When some people hear bad news, they immediately think to the worst case scenario. A phone call from the doctor requesting a visit does not mean death is knocking on your door. One of my favorite quotes says “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I decided to interview Melanie because she was a champ as she dealt with her own health battle, her attitude inspired me and considering that she is my sister, I was able to gain real insight into her fight. I know this interview will be empowering and educational as we capture her moments of boldness.
Melanie Angus Aiken has a Master’s of Science in Nursing and has been a nurse for over 15 years. She is a mother of two beautiful, intelligent and talented children; Madison 11 and Brandon 8 years of age. She is an entrepreneur working diligently to launch her own nursing uniform and clothing line. Melanie recounts that “as a child I always wanted to be two things- a plastic surgeon or a fashion designer. The careers seem so unrelated at first glance. However, I think it is quite similar in that you are essentially making things beautiful, your work of art so to speak. However, as fate would have it, I did premed for one year at Pace University in NY which was quite expensive for my parents to pay without taking out loans so my mom encouraged me to try nursing so that after 4 years I would have a stable career and if I wanted to continue to pursue medicine I wouldn’t have to be a starving student with tons of debt i.e. student loans.”
Melanie tells us that “As a nurse I loved learning new things but I always felt as though something was missing. I am a huge lover of fashion and it absolutely mortified me to wear what seemed to be pajamas to work, our nails could not have enhancements such as acrylic or gel and sometimes depending on where you work, they advised against wearing perfume which I am obsessed with. So needless to say I was already thinking of ways I could be more fashionable and this was the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey. I went to Fashion Institute and Technology in NYC to register for fashion designing. The day I was scheduled to meet was 9/11 and then life happened. I later moved to Georgia and started a family.”
Please tell us about your diagnosis
“Cancer is a word, not a sentence.” – John Diamon
2013 presented one of the most challenging years of my life. I had just finished my Masters in Nursing and I was simultaneously in the beginning stages of a divorce. I also applied to go back to school to become a family nurse practitioner and was accepted to Georgia State University. In September 2013, my job was going through a transition with upper management. As a result of the changes, I made the difficult decision to give my two week resignation as it affected my home and work life balance.
A few months prior, I noticed I was having some occasional sharp pain in my left breast however, I just chalked it up to the possibility of the onset of my menstrual cycle. One day I felt the sharp pain and when I felt the area there also seemed to be a small lump. I decided to do a physical because I knew I would have no health insurance once I resigned. The day of the physical my doctor agreed that there was a lump and she gave me a referral for a mammogram. I did the mammogram on September 27, 2013 which was my last day of work. I was asked to stay because the mammogram had some calcification that needed to be assessed with an ultrasound. The ultrasound confirmed that there were some abnormal findings and I was referred to a general surgeon the same day. I remember the surgeon coming into the room and saying he has been expecting me because they had already called him to review my mammogram. He explained that because the calcification was located at an unusual place, they would not be able to do the typical biopsy. I would have to go to interventional radiology to have a guide wire placed inside my breast first to reach the areas where the calcification were located then they would take me to the operating room to have the calcification surgically removed and tested.
I started crying because I knew my insurance would be ending on September 30, 2013. I explained to him that I would not have any insurance after the 30th and would not be able to pay for the surgery. He then called his medical assistant in and asked her to check his schedule to which she replied he was completely booked. He told his assistant to fit me in however she can even if he had to stay later than usual. I knew that this was pure divine intervention because as a nurse, I know that it is rare that you ever get scheduled for a surgery in a week let alone three days. I had my biopsy on September 30, 2013 and on October 4, 2013 I received the call informing me that I had Ductal Carcinoma In Situ or DCIS.
What were your first thoughts when you were diagnosed with DCIS?
When I received my diagnosis, I got a little emotional but mostly I was in shock wondering what effect it would have on life as I knew it. I called one of my best friends and ex-coworker and informed her of the news. She helped me to look at the silver lining, meaning in the grand scheme of things on the scale of cancer this is the stage you would want to have because it is still contained in the cells and not metastasized hence the term “in situ”. Most of my family members were the last to know, specifically my mom because I didn’t want her worrying excessively.
How did the news make you feel?
I wasn’t as stressed initially about the diagnosis as much as I was stressed about all the hospital bills I was receiving. I was informed by my surgeon’s medical assistant that I would be able to qualify for emergency Medicaid since I no longer had a job or income. I was having a difficult time finding physicians and the list of providers that I was given were either outdated or they did not accept Medicaid.
I remember calling my ex-coworker that was still working at the hospital and I was crying hysterically telling her about how difficult a time I was having trying to find a doctor. She called the oncology liaison in the hospital and told her about me. I was then who connected to social worker that worked for one of the Oncologist. The social worker gave me so much valuable information such as helping me apply for emergency Medicaid, providing me with a list of organizations that would help financially. I thought of the people who were not as fortunate as I am to know people in the healthcare system that could lead them in the right direction.
