Your Shared Cancer Stories
My Gift To You
At age 33 (13 years ago) I found a small, soft rounded lump near my outer left breast. Of coarse, I was very frightened. After many sleepless nights, it was biopsyied, then two weeks later, surgically removed. Thank God it was a benign lipoma (fatty tumor). I was told I had "fibrocystic breasts." The surgeon had also removed a fibroadenoma (non-cancerous) lesion near the left nipple. I think these benign findings gave me a false sense of security. Although it was not stressed by the medical staff, I knew I should have a follow up mammogram at some point, but did not.
I lived my life rather carefree with my wonderfully loving husband ... watching our two sons grow up in our beautiful, small mid-western community. By age 40, my sister (a year younger than I) was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. (Her dentist saw a lump in her neck and recommended follow up with her family doctor-bless his soul!) Thankfully, most thyroid cancers carry an excellent prognosis, especially if diagnosed before age 40 like hers was. (she was 39) I supported her throughout her treatments, which included complete thyroidectomy, radioactive iodine ablation and synthroid for the rest of her life. Today, five years later, she is cancer free. At the time of her diagnosis, I thought seriously about being checked for thyroid cancer myself. At the same time, a 45-year-old co-worker was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy and radiation treatments. I remember thinking ... now is the time to have my mammogram. However, at this time, mammograms were not covered by our insurance plan until age 45. (I was 41) There was talk that our insurance plan would be covering mammos starting at age 40 (next year). My decision was to wait one more year so the mammo would be covered. Besides, I reasoned, "What are the chances that my sister would have thyroid cancer, my co-worker-breast cancer and me have some type of cancer?" My answer to that question would come three! years later. Yes, I waited for three more years, until I was 44, before having my second mammogram. After all ... no history of breast cancer in the family ... or so I thought, until my grandmother (age 83) was diagnosed a year earlier.
My official entry into the hellish whorl-winds of breast cancer wasn’t even a well-planned event. I had this nagging feeling for some time that "something was wrong” physically. There were no overt symptoms at all. Just this intuition whispering … cancer ... cancer ... It didn’t really frighten me out of my wits (like it should have) ... it just made me start thinking ... a lot. Within days, I noticed a blood vessel on my face that seemed to have grown over a few months to the size of a pea. I thought ... "Ah ha, this could be early skin cancer...I have very fair skin ... lots of sun burns as a child ... this could explain that nagging feeling that I have cancer somewhere." I also remembered a small tan lesion on my shoulder that had irregular edges and decided to see the dermatologist about both lesions. He did not seem! to be too impressed. (Although I insisted that I felt it could be cancer) He took a sample of the tan lesion on my left shoulder to biopsy it and said he would have results in a week or so. He was 99% sure it was not cancer. The cheek lesion was just dilated blood vessels ... nothing to worry about. Hmmm ...that was it ... I thought, o.k. since I am here, I may as well see if they can get me in today for a mammogram. Although my chances seemed slim that I could get in the same day, there was in deed an opening, which even surprised the scheduler. And little did I know it then, but this visit would prove to be the unwanted "welcome" into the world of breast cancer.
The tech took the mammo films with grace and ease, was very professional, friendly and talkative. She did a breast exam too, and then suddenly became quiet. She seemed a bit concerned about something. After leaving me lay there on the table for a moment, she came back into the room announcing that another couple of views! were needed. She still talked and joked, but seemed a little distracted (and was that nervousness I sensed?) After the retakes, she quickly said ...Well, the radiologist will have results for you within a week." Then she practically pushed me out the door. Her charm and demeanor had changed ... and I just passed it off as perhaps she took too much time with me and now she was running late for her next appt. I really had no serious worries that the results would be anything other than normal. How wrong I was. Three phone messages greeted me by the time I returned home: (I did not like the feeling of this sudden popularity.) The radiologist, the receptionist and my primary care doctor all wanted me to call back asap. It was a bit confusing ... everyone was so nervous sounding. What I gathered from all of them was an ultrasound was needed asap.
