How a Stranger’s Advice Helped Her Beat Breast Cancer

A chance encounter in the post office parking lot may have been her saving grace.

Posted in , Aug 27, 2019

Paper art by Sabeena Karnik

Who is that?

I slowed my car near the post office entrance to study a man standing out front. He was an attractive black man, maybe in his forties. I knew him from somewhere. I pulled into the parking lot right next to him and rolled down my window.

“Excuse me,” I said. “You look very familiar, and I can’t figure out why.”

“Well, I used to work at the Food Lion,” he said. “Could that be it?”

“Yes, the produce department!”

He’d always been so friendly; it was no wonder I remembered him. “I haven’t seen you there in quite a while.”

“My wife and I were out of state,” he said, “with her family.”

“How nice.”

He hesitated a moment and looked down at the sidewalk. Then he raised his head. “She was very sick,” he said. “Breast cancer. We didn’t catch it in time.” He looked back down. I stayed quiet. What was there to say? He took a deep breath and put his hand on my left shoulder. He looked straight into my eyes. “Get yourself checked,” he said.

I told him how sorry I was about his wife, and we parted ways. The exchange had set my head spinning. Okay, I thought, I haven’t kept up to date with my mammograms, but I feel fine. That night in bed, I did a self-exam, hoping to put my mind at rest. Instead I felt something unusual in my left breast; it was like a smooth stone under my skin. I hardly slept.

First thing in the morning, I called to make the appointment I had put off for so long. “I found a lump,” I said to the receptionist. She fit me in that very day. “Even if it only turns out to be a cyst,” she said, “it’s best to know right away.”

It was not a cyst. There were two large tumors in my left breast. I was sent to a surgeon for a biopsy, which was followed by more tests than I can remember.

The biopsy results showed that I was “triple positive” for cancer. I was positive for estrogen and progesterone receptors and the HER2 protein. “That means the cancer can grow and spread more quickly,” my oncologist explained. In fact, the cancer had already started to travel out of the breast through the lymph node system. “It’s a good thing you had that mammogram,” the doctor said. I couldn’t help but wonder if my Food Lion acquaintance had been nudged from above.

My treatment was aggressive, and it took a year and a half. It included chemotherapy, two surgeries and a drug called Herceptin. The final step was radiation. Some days I was too exhausted to do anything but lay in bed. Other days, if I had the strength, I tried to take care of routine tasks like shopping, cooking and laundry. Sometimes I went to the post office, and when I did, I looked around for the man from Food Lion. I never saw him.

Even after I was done with treatment and my hair was growing in, my energy level took quite a while to get back to normal. Happily, however, I was pronounced cancer-free. My life no longer revolved around doctor appointments, though I still had regular diagnostic mammograms and office visits with my oncologist, surgeon and radiologist.

It was exciting to have my hair growing back. I started to feel like my old self. Still, I never forgot the man in the parking lot. Then one day I walked toward the post office, and I just froze. Right there in front of the building, in the same exact spot, was the attractive black man. He didn’t notice me walking toward him until I said, “Thank you!”

“For what?” he asked.

“You may have saved my life!”

Before I even learned his name, this man had the courage to give advice to me, a near stranger. This time I had the opportunity to tell Randy, “Cancer does not always win.”

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