Holly and flowers

As a breast cancer survivor, contributing to Breast Cancer Awareness month is so important to me. I’m honored and privileged to share my story about early detection. Every chance I get, I remind family, friends and perfect strangers that everyone has a mother, sister, aunt, best friend or co-worker whom they should be talking to about annual mammograms. The Prevent Cancer Foundation public service announcement (PSA) is a fabulous way to remind women that to prevent cancer is to take charge of one’s own health by eating right each day, exercising regularly and getting medical screenings. But let’s not forget that while 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, it is not just a women’s disease…it also affects men. The PSA’s message is unique and powerful, and if the PSA or my story encourages just one person to seek early screening, it will be worth it.

Self Examination from Shadowlight Pictures on Vimeo.

The date was June 14, 2010 and I was 41 years old and living an active, healthy lifestyle. After 22 years of military service, I was retiring in just six short weeks. I was accepted to San Diego State University (SDSU) and ready to pursue my second career after retirement. Family and friends had airplane tickets and hotel reservations for my retirement ceremony just six weeks later. As part of the medical requirements to retire from the United States Coast Guard, I had to undergo a full physical which included a mammogram. On the day I went, the mammogram revealed a suspicious area that needed further evaluation and the same day, I received an ultrasound that found a small “pea” on my chest wall. Suddenly, I was never so scared. I burst out in tears when the doctor told me that he wanted to send me for a biopsy and I can remember telling him “but I’m too young to have breast cancer”. He told me that he didn’t say I had breast cancer, but I had an area that needed to be biopsied, my gut feeling was not good. The next three days were the longest days of my life and on June 14, 2010, my life came to a screeching halt as I heard the three words that no one ever wants to hear, “you have cancer.” I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer.

That day changed my life forever. The first person I called was my sister and I told her that this was not a death sentence and that I will fight with everything I have. I wasn’t done living and I wanted to see my niece and nephew grow up. I spent the next two days reaching out to my family and friends, processing the information, and canceling my plans to retire from the military. After a few days of crying, I had a flash of “little pink warrior” and realized that I had to “pull up my big girl pants” and figure out how to beat this. It didn’t take long for me to grasp just how fortunate I was. The cancer was found so early, I only had stage one, I had full medical coverage, an incredible family, friend and a work support network plus I didn’t have to look too far to find someone who had it worse than me…I gained perspective very quickly.

My treatment was not easy as I had good days and bad days. I was blessed to have more good days than bad days, but the thing I was most appreciative of was my support network. I had over a hundred people who followed my progress and were there for me, whenever and for whatever I needed. They called, texted, emailed, sent cards, chocolates, flowers, soup, took me to doctor’s appointments, sat with me through chemo, shaved their head when I did and prayed. It was from their love and support that I drew the energy to keep fighting. I tried to remain positive and stay focused on the end goal. Once I finished chemo and my hair started growing back, I knew the goal was in sight. And today, I am happy to report that I had my one year check-up and am free and clear of breast cancer. I was able to pick up my retirement plans where I left off. Today I am retired from the military, attending SDSU and living each day to its fullest.

I believe that I was given a new lease on life and with that new lease comes the responsibility to live a happy, productive, healthy life. I no longer let the little things stress me out. In the end, it’s all the little things that mean the most. I find time to be more active, watch the food and alcohol I ingest and try to give back to those less fortunate. I have no doubt that I will live to complete my bucket list, get married and watch my niece and nephew grow up, all because of early detection and breast cancer screening. Now it’s your turn. Go get your annual mammogram!

Editor’s Note:  Holly Shaffner recently retired from the U.S. Coast Guard and now is a full-time student at San Diego State University.