Once I got Medicaid I was able to do a breast cancer gene test (BRCA) which tests for mutations in the genes and how susceptible you are to cancer. My test was negative. The process that led up to me deciding to do the bilateral mastectomy was very stressful because I did not realize that they typically removed not only all of your breast tissue but your nipples as well. I did research on my own and found out that they had a nipple sparing procedure which was an option and I proceeded to research physicians that were able to perform this surgery. I also consulted with an oncologist who informed me that if the physicians were able to remove all the cancerous tissue and I had clear margins I would not have to do radiation. I had already made up my mind that I would not be doing radiation because not only does it damage the skin, it makes it more difficult during the reconstruction process because your skin is essentially burned during the process. I also told my oncologist that I would not be taking any oral medications because the side effects were just a whole other list of problems that I did not need.
What changes did you make after the diagnosis?
I changed my diet and ate healthier. I started learning quite a bit regarding proper nutrition to aid in the prevention and treatment of cancer. I learned that it is best to keep your blood at a more alkaline level because cancers cannot thrive in this condition as they prefer a more acidic level. I began juicing a lot of vegetables and fruits and avoided most meat products which are acidic.
What was your weakest or lowest moment? What else did you have to deal with while fighting for your health?
One of my lowest moments was after I did the mastectomy on December 8, 2013. I received a call from my surgeon informing me that the margins were not clear meaning there were still some cancer cells left behind. I was brought back into the operating room on December 30, 2013 to try to remove the remaining tissue that was left behind. As if that wasn’t enough I received a call on January 7, 2014 from my surgeon stating that the margins still weren’t clear and I would require a third surgery. I decided to get a second opinion from another surgeon that was referred to me by a friend who lived in New York and worked for one of the best hospitals in the city.
I was truly devastated that I would have another surgery and I remember telling friends and family that if I did this third surgery and the report came back with unclean margins, I would not do anything else. I would let life take its course. After the third surgery I finally had clean margins however, that was not the end of it as I started having some swelling in my left breast and they had to drain the fluid. It seemed it would never end because as soon as the drainage would decrease and the tube was removed, a few days later it would swell up again and I had to have the tube replaced. Even while fighting for my life I had other issues to contend with as they discontinued my Medicaid a week before my last surgery. I wrote letters to two news channels and the Secretary of State to try to get assistance in my time of need.
What role did God play in this time? Were you angry? Did you question Him? Did you draw closer to Him?
I have never prayed as much as I did during this time. I don’t know if the letters helped or it was pure divine intervention but my Medicaid case worker called me to say she would be reinstating the coverage. Two of my sisters, Rose-Anne and Melissa brought inspirational books and DVDs to me and helped me to stay in faith at times when I was questioning if there truly is a God. By listening to the word of God, I started to believe in his promises that I was healed. I began to speak great health over my life because the word says to speak it into existence.
Just finished crying because her breast was swelling. Vacation in Miami
What were your lessons learned?
What I learned during this process was that sometimes God allows you to go through the storm so that when all the darkness and clouds have cleared you are that much closer to your purpose and the person He created you to be. I have no real family history of cancer and I strongly believe that I was stressed from going to school doing my masters, going through a divorce and transitioning into becoming a single mom. I had no idea I was stressed and actually thought I was juggling everything quite well. However, the human body has a way of forcing you to pause even when you don’t want to.
During this time, I really came to know the value of great friendships and family support. My friends and coworkers at the hospital I previously worked at collaborated and bought gifts that Christmas for my children and they gave money to help with my daily needs. I had friends and family members that paid bills for me, hired someone who came in and cleaned my home, they took shifts with coming for a week or two to cook meals and help me get the children to and from school and take me to my medical appointments. My friend, Karene took me to church every Sunday and got me out of the house to clear my mind.
What were you propelled to do after winning the battle?
This process caused me to reflect on who I am as a person and when I did that I realized that I had a lot of resentment and bitterness that I was carrying during the divorce process. I also finally decided to follow my passion which was to become a fashion designer. I decided not to go back to school to become a family nurse practitioner and I began working on my sketches for my clothing line.
What advice would you give to others and specifically those who diagnosed with a medical illness?
My advice to someone going through this process is to try to take the process as a learning experience. Evaluate what are the possible stressors in your life and what can you do to alleviate those stressors. Surround yourself with positivity as this will be the key to healing first and foremost. It all begins in the mind’s eye and what you believe then gets manifested into the physical life. Feast on the Word of God because faith comes by hearing.
The quality of people in your life will play a major factor as you will need to have people you can depend on for strength when you feel you are incapable of being strong. Most importantly, be your own healthcare advocate as you will find that some people in the medical field are not as forthcoming with information and sometimes neglect to tell you the pros and cons of every situation. Do your own research, get second and third opinions if possible before making a commitment. Weigh every option carefully and decide which route is best for you and your family.
Lastly, I strongly advise that you maintain a normalcy of life and not let the battle be the main focus. During my health battle, I still went out to the mall, out to dinner and celebrated life. I did not allow the process to consume me and that was very beneficial.
“Cancer may have started the fight, but I will finish it.” – gotCancer.org
Melanie has been cancer free for the last 3 years. She is still working in the medical field and is diligently working on her clothing line.
Boldness is not about the absence of fear, but approaching life with persistence and dealing with whatever comes your way. She chose to become a victor, not a victim.
Connect with Melanie on Instagram @thepyt77
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