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When the hair grows back

​​​​​​​​​Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women in British Columbia. Breast cancer survivor Nicole Burke shares her story and the importance of regular screening mammograms​.
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Known to most as 'Little Miss Sunshine', my usual warm smiley disposition and high energy was getting harder to maintain. Under the mask, I was getting consumed by this one constant negative thought; I was going to die. For many months before diagnosis, I was having panic attacks; panic attacks that left me paralyzed in fear. Having lost both my parents unexpectedly not long before, I was told it was a form of PTSD. How I was processing grief. By all accounts, that made perfect sense. But no matter who told me it was nothing, that dangerous loop just kept repeating over and over in my head like Groundhog Day. My family started to disengage. I understood. Every night, the same nightmare; heart pounding and dripping in sweat, I would take solace on the couch under the safety of a blanket. Tears flowing, I asked myself, 'Why can’t I make it stop? It’s chasing me everywhere.'  

Then it happened. As I was checking myself in the shower, I found a lump in my breast. For a couple of days, I poked at it (left a bruise because I poked so much) hoping it would just go away. I tried to convince myself as others had, I must be imagining things. I grappled with going to the doctor at all. It was Christmas time, I was busy. I couldn’t process that my fear was manifesting. Did I do this?  

Suddenly, it was true.  When you get that call from your doctor that you need to come in immediately for test results, your heart sinks. I thought mine was going to leap from my chest because it was beating so fast.  

'You have cancer.' It was surreal. I remember feeling like I had headphones on. While I understood what she said, it was all muffled. As she tried to get my attention, all I could hear was my own voice as I rocked back and forth with my head in my lap. I have cancer. I have cancer. I have cancer?  

A weight lifted and the panic stopped. There was this odd sense of validation. Something made me self-check that day. Something made me get to the doctor when I otherwise would not have gone. I could only hope, that would give me a shot to beat it; that I hadn’t waited too long.  

It was with precision that the amazing health care professionals jumped into action. I think we often take for granted how remarkable our health care system is, until we are in need. The process was slick and organized, so that the focus is on care. I always felt well informed, that I had good access to resources and everyone on “my” team had my best interests in mind. I wasn’t just a number. 

My mastectomy was scheduled for Valentine’s Day. At the time, it seemed like a bad joke, not how I would want to mark a day of romance for the rest of my years. Though now, I see it as opportunity to celebrate love, compassion, and hope. A box of chocolates that I am forever grateful for.  

When chemo started and I watched the orange goo flowing for that first time, it affected me more than missing my breast did. I didn’t think it would matter. “It’s only hair,” but somehow, I identified with my long blonde locks. I have one special someone who calls me ‘PBG’ – pretty blonde girl. I’d always been unwilling to cut it short, now, I had no choice. Would I still be pretty? Would the chemo and radiation make me shrivel up like a raisin? Would I still be me? Then, the guilt. You should be thankful and grateful you’re alive, not be vain. You hear about the journey and I didn’t understand what that meant until that instant. Everyone has a different moment when it becomes their reality, and the path is forever changed.  

During October, we celebrate Thanksgiving and of course, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I have so much to be thankful for. I know how lucky I am to be here to reflect on this. 

February 2022 will mark my five-year anniversary. There are moments when it feels like no time has passed. When a check-up stirs the panic that it might be back. Or when another friend, family member or colleague says they have just heard the news. Then, there are days when I feel I’ve beat the beast, like this morning when I blow-dried my hair. It’s even longer now than it was before. When I smile in the mirror, I finally realize that was what cancer could never take. My smile; that’s me. It was never about the hair. 

To all the ladies out there: Check yourself. Know your body, trust your gut. Get to the doctor and go for your mammograms. And if you are faced with news, have confidence in the process, know that you are in great hands and you are not alone. When the hair grows back, and it will, it will all become clear.  

Regular screening mammograms can find breast cancer early. Make it part of your regular health routine. To book a mammogram call 1-800-663-9203 or visit the BC Cancer Screening we​bsite​ for more information. 

 
 
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