WASHINGTON, Nov. 10, 2008 -- First and foremost, I'm very thankful to be here to write this.

More than 26,300 new cancer cases were reported in Maryland in 2007, according to the American Cancer Society. I am one of those cases.

I write this for several reasons: to increase individual awareness -- cancer can happen to you -- to encourage regular checkups and mammograms, and to help encourage others in their battle against this disease.

This is my story of the past year, which has been a whirlwind of shock, fear, frustration, determination and courage. But before I take you on my journey, I must address the crucial role of my family and friends. They were there for me at every turn, whether it was an e-mail, phone call, bouquet of flowers or physical presence.

My darkest days were brightened by their unending love, support and words of encouragement. I can't imagine going through the last year without them. I am, indeed, fortunate and count my blessings every day.

My Journey

It all started with a routine checkup and annual mammogram last October. I was 47.

The mammogram "showed something," so the doctors ordered an ultrasound. I remember seeing dark blotches on the screen. The technician didn't say anything. I thought, "She does these screenings every day; this can't be good."

The ultrasound confirmed the doctors' suspicions. The technician said I needed to see the scheduler. Two days later, I had a biopsy. A day later, I got the call: "You have breast cancer."

I went numb. I didn't know what to feel. I just couldn't believe it. I'd always been pretty healthy -- never a broken bone or day in the hospital. I wasn't sick. I had no symptoms. I hadn't noticed any lumps in my breast. This was just a routine checkup.

All kinds of thoughts raced through my mind. I had to call my family. I had to call the office. I had to make doctor's appointments. We'd have to cancel the trip to Mexico. But all I could do was sit there. I didn't even cry. Not then.

My 12-year-old yellow lab came over and put her head on my lap. They say animals can sense when something is wrong, and I truly believe it. Throughout my illness, she wouldn't leave my side.

At the meeting with the breast surgeon, the

doctor and nurses were compassionate, sensitive and informative. They kept saying, "It's good we caught it now," and "Medicine has come so far."

The biopsy showed that I had the most aggressive form of breast cancer. In fact, I maxed out in the three categories differentiation, nuclear grading and mitotic index. My cancer cells were "poor, rather abnormal." The nucleus of the cells was "very large, abnormal," and there was a high mitotic index, which meant the cells were "aggressive and faster-growing."

But it would be OK; we would treat it aggressively, the doctors said. We'd start with surgery on Nov. 8, 2007 two days before my 48th birthday. They sent us home with a huge three-ring binder full of information that included my biopsy results and instructions for after surgery.

In the meantime, I was to get a PET/CT scan -- positron emission tomography/computed tomography -- and blood work to see if the cancer had spread to other parts of my body.

A Second Blow

As if things weren't bad enough, I soon found out how much worse they could get.