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One in a Million
Connie Teevan

I had always thought of myself as a healthy person. I was forty-four years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. They found five lumps on a Friday; I was biopsied on Monday and had a mastectomy the following Friday. I knew it was serious because they were really pushing me along. I knew a little bit about breast cancer and had fourteen positive lymph nodes, which is not good. I was not old, and I was shocked about how serious my illness was. My surgeon told me that I needed to start living each day as if it were my last.

This hit me like a ton of bricks. I had a six-year-old daughter, eleven-Year-old son, and a fourteen-year-old daughter who was just starting high school. You do everything you can to protect your children. You send them to the best schools. You send them to special classes. But I couldn't protect them from the loss of their mother. That hit me really hard, and I started to prepare to die.

I went through all my high school and college things and put together a time capsule, packets of letters and pictures of me for the kids, so they would know me from the beginning, as a child all the way up. You really don't get to know your mother as a person until you're older, and I thought, "They're not going to get to know who I am." I realized that my six-year-old would barely remember me.

I asked my husband, Jim, to start videotaping me. Before, whenever he would take videos of us, I'd say, "Oh, turn that thing off, and stop taking so many pictures:Then I thought, "Oh, God, the kids are going to remember me this way." So I asked him to take videos of me smiling and being really sweet.

I also got the family into counseling immediately because I wanted to get Jim ready to be the mother. I was hoping he could learn to listen better and take on a dual parental role, which is not easy for anybody. Family counseling was very important for all of us because we could talk about scary things during our counseling sessions and then leave those thoughts there, go out for ice cream, and get on with our lives.

Meanwhile, I was trying to wrap up everything as quickly as I could. I'm a very organized person. and I wanted to leave my family in good shape to go on without me. Then, all of a sudden, I knew that I couldn't leave these children. I realized that the best thing I could do for my family was to make a commitment to live.

I immediately flipped to the opposite approach. Instead of preparing to die, I prepared to stay here with my family. I came to believe that if I had a one-in-a-million chance, I was going to be that one in a million.

Several things helped me make that decision. We were all working hard in family therapy, and I saw how important I was to my kids and how much they didn't want to lose me. Also, my doctor had told me about bone-marrow transplants -- a very aggressive, state-of-the-art treatment and that gave me hope that I could get rid of the cancer.

There wasn't any reason not to have hope. It never even crossed Jim's mind that I was going to die. He is a very optimistic person and was always sure I was going to make it. I had the best doctors in San Francisco and they cared about me. I had very supportive friends. Everyone was rallying behind me. So I just started thinking, "I need to be here." Everybody wanted me to live, and there was no reason not to.

I wasn't always positive. When I was in the hospital during my bone-marrow transplant, I had many problems: my kidneys failed, I had severe infections, and I was on many antibiotics. I was in such bad shape most of the time that it was hard for me to have much control or will or ability to do anything to heal myself. Never in my life had I felt like such a passive victim, just lying there at everybody's mercy.

That was a terrifying situation. I had all kinds of hallucinations. I couldn't do anything by myself, and if the nurses didn't have the right IV bags going into me, I was going to die. The Gulf War was going on, but I couldn't concentrate enough to watch TV. I thought they were going to come bomb me. I thought that there'd be an earthquake and everybody would leave the hospital while I was still hooked up to my IV bags. It was probably the low point of my life. I was so dependent and scared.

Many times during my treatment I felt down, but everybody around me was giving me the same message: I was going to make it. The partners at my law firm made me a partner when I was undergoing the bone-marrow transplant. Not many law firms would do that. That was a life-affirming act. They believed I was going to come back to work. I was going to be whole.

My doctor had a wonderful woman in his office named Dorothy Mihaly who did New Age therapy with me right from the beginning. She had interesting ways of looking at things. We often meditated, which is probably conventional now, but at the time it was all new to me. We traveled inside ourselves and cleansed ourselves. We worked on positive thinking and did hands-on healing if there was something about our bodies that concerned us.

I joined a support group that Dorothy was leading. I had gone to a lot of support groups where people had what seemed to me to be less serious problems -- they'd had lumpectomies and were concerned about what people thought about their breasts and I had thought, "This isn't for me. I want to be with people who are dealing with life- and-death issues." So I joined Dorothy's group of people with very serious illnesses. Almost all of the group members had been given death sentences.

