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“Get out of the damn boat, Donna!”

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Have you ever had a “feeling” stop you dead in your tracks?   Sensed that you were in peril?  That someone you love is?  Or reacted out of character, following a gut hunch?

Six years ago while on a cruise with my best friend and her family, a private tour in the Grand Cayman’s to swim with sting rays was set up months in advance.  I knew I would not step foot off the boat.   A long life of fear around these creatures was “sealed” when “The Crocodile Hunter” died of injuries sustained from one.   It was a rough day to be out, complicated further by a tour director whose boat was nothing like pictured in the ads, nor did he care how old or how many passengers he had, or if the wake was affecting his guests.   Anyway, I digress.

My girlfriend and her daughter piled quickly out of the boat.  I sat, watching.   Her daughter, who is brave beyond brave, reacted unexpectedly to the feel of the sting rays on her legs, or perhaps it was their laser sharp tails that brushed against you when they swam past you.  She started to scream, which did catch the attention of our tour guide.  “You can scream all you want, just please, stop jumping up and down”.    Oh sure, I thought.  Steve Irwin all over again!    As she climbed back into the boat I was surprised at what I was thinking.

Something had my attention.  It was silent to all but me.  “Get out of the boat”.    Like hell I will!   And after a few more minutes I sensed that this adventure was something that I had to do.    Whatever it was, call it sixth sense, sign, I “knew” I needed to get out of the boat and face this fear.   And I did.

I defied the rough seas, mouthfuls of such and made my way out to the area where my friends were.   A couple of times I thought I was going to pass out, particularly when I felt the sharpness of one of its’ tails on my legs.   I stood still, took a deep breath and prayed…  “Whatever I am supposed to do here, get from being here, let this happen and quick!”.    This inner force was telling me that I needed courage.    I remember thinking “Okay, but why THIS?”

I will not say that I ever got totally comfortable with this.  These sting rays were used to being fed, they were stars in what was an obvious tourist attraction.    The smaller ones were male, the largest ones, which we were told could get up to 400 lbs, were females.  But of course!   We were feeding them raw fish.   Sushi, anyone?

Suddenly a very large sting ray was directing my way.  Oh God, this is it, I thought!   The guide came over and showed me how to hold out my arms and actually HOLD this huge sting ray.   They really felt like wet mushrooms against my body, but again, I knew I “had to do this”.   And I did.    I remember looking into its little beady eyes.    I held it for a few minutes, let it go, and then decided I had been brave enough for the day, found my way back to the boat.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been guided by inner voice, but it was surely the first and probably the last time I would swim with Sting Rays.     For the next couple of days, reflecting on that strong urge, I knew it was about courage, but that was as far as I got.   As always, it feels good to do something that you don’t particularly think you can do, or are afraid of.  Self confidence spikes.

Flying home I thought about what a wonderful vacation it was, and I held that experience close in thought.   Who would have thought that I would do something so brave?   Childhood fears can run PRETTY deep!    Upon arriving home I had a routine mammogram scheduled the following day.   The technician took extra slides, and I knew something wasn’t right.  It was eight months prior to that when I had tested positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation.   I honestly thought I wouldn’t test positive because my sisters were far younger than me when they were diagnosed with cancer.   I think I slid past this!

Within 48 hours I walked out to the mailbox to find a letter from the hospital.   My hands were shaking as I was trying to open the letter, and answer the phone at the same time.   “Donna?   We have an appointment scheduled for you tomorrow with your Dr, and prior to that you are scheduled to come back in for more slides”.    I hung up the phone and immediately called my sister, explained to her what is going on.   We decided not to tell my parents until we had to.   But we both knew, this wasn’t just random.

I went in the next day for more slides and met with my doctor who insisted that he felt it was nothing.    I remember watching his lips mouth words “I say we sit on this, and see what the mammogram shows in a few months”.   I swallowed, a hard swallow.   “No, I want a biopsy”.     By this time both the radiologists and doctor are telling me that they would agree to do a biopsy, but neither felt it would reveal cancer.    Three days later I, and four other women were scheduled for needle core biopsy in a small hospital in Vermont.     Four benign, one malignancy.   Guess who that malignancy belonged to?

“I would like a second opinion at Dana Farber, please”.   All confidence in them had been squelched.   And so begins my journey through breast cancer.  I value my “gut” instincts.  And while I may not like what I hear, I trust there is purpose behind the sign.

Melissa ETHERIDGE “I run for life!”

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