Note: this is my experience. Everyone has a different cancer story and experience. Treatments vary person to person. Check with your doctor or medical professional for what’s best for you and your condition.
I found a lump in my right breast while I was watching TV. I immediately googled “breast lumps,” but found nothing helpful. Is the lump hard? I don’t know, compared to what? Does it move? Boobs are fat, so maybe the lump moves – or is that just breast tissue moving?
After a night of Internet searches, I called my primary care doctor. She scheduled a mammogram (my first ever) and ultrasound. The tests found two lumps in my right breast. A week later I had a biopsy, and two days after that, I learned I had breast cancer.
Cancer didn’t run in my family (fun fact: 85% of women with breast cancer have no family history). Plus, I was too young to have breast cancer. I was a mom with young kids, surely it couldn’t be cancer, right?
My cancer would later be diagnosed as stage 2A, invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), grade 3, triple negative.
- IDC: I had cancer in the breast ducts, and it started to spread to the breast tissues outside the ducts.
- Stage 2A: There was more than one tumor, both of between 2 and 5 centimeters, but there was no indication it spread to the lymph nodes (that’s the “A” part).
- Grade 3: Grading of a tumor refers to how closely the cells resemble “normal” ones and how quickly the cells multiply. My grade was 3, the highest grade, meaning it was an aggressive cancer.
- Triple negative: The tumors weren’t “fed” by the three most common receptors: estrogen, progesterone, or HER-2. My tumors were growing for unknown reasons.
My medical team and I decided on a neoadjuvant approach to getting rid of these tumors. Since the triple negative diagnosis meant they couldn’t be sure how my tumors would react to any treatments, we started with chemo first to gauge how the tumors would respond.
I started chemo in January 2015. The plan called for six months of visits to the cancer center for infusions of poisons that would (hopefully) shrink the tumors. Every week my blood was drawn to test how my body was reacting.
The first two months, I had chemo every other week. After that, weekly.
Chemo is boring. It’s basically sitting in a chair for two to four hours. It doesn’t hurt, and you can walk around, dragging an IV pole behind you. You can watch TV, sleep, read a book, talk to the nurses or family members. Sometimes the cancer center offered hand massages to help with relaxation. I usually used the time to do work or take a nap.
Halfway through my chemo schedule, I was diagnosed with pneumonia. I spent two weeks in the hospital on oxygen and being injected with some really strong antibiotics, as well as medications to “force” my body to make new cells to replace the ones killed from the chemo.
After I was discharged, my chemo continued. But my treatments were stopped a few weeks early because I developed neuropathy, a condition in which extremities feel numb or lose feeling entirely. Neuropathy can become permanent if treatments aren’t stopped. (More than a year later, I still have some numbness in the tip of two fingers.)
A month after chemo ended, I had surgery. At the beginning of the diagnosis, I was adamant I would have a mastectomy. But after genetic testing and chemo – and because I was incredibly exhausted after six months of chemo – and after a lot of research and talking to my medical team, a lumpectomy would provide (almost) the same success rate, but with fewer side effects and a much less recovery time. I was one of the fortunate ones with a choice – lose the whole breast or just part.
All told, about a quarter of my right breast tissue was removed and then my plastic surgeon “reshaped” and lifted my breast using the remaining tissue.
Since I still had breast tissue, I started radiation to make sure any cancer cells that might still be in my body would be terminated. Four small blue dots were permanently tattooed on my body to sure I was in the same position for every treatment. Radiation was every weekday for five weeks.
Radiation caused nasty “burns” under my armpit. Large pieces of skin would slough off daily. I couldn’t wear deodorant. It hurt to put my arm down. It hurt to put my arm up. There was nothing the medical team could do. It was probably the most painful part of my cancer journey.
Six months after the radiation ended, I had surgery on the left side, the breast without cancer. For months, I lived with one “good” breast (perky and happy, post-cancer surgery) and the “before” breast (the boob of a 40+ year old woman who nursed two large, hungry babies). Surgery was a success, and the ladies are again a matching set.
It’s been a year since radiation ended, and today I’m in complete remission; there’s no sign of cancer. I will have doctor’s appointments and tests several times a year for the foreseeable future, but I like knowing my medical team is looking after me and my health.
Some breast help tips:
- Take yourself to second base. Know your breasts and what is normal for you. Get mammograms when advised by your doc.
- Call your doctor if anything feels weird or gives you concern. In retrospect I was having occasional shooting pains in that breast, but didn’t think anything of it. Would it have made a difference? Could I have caught the cancer even earlier? Don’t know. But now I have my docs on speed dial in case something seems off.
- Contact support organizations. Know you’re not alone. There are some great organizations to help women through issues with breast health. After Breast Cancer Diagnosis (ABCD), Susan G. Komen, and cancer centers at the local hospitals are just a few of the groups dedicated to helping women through cancer and other breast health issues.
Telling the Kids
When I received “the call,” it wasn’t the breast cancer diagnosis that worried me. It was thinking about what I would tell my kids. Ethan and Lauren were young (9 and 4 years old), had never known anyone with cancer, and had already been through so much in their young lives including the death of their dad.
I didn’t tell want to say anything to the kids until I had as many answers as possible. When you receive a cancer diagnosis, there’s a lot of unknowns: What kind of cancer is it? Did the cancer spread? Exactly “how bad” is it? Some of these questions don’t have answers until after surgery.
It was about a month after the pathologist called before I said anything to Ethan. By then, I had met with multiple doctors and nurses on my medical team, and we had a plan: start with chemo.
“Buddy, we need to talk.”
Ethan was drawing in the dining room when I walked in ready to have the cancer talk.
“You know how I’ve had a lot of doctor appointments and tests lately? Well, the doctors found something funny.”
“Funny, like ha ha, or funny, like bad?” he asked.
“It’s not good,” I said.
I explained that I found a lump in my breast, and through tests, the doctors determined it was cancer.
“Do you know what cancer is?” I asked him, then explained in tween boy speak that some of my cells MUTATED and were AT WAR with my body and it was important to FIGHT off the bad cells before they TOOK OVER.
“I know, mom,” Ethan said. “But you know what? This isn’t going to kill you. You’re going to be just fine.”
And then I cried.
I explained some of the side effects, like losing my hair and having to have surgery. He was very concerned about me becoming bald; he thought it might be embarrassing for him. I promised I’d never let any of his friends see me without a wig or head scarf.
He was most interested in surgery. “So they’re just going to cut them off?” he asked.
I explained I could have surgery to get new breasts, or not. I really hadn’t decided at that point.
Then my comic book junky son said, “Wait! What if you became Super Mom with new boobs that shot poison milk and lasers?”
And then I laughed. I knew we’d be okay. I knew I would be okay.