Joann Sharnick

April, 2010. My family just held a five-year cancer-free party for me. After all, five years is a magical benchmark for breast cancer survivors. One month later, I noticed swelling in my right arm. Convinced that it was the result of over-doing it at the gym, I ignored it for a few weeks. Needless to say, the swelling never subsided. I went to a local hospital in Massachusetts where they performed a CAT scan. The results… cancer had spread to my lymph nodes under my right arm, neck and mammary space. The next day I met with a Dana Farber-affiliated doctor. I felt confident since they are considered one of the best cancer hospitals in the country.  The doctor informed me that I was terminal: no chemo and a five-year survival rate at best. I was devastated.  
I sat on a beautiful Cape Code beach for many hours, wondering how I would tell my parents, my two sons and sisters this devastating news. I can’t leave them. More importantly, I wont leave them. I refused to believe my prognosis.
I called my sister Barbara who lives in Houston, Texas. And with the help of her friend, (and now mine) Emma, I had an appointment with MD Anderson Cancer Center three days later. It was a long, anxiety-filled day. Of course, my sister Barbara never left my side, nor did she through any aspect of my treatment. I immensely enjoyed the time we spent together. We chose to take on this battle with humor and laughter.
 We met with Dr. Anthony Lucci and his physician assistant, Hanna. They were both wonderful. Dr. Lucci did not agree with the Massachusetts hospital’s diagnosis. Although my treatment would not be easy, he thought it would be successful. Dr. Lucci and his team gave me the option to stay in Massachusetts so I could be with my children for chemo, but my doctors were adamant that my lymph node surgery and radiation be completed at MD Anderson. Although it was a heartbreaking decision to leave my children for treatment, I was blessed that I could leave them with my devoted parents and sister, Cindy. Knowing that my children were in great hands allowed me to put myself in Dr. Lucci’s healing hands. Dr. Lucci was such a comfort to me. His knowledge and sympathetic ways put me at ease and allowed me to just focus on the positive. I knew that I was exponentially increasing my chances of survival with Dr. Lucci and his team. 
I had eight lymph nodes removed.  Five of the eight were cancerous, in spite of the chemo. I am so grateful that I decided to go to MD Anderson for a second opinion. I realize I am alive today because of my aggressive treatment and the support of my incredible family, whom I love with all of my heart. I guess there are two morals to this story: always be your own medical advocate; it can save your life, and never give up the gifts of laughter and humor; it will get you through the toughest days.  
I think one of the most important lessons one can learn from an experience like this is that every day is truly a gift, and I have received several. I had the opportunity to spend quality time with my sister, which is something we haven’t had since we moved over a thousand miles apart after college. The second was to understand that true love is so precious and I found that because of my cancer diagnosis. Can I say it was worth it?  Insanely enough, perhaps. I now believe everything happens for a reason. Life is beautiful.