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Barbara Valentine column: I’m still here

That’s why I’m still here … to let women everywhere know that I am living and breathing evidence God still answers prayer!

So come along, take my hand, walk with me through the many challenges, changes, transformations of laughter, tears and yes, sometimes pain. Knowing at the end of the road there is always hope — a light at the end of the dark, scary tunnel. Remember laughter is good medicine. Being positive is a double dose. So keep smiling, be happy and love yourself. All the vitamins needed to live.

My name is Barbara Jean Valentine. I am 56 years old, and an 18-year breast cancer survivor. Thank God I have never been a person who was into my body physically, because I would have been totally crushed on Dec. 21, 1988, when I was informed I had breast cancer, a day I will never forget.

All my life, I’ve been searching for me, for love. Growing up as a child, sometimes I felt lonely, abused, trying to find out who I was. One day I looked in the mirror and that was it! I decided right then and there that I was going to get to know that girl in the mirror. From that day on, my motto of positive reinforcement was “I am somebody.”

I have to love myself, can’t wait for anyone else to validate me. … Breathe. Now I can go on to tell my story. Are you still on the journey with me? Hold my hand, walk with me. Ask me questions … listen to me. I hope I can give you a passport of inspiration, hope, courage and laughter. But most of all, love of self — with these tools, you will survive the ride no matter what.

I truly was blessed to have a great gynecological doctor. I love him dearly. He understood my character and personality. He was also a friend, definitely told it like it was. I could converse with him about anything.

One day, I can’t remember exactly what I was doing, but I’ll explain it like this: I suddenly experienced a very hot feeling in my right breast. Never before had I had this feeling. It was weird, almost scary. I’ll explain it to you as I explained it to my doctor. It was like a spider spinning or weaving a web. It started with a dot in the center and started going around and around. It got hotter and hotter and hotter, almost as if I could feel my breast metastasizing. I called my doctor and shared it with him.

On Dec. 17, 1988, all the necessary tests were taken including a mammogram, which wasn’t painful at all. I say that only because I hear many women complain that mammograms hurt or they’re afraid to have one. Listen carefully. Ladies, that’s probably what saved my life, a mammogram! So simple … so painless … so quick. Listen to me, because I’m still here!

On Dec. 21, 1988 (four days before Christmas), I was out shopping when the call came that changed my life forever. I need to come in for a consultation. In my heart I knew it wasn’t good news, even before the phone call, for the simple fact my breast looked black, poisoned, dimply and weird. Don’t go … stay with me, ladies. I need your support.

Through it all, I’m falling apart, dumbfounded, while trying to take it all in and remain positive. Breast cancer, yeah right! Of course, I got two other outside opinions. The type of cancer I was diagnosed with is called inductile carcinoma. Yes, music to my ears, because I wanted to live. The choice to have a radical mastectomy would literally save my life. Oh, happy day! On Feb. 6, 1989, I was wheeled into surgery after about two hours of localization (where the surgical doctor marks the part of your breast to be removed).

So drugged and helpless, even though going in I was very positive and very, very hungry. (I hadn’t eaten in a few days!) Things went great! But when I realized I was minus a breast, I felt so sad, traumatized and empty. Then later I shifted into a tunnel of depression, which didn’t last too long. I was up, going into other women’s rooms, laughing, joking, trying to cheer myself while cheering others. It worked a little — psychology does wonders for the soul and goes a long way to heal the body. Besides, I had to someday tell my story to help heal others and give them the strength, the hope, the courage to go on … to fight.

The night before the surgery, my husband was there for me. We laughed, we cried, we danced, we held each other close, not knowing what our lives would be afterwards. After the surgery, sex was truly strained because I felt that I had to make up or compensate in other ways for “our” loss. I felt like some sort of freak, unattractive, certainly not sexy, and ashamed. I would think, just look at me! Who’s going to want me? Even though I was the same person, there was a part of me that was missing. My husband even refused to look at my surgery because he was afraid and didn’t know how to deal with it even though I felt he wanted to. That definitely hurt more than anything! But ladies, I’ve got to be honest with you. It’s a part of what I went through.

Eighteen years later, we still have each other. Love conquers all and the journey is every changing. I also suffer from lymphedema (when fluid collects in my right arm due to also having my lymph nodes removed during the surgery), and at times, depression. At least I’m alive and I can smile.

There were so many questions to be asked and answered. I had always been strong for others. Who would help me be strong now? At the time, my daughters were 11 and 9 years old, very young. They didn’t understand what was happening to me, their mom. They kept asking, “Mom, are you going to die?” It was quite a challenge, as well as a journey. But I must endure, be strong, hold on … for me, my girls, for life itself. You must know within yourself … life is a ride, a race at times a long, tedious one that must be endured until the final destination is reached, no matter how many pit stops or detours you had along the way. It’s a fight for your life!

So ladies out there, I want all of you to know … we must continue to realize the importance of reaching out to touch, to educate each other and provide support through any means necessary. Good luck!

I hope my story with touch someone enough to know that the journey may not always be pleasant, but life is precious, and that’s why I’m still here.

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