One in a series of stories asking former patients to reflect upon their experience...
Kommah McDowell was confidently on track in her personal and professional life. At 28, she was engaged to be married, prospering in the competitive financial services industry, and was so hardy that she relieved stress through kickboxing.
Then she found the lump in her right breast.
Her doctors assured her it was a benign cyst because she was “too young” to have cancer. Meanwhile, the symptoms mounted: Her nipple inverted as her right breast began swelling, and became inflamed and painful. McDowell insisted that her doctors remove the growth. That's when they finally confirmed what she already knew. In July 2005, at age 29, she transferred her care to City of Hope where she had temped in college. She was diagnosed with late-stage inflammatory breast cancer – a particularly aggressive variety – and became a patient of George Somlo, M.D., co-director of the Breast Cancer Program.
Many cancer patients are given survival rate projections for five years; McDowell was told she had a 5 percent chance of surviving two years.
Given the impending bombardment of treatment, she also learned she’d probably never bear a child – and would have to wait at least two years after radiation before even trying to conceive. She and her fiancé, Charles, decided they would likely adopt and focused instead on getting her safely through treatment. In between chemotherapy appointments, recounts McDowell, they even squeezed in their wedding with her “bald head and all.”
Months after recovering from a radical mastectomy on her right side, McDowell found lumps on her left breast. After they were excised, she underwent bilateral reconstructive surgery.
Exactly two years after her final radiation treatment, McDowell heard more astonishing medical news: She was pregnant.
“Considering the type of cancer I had and how aggressive it was, I know he’s a miracle,” said McDowell. Her miracle baby, Christian, whom McDowell laughingly refers to as her “supervisor,” will turn 4 years old this March.
McDowell will be turning 37 in February. She left the financial world to start the Kommah Seray Inflammatory Breast Cancer Foundation to help educate others about this often-misdiagnosed disease and find financial resources for cancer patients, many from City of Hope.
This year marks her eighth year as a survivor. Now, besides caring for her family and running her foundation, she has even resumed kickboxing.
She recently underwent a medical exam that yielded reassuring results: no evidence of cancer. With this welcome news, says McDowell, “You can breathe.”
We recently asked her to look back at the time of her diagnosis and ask herself: What do you know now that you wish you’d known then? What wisdom, soothing words or practical tips – what five pieces of advice – would you give your newly diagnosed self?
1. My body parts do not define me as a person or a woman. The thought of having my breast removed was a big pill to swallow, however, the thought of keeping it with my days numbered was not an option. I quickly realized that life is more precious than my breast.
2. Cancer was the greatest challenge of my life that has refined me to be the person I am today. I thank God for the new me. I am stronger than I have ever been spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
3. Cancer is expensive! Proper money management and investments will pay off during the costly journey through cancer treatment.
4. It is OK to be selfish for once in your life. I was so accustomed to taking care of everyone and everything else before me that it was difficult for me to be on the receiving end of need. However, I have since learned that it is OK to think of my needs before others at times. It is OK to ask for help; it is OK to not want company because you don't feel well; it is OK to not answer your cell because you don't feel like talking; it is OK to cry just because you feel like it. It is OK to be selfish for this moment in time as you focus on surviving.
5. My faith in God has increased greatly through my journey. As fired up as I was to start chemo and be rid of cancer, after my first treatment I was knocked down pretty hard. At that moment, I realized there was nothing anyone could say to encourage me to go on EXCEPT God. I had to know that He would be there to help me bear the pain and discomfort. I had to know that He would not give me more than I could bear. Without God, I would have given up! My faith was completely renewed and is now stronger than ever before.