On April 21, during the initial surge of COVID-19, Maureen Aylward walked alone into North Shore Medical Center in Salem to have her right breast removed as part of her treatment plan for early stage 2 breast cancer.
“I was petrified about the coronavirus, and I was overcome with this tidal wave of anxiety and fear going into a hospital,” Aylward, 55, said.
The Rockport mother of three older boys expressed gratitude and deep appreciation for the support of a dear friend, and former colleague, from Swampscott, who was diagnosed just weeks before her.
Together, they traveled through this life-changing diagnosis.
“I was flabbergasted when my friend told me, and I was thinking, what can I do to be there for her, and a month later, I felt a lump in my right breast,” said Aylward, who is the general manager of 1623 Studios, a community media center and creative agency on Cape Ann. “We just couldn’t believe it was happening at the same time.
“We were there for each other in the darkest moments of this experience. We could call each other and say, ‘I’m done with this’ and ‘I don’t want to deal with it anymore,’ because you get pretty down, and it’s super hard to walk back into the cancer center and sit down in that infusion chair and willingly receive those treatments.”
Her friend had surgery first — a double mastectomy at a Boston hospital — followed by reconstruction and then chemotherapy.
Aylward underwent six rounds of chemo first, followed by a mastectomy and reconstruction.
As devastating as the diagnosis was, Aylward found solace in being welcomed into the care of an all-female surgical team, from the surgeon to the recovery room nurses.
When she was getting prepped for surgery, the woman anesthesiologist was receptive to Aylward’s request for affirmations while coming out of anesthesia based on positive outcomes she had read about.
“I was told that I was going to be OK and I am going to be safe,” she recalled. “It was so important to me to have women around in this breast cancer experience, especially in the loss of the breast. They listened to me, and the compassion on their faces was real. They guided me through. It was empowering in the middle of this time of intense fear and anxiety.”
For Aylward and her friend, the word “hope” — often used in breast cancer discussions — was a misnomer.
“One day, as I looked at the other women in a waiting room, I wondered, ‘Do you have hope or are you scared to death?’” Aylward said. “It’s so confusing at the beginning and everything just drains right out of you. You’re scared and you don’t know what to do and you don’t know what’s going to happen to you.
“In those early days, my friend and I were trying to figure out what would be expected of us as breast cancer patients. There are organizations that use hope as a way to carry patients through, but there is the other side. My friend and I didn’t have hope at that time. I couldn’t fathom hope, because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Aylward and her friend turned away from support groups and decided to be each other’s support system.
“We are not warriors and that narrative of fighting cancer didn’t make sense for us,” she said. “We didn’t have the strength to battle it and, for me, it created a lot of stress to think I was going into battle with something that was part of me.
“I was going to be brave and courageous as I went through it, and it had nothing to do with being a warrior, but everything to do with making the next right decision, showing up for my treatments and doing what the doctors are telling you to do.”
Aylward struggled with the loss that comes with a mastectomy.
“One of the most difficult parts is the thought of my breast being amputated,” Aylward said. “That loss is not talked about, but there is much grief and sadness connected to that. I was shocked and dumbfounded that I couldn’t even speak of it. But now, with a new level of acceptance, I can talk about it. I was losing this symbol of motherhood, this symbol of womanhood.
“When I was worried about the grotesque nature of what it might look like, my friend bared her chest to show me and it’s not bad. It helped me understand my goal of acceptance for what was to come.”
Even before she underwent surgery, Aylward faced another setback in January, what she referred to as a triple threat — pneumonia, sepsis and a potassium crash while undergoing her chemo treatments. She spent six days in the Salem hospital.
“Suddenly, I wasn’t a cancer patient anymore. I was another kind of patient because I had an infectious disease,” she said. “I thought, if I can make it through this, I can do anything.”
Aylward stressed that she believes it’s critical for women coping with breast cancer who don’t have a support system to find groups or other individuals experiencing the same situations to interact with.
While she may not have been consumed with optimism throughout her treatment, Aylward did eventually find hope.
“Hope comes at the end. Hope comes when you get through it and the light comes back for hope,” she said. “You can say, I’m going to be OK.”