A few days later I was back at the office again ... with a very nasty mammogram hanging in front of me showing a gross abnormality. I questioned the tech that maybe that was a calcification ... she went through the motions to look at the film and shook her head "no." She added that the radiologist would talk to me more. Then the ultrasound was done-over my left breast ... and it actually hurt. The tech was very sympathetic. Soon, the ultrasound film was hanging on the wall next to me. There was a picture of my left breast, with something strange and ominous in the center. It was a large, dark triangular shadow. (I immediately recognized the "speculated" star pattern I read about that almost always indicates invasive cancer) The radiologist came in and wasted no time telling me (rather bluntly) that I have breast cancer. She was so confident that there was no point asking, "are you sure?" Seeing my horrified look, she quickly added that she has seen patients survive 15 or even 20 years with this. This was supposed to be reassuring ... but I was only 44 years old. I thought I'd live to be an old lady! I left the clinic in a daze, got into my van and immediately called my dear husband of 23! years. Between sobs, I reluctantly told him "they are saying I have breast cancer!" All I could think to say was "I'm so sorry ... so sorry ... "
More tests. The fine needle and stereo tactic biopsies did not confirm their suspicions. The pathology report only showed "fibrocystic breast changes." However, the pathologist was quick to caution me that I was "not out of the woods yet." Meaning ... for various reasons, not all core samples will contain the suspicious cancer cells seen flaunting themselves on the films. With this news, I did hold out some hope, but was also realistic. Deep inside ... I knew it was breast cancer. I was scheduled for an open biopsy, which would give the true story by removing the entire tumor and some surrounding healthy tissue.
Meanwhile, I researched the heck out of breast cancer and gradually became less frightened by all of the terminology and realities of the disease. I was surprised and relieved to see that there are good outcomes for many people with breast cancer. I prayed that I would be spared - that this had! been caught early. Well, a week after surgery, I got up the courage to phone my doctor since no one seemed to be calling me from his office with the results of the open biopsy. I was on hold for a long time ... so I doodled on a piece of scratch paper - a cross and the word "Jesus" with light shining from his name ... the words "love" and "hope" and my name "Lynn" embraced in loving circles and then the surgeon came on. I could hear him take a breath and very slowly said ..."well, it's breast cancer." His voice was filled with empathy. I immediately went into automation...like a reporter wanting to get the facts for the big story on the evening news ... I asked for all of the specifics: Size: 1.7, grade 1-invasive lobular and tubular, with 10% being DCIS, grade 2 cribiform. Margins were free, however, one was very close. I knew, for me that meant more surgery. I also now knew something about lobular breast carcinoma ... it has a tendency to be bilateral. (30%) I told all of my! doctors this ... like a broken record, until one aggressive surgeon finally said let's do another mammogram on the right. And there it was ... a 2 mm lesion! Another stereo tactic biopsy was performed and removed that lesion which was tubular carcinoma. (very good prognosis)
After more hours of research, I decided to have a left mastectomy and a right lumpectomy. Sentinel node biopsy was recommended as the up and coming "new" gold standard. I was not sold on the idea. More research ... and a request for an auxiliary biopsy was granted prior to surgery to decide if sentinel node biopsy was right for me. An ultrasound found one enlarged auxiliary lymph node. The biopsy was done and it was immediately determined no cancer cells were found. (hurray) Now I felt better about the sentinel node biopsy ... which meant less chance of lymphadema since only a few nodes would be removed rather that the standard 15-25. Post surgery ... no lymph node involvement! Reports also indicated the left tumor was 2.0 by 2.7 cm-larger than first thought. Er and Pr neg, hormone receptor positive. No vascular or lymph node invasion noted. Right breast, all margins clear. Good Prognosis! (My oncologist called it Stage I) This was followed by 4 cycles of AC and right breast irradiation.
I am now taking tomaxifin and am trying to keep physically fit and eat a healthy diet. My initial dx was in March of 04. The chemo was rough, but I kept working, only taking off during the treatment weeks. My employer has been wonderfully supportive as has been my family, friends and the community. I worry about my family, how they will cope if this illness takes me away from them earlier than we expected. I am now trying to get our financial and personal things "in order." My husband has a very positive approach to life ... always has. I know he will be able to cope with this, although, it is very difficult for everyone. My sons are adults now, so I find that to be a blessing. I am a stronger person that I thought. And this experience has helped me grow in so many ways. I! see relationships with others as the single most important reason we are here. And that LOVE is the most important quality we can give and receive. I am not afraid of death, however, I do regret the misery that a slow demise can bring to those who care ... especially my family.
I pray that I can stay here a long time. I am a real fighter ... but I am also realistic. So far, no recurrences. But every little ache or pain reminds me of the possibility. By the way ... no skin cancer. I do have a thyroid lesion though, 2 cm, that was recently biposied. It was an incidental finding on my last CT scan. (which was otherwise clear) I am still waiting for the results and it has been over a week.
I will continue on through my journey of self-discovery and this unexpected battle with breast cancer. I now believe I have earned the title of breast cancer survivor! I will wear it proudly! My message (and gift) to those of you reading this ... Don't live in denial ... do not delay your mammograms, be persistent with your doctors, research as much as you can and follow your instincts about your health ... it may just save your life!