What's It Really Like to Live Through Breast Cancer?
Diagnosis: September 1997
People think if you're a physician, you take news like this better. I didn't. I was a hot steaming mess. It didn't matter that my mother had lived through breast cancer—when I got my diagnosis, my first thought was that I was going to die.
In 1997 things were different. The survival rates were lower. The treatment was less precise. And if you were an African-American woman under 40, as I was, everything you read told you your breast cancer diagnosis was a death sentence. I was hearing I wouldn't live past five years—after being married only a month.
I had met Earl when I was the executive medical director at a large company in New York—a colleague told me, "I have someone you must meet," and she gave him my number. He likes to tell people my secretary screened his call. She probably did. I was 32, I'd done my share of dating, and I could tell from a five-minute conversation if I wanted to even go to dinner. When I spoke to Earl, he was very charming. He was respectful. Exceptional manners. We had dinner at a steak house in Chelsea, and I knew that night it could become something serious. We dated for two years, even though his company moved him to Florida, then Virginia—he was an engineer working with General Motors on the first consumer electric car, and he had to go where the project went. I stayed in New York, but the distance didn't matter. Earl was what my father would call a man of character. My dad taught my sisters and me what to look for in a man: devotion, kindness, honor. Earl had all of that. Plus, he's a huge guy, like 64, and he referred to his mom as "Mommy." I always found that endearing.
We were married in August 1997, in my hometown of Oklahoma City. I found the lump in my left breast three weeks after our honeymoon in Saint Martin. It was hard, distinct, and there was a dimple in my breast; those were signs I'd told my own patients to watch for. I went to the doctor and he did his exam and said, "I don't think it's cancer. You're too young." Oh, I was so glad to hear that. I wanted to just wish it away. But I had the sense to ask for a mammogram, and when they did the test later that day, I knew as soon as I saw the scan.
I left the mammography facility sobbing, walking down the street holding my X-rays, not knowing where I was going. I ended up at the office—I don't even remember how I got there, or how I knew to find it—of one of my med school professors from NYU. She'd been one of my toughest professors, very intelligent but very stern. You didn't get on her bad side. You did what she said. I knew if she were my oncologist, she would take charge of my care. So that day, I came in off the street crying, went to the front desk, and asked the receptionist if Dr. Oratz was available.