We did a lot of adventuresome things. We put special objects- things that were important to us-in a basket, and then we chanted to empower them. You might put a healing crystal into the basket. If you were having an important client call, you might put your file in there. I put in pictures of my children. One night we went to the beach, built a bonfire, and danced around it. We shared the different things we were trying. Some of us were doing Tai Chi, some were doing acupuncture, some were on macrobiotic diets.

When I was first diagnosed, my family had been planning a back-packing trip to New Mexico that we had to cancel. When I recovered, we decided to go to New Mexico after all. On the drive through New Mexico with the kids, we stopped at a tiny healing church and gathered the healing sand. When we got back home, my daughter put together a little bowl with the sand, and we put in some of the Native American fetishes we had bought.

It wasn't that the fetishes or the sand or the objects in the basket or any of these had any meaning in and of themselves -- I'm a lawyer and I don't take much on faith -- but they were always for me to live, to be positive, to be life-affirming. They were all ways of enabling me to take control of things. The best doctors were giving me the most aggressive treatment they could, but that's what they were doing. The only way I could take control of my life was to work on healing myself in these other ways.

How would I define the will to live? It's just a conscious decision that you're going to live, and you make sure that everything you do all day, every day, leads to that outcome. You decide that you are not going to die from this disease now, and you're not going to accept anything that tells you differently. You just gear yourself up and that's it.

It wasn't the fear of death that drove me. It wasn't even concern about my husband so much. It was that I didn't want to leave my children. My goals are different now, because my children are growing up. it's a much more selfish kind of thing. Now I want to retire with my husband. I want to travel with him.

I didn't think I was going to live forever, but I needed to make a window of time in which I was going to get my older daughter in college and my son out of junior high school. Now my aim is to get my younger daughter through high school, and I think I might make it to a ripe old age. My goals keep expanding. In fact, when I meditate, I envision myself as an old, old lady. That is such a beautiful symbol to me. I am old and fat and wrinkled, and it is joyful to see myself that way.

Sometimes I feel like a sham because I have been very lucky. I don't know why I'm still here or how long I'm going to be here. Everybody really has to make their own decisions about that. But the most important thing to me is to cut out all the things that tell you that you are not going to make it or that you're at high risk. There are lots of things that intrude and give you the message you are going to die. You have to be very careful. You have to ferret out all the negative messages, even if people think they're not being negative.

For a while, when I'd see my doctors they'd say, "Oh, here's the miracle girl. Look at her. She's doing so well." It sounds like a compliment, but it's not, because it implies that you should have died. When I heard that I would think, "I'm not a miracle girl. Don't talk about this as if it's something extraordinary. This is not unusual. This is just my life. I'm going to live. I'm going to make it."

It's not that I don't get scared or discouraged. It's not that I don't cry or don't ever think I am going to die, but I don't stray from my course.

You have to be vigilant. I loved my support group, but when most of the group that was my age or younger died, I had to leave the group because the message was, "You're next." I never listen to any statistics. I never want to hear them. Never, ever, ever. I purposely block all that out because I don't want to incorporate that negative information. The worst thing that happened to me was reading the letter my bone-marrow doctor had written to the insurance company to get insurance coverage for the transplant. I was very upset to read how serious my condition was. Now I never read or listen to anything that has to do with statistics. There was an article in Time magazine about breast cancer. As soon as I came to the statistics, I put the article away. I want to make my own destiny. And my destiny is to live.

The funny thing is, people think you'll change your life completely after an experience like this. You'll quit your job, you'll do different things, you'll live a new life or whatever. But what this experience did for me was to show me how much I liked my life. I used to think, "I should be doing more than this. I should be a more successful lawyer or accomplish more each day. I ought to keep a clean house or study more." I always had these shoulds and oughts. I was always pushing myself, never being satisfied with where I was.

The experience made me see that I was really happy with what I had. I loved everything about my family, my friends, my work, my garden, my house, I just wanted to stay around to enjoy it all. It made me appreciate the normal, everyday things. I'm much more content now with who I am and what I'm doing. I just had to change the way I viewed my life. If I could do anything, I would choose to do exactly what I'm doing now. .

I think everyone has to find what's best for them. Really working on staying positive and focused is what helped me the most, and all the other things I did were a means to that end. Maybe I'll need those other things again, but I don't need them right now. But, continuing to maintain a positive attitude is very important for me. Even if it doesn't work in healing me, it still improves the quality of my life, so it's a win-win situation.

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First appeared May 2, 2008; updated June 12, 2009