Breast Cancer Journey - Leading up to the Diagnosis
Sharing My Breast Cancer Experience
I am writing this series of articles because when I found out I had breast cancer, I asked other survivors about certain milestones in their own cancer journey. Most could not remember the specifics, and I completely relate to that. I decided to try to write down my experience, hoping there will be something in my journey that might be helpful to others who feel devastated when they hear they have cancer. I must add that no two people with cancer are alike, and I have found that no two doctors are alike in their treatment. These are important distinctions to remember when going through such a journey. We are each unique, yet sharing our experiences helps make us stronger and possibly gives hope and strength so we know we are not alone.
Life Leading up to Cancer
When I turned 50 in 2015, I decided I was not going to bemoan the fact. When I was 30, I wanted to be 20; when I was 40, I wanted to be 30. Good grief, it was time for me to buck up and embrace my age. After all, I was only going to be 50 for one year, and I can’t get younger. Before I know it, 60 will be here.
What a year it has been! Just a few days before my birthday, my husband and I became grandparents, which has brought great joy and excitement to our lives. Those happy feelings bring youthful feelings. My son and his wife just became parents, and what a wonderful time for all of us. Also, my daughter will be getting married this summer, which has been exciting with all the planning. I have been busier this year than I have ever been in my life. Pretty good for a 50-year-old…
Cancer is Inconvenient
Changing my attitude on age was a good thing. Turning 50 was nothing compared to the serious speed bump I was about to hit. I was diagnosed with breast cancer on March 31, 2016. I had two weeks before surgery. Surprisingly, it did not slow me down because I had too many things to do as a wife, a mom, a grandma, and a teacher.
As a matter of fact, when I first found out, I thought, “What an inconvenience!” Of course, there is much more emotional detail involved, but as a teacher, it felt like the flight of the bumblebee when I sat down to write lesson plans for the last 5 weeks of school, which I was missing for the first time in my 24 year career. I am one of those teachers who thinks the school is going to implode if I am not able to be there. I chose my substitute, and guess what? She was more than capable. Things do work out.
Another thing I craved was time with my grandson. He was nearly 10 months old, and he was used to his Gram holding him, throwing him in the air, constantly hugging him, chasing him in his walker, playing on the floor, and all the other wonderful play time that grandparents get to enjoy. My biggest fear was that he would think I didn’t like him anymore, so I wanted to fit in as much time with him that I could. Guess what? He still knows his Gram loves him, and he still lights up a room with his smile when he sees me.
My daughter’s wedding plans came to a complete halt. She wanted to concentrate on me and all my appointments. My husband, whose work requires him to travel, canceled all his jobs for the next 6 months. My son was calling and dropping by more. What a wonderful family I have, but, as I said before, what an inconvenience this cancer thing has caused. At the same time, what a blessing it has been.
What? Cancer a blessing? Yes, in a weird sort of way, it has been a blessing. It has shown me perspective, and in an unfortunate way, it has shown me how loved I am by so many.
Breast Cancer Journey - Second Set of Ears – Constant Supporter - Advocate
You might say I have expected breast cancer to pop up for years and had been waiting for the hammer to fall. My sister had breast cancer 15 years ago and she is a survivor. My maternal aunt had breast cancer. She survived the first time, but she did not beat it the second time. Both were in their 50’s when they were first diagnosed. And, before mammograms or regular yearly checkups were the norm, my great grandmother died of breast cancer.
On March 22nd during my mammogram, I was taken back 3 different times for each side and two separate times for sonograms for each breast. Two years ago I had a fibromatosis, which is a benign tumor, removed from under my right breast. At first, I was going back in to have the right breast examined again and again, which didn’t surprise me. Then, they started concentrating on the left breast. I had no lumps or unusual sensations in my left breast, but the right breast seemed to be forgotten.
The radiologist just happened to see a shadow on the edge of the image of my left breast. In my mind, I am thinking it is calcification or a cyst because women in my family also had a history of fibrocystic breast disease. Besides, I had just started my 50’s, so I had a few more years to wait for my first “real” diagnosis.
Finally, the smashing and squeezing and scanning are over. Rather than being taken back to the waiting room, I am taken to a small room with a couch, a table with a box of Kleenex, and a chair. I am okay with this because I had been told the year before I needed a needle biopsy for what they believed to be a calcification on my right breast. I probably had another one.
The radiologist came into the room, and she didn’t smile or greet me. She sat down, very business-like, with no bedside manner and bluntly said, “You have a mass in your left breast. It is not a cyst or a calcification. It is an asymmetrical mass.” Her staccato felt like a machine gun. I quietly said, “Okay.” She handed me a sheet with information about an ultrasound guided needle biopsy and a date and time for the following week for the procedure. Then, “Do you have any questions?” I was so shocked and put off by her demeanor that I said, “No.”
Maybe she gave me more information, but I was so shocked by what she told me and how she told me that I could have completely missed something she said or misconstrued her demeanor. I didn’t think about having my husband with me for a mammogram.
On my way home, I cried. My mind was racing with only one possibility for this “asymmetrical mass”: cancer, Cancer, CANCER!
By the time I got home, I pulled myself together. I calmly told my husband. He was due to leave for a business trip the day after the biopsy and wanted to know if I wanted him to cancel the trip. Being “brave” and letting my common sense kick in, I told him no because it would be several days before the results were back and we didn’t know if it was going to be cancer or not. He, like me, felt like he knew what the results were going to be. “Asymmetrical mass” are not good words to hear, and we both knew it.
He told me that he was going to make plans to set up the job exercise, which would take about a week, and then he would come home if needed. Some may feel that is cold, but