminology and understand what the doctor was talking about. Reading about the disease gave me anxiety, but becoming more educated also relieved it.

On my first day of chemotherapy, Jean showed up at my door to go with me. She lived three hours away, but she wanted to make sure I didn’t go through it alone. I told the rest of my siblings in person, one at a time. They all made themselves available. It warmed my heart to hear one of my brothers say, “Sis, if this can happen to you, I need to get my life together. I’ll be in church this Sunday!”

The side effects were challenging. I had nausea and quite a bit of fatigue. I listened to my body and often got into bed early. Sometimes, I’d get into bed without eating because I didn’t have much of an appetite at all. Jean and her husband weren’t having that, so they prepared two weeks’ worth of healthy meals and brought them twice a month. I just had to make them in the microwave. That really helped to keep up my strength.

Though I am an assistant pastor, I didn’t share my diagnosis with my church family right away. My hair was thinning quickly and I was fatigued, but I was pretty good at disguising my illness. I went through the American Cancer Society’s Look Good, Feel Better program and learned helpful hair and makeup tips. The first time I wore a wig, I only heard a few comments about the new style. I continued to keep my diagnosis to myself until it was time for surgery seven months later. When I shared the news, my church family rallied like never before. They led like champions, organizing church programs for me, including food and clothing outreach, educational events, cultural plays and revival services. It was a great relief.

My skilled surgeon understood my wishes; therefore, I had a lumpectomy along with lymph node removal.

After about a month of recovery, I started radiation therapy. I worked in the mornings then had treatment in the afternoons. I’d go home after and just rest because the radiation made me feel uncomfortable and lifeless.

Receiving this diagnosis was very emotional. One moment I was up and strong, then whoosh – I needed to be strengthened in multiple areas. Prayer groups, writing classes and cancer conferences assisted tremendously. The members of SistersRUs, one of my local fellowship groups, shared amazing stories about dealing with this for 5, 10 and even 25 years. Cancer has certain indignities that come with it, and having candid cancer conversations in therapeutic surroundings assists in the healing progress. The women were so strong, and so matter-of-fact. We are survivors indeed.

I’m on an oral chemotherapy maintenance drug. I haven’t gotten my energy back 100 percent yet, but all medical reports are favorable. I’m still a little fatigued and rarely sleep through the night. I am, however, a blessed survivor.

I continue to minister regularly. I thank Sarah for the opportunity to minister to her while she battled the disease with courage, leaving a legacy of light and awareness in our community. Survivors draw on the strength of their professional medical team and a team of well-wishers to assist them in their journey. Family and friends, I thank you all for being on my team, for strength and support. We are surviving.

 

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