Beating breast cancer
With love and support
Helpful, too, was Judd's family, which includes two ministers. "We had people up and down the Eastern seaboard praying for us," says Mindy. Her faith was indispensable to her recovery. "Judd and I belong to a wonderful church. I found incredible solace and strength there."
Although young, her daughter and son were aware of her illness, and they had lots of questions. Mindy remembers one day when she was explaining to her son why she had a scar on her chest. "My daughter walked in and said, 'Mommy, when I'm your age, will they do that to me, too?' I took a deep breath, and I told her, 'If I have anything to do with it, this will never happen to you.'"
An "information junkie," Mindy read every book about cancer she could find. Even so, she often felt in the dark about her treatment. "My doctor didn't discuss lumpectomy with me -- he just said, 'You should definitely get a modified radical mastectomy,'" she says.
Feeling helpless and deeply afraid, Mindy fell into a depression after her chemotherapy. "It's hard to realize, at thirty-four, that you're mortal," she says. She also struggled with the results of her surgery. "You don't realize until they're gone how much of your sense of femininity comes from your breasts," she says.
Fortunately, Mindy began meeting with a social worker trained in dealing with cancer patients. "She pulled me out of my funk," says Mindy. She also recommended a female oncologist more sympathetic to Mindy's need to be involved in important decisions about her treatment.
Mindy then made the difficult decision to have her other, healthy breast removed. "Because of my young age, the aggressiveness of the cancer and my family history, it felt like the right choice," says Mindy. "I didn't want to live in fear." (Recent studies show that prophylactic mastectomies -- removal of both breasts -- reduce the risk of breast cancer for women at high-risk of the disease.)
As her depression lifted, Mindy wondered if she could do something to help other women in her situation. With the encouragement of the social worker, she started a newsletter called "Breast Cancer Survivor."Helping other survivors
The first year, she distributed the newsletter through doctors' offices, and attracted 80 subscribers. Its popularity grew quickly by word of mouth, and now, four years later, more than 12,000 women regularly turn to Mindy's news updates, resource lists, book reviews and -- "everybody's favorite," she says -- survivor stories.
Sharing her knowledge has been an important part of Mindy's own survival story, helping her overcome her paralyzing fears of recurrence. "Having that mission to concentrate on has helped me tremendously," she says. Mindy gets dozens of calls a month from women who've just been diagnosed and don't know where to turn. "I try to point them in the right direction and get them started in educating themselves," says Mindy.
Last June, Mindy threw a party to celebrate her fifth anniversary of being cancer-free. At her last checkup, her oncologist declared, "I now pronounce you cured."
"I don't consider myself someone living with cancer," says Mindy. All the same, she adds, "I don't think anything is ever the same after cancer -- not your relationships, not your feelings about your body, not the way you look at the sunrise." All those things are now pierced with an awareness of her own mortality, and that makes her treasure life all the more. "I'm not trying to get back to 'normal' -- normal is no longer my goal," she says. "My goal is to live life with as much exuberance as I can." --Annie Murphy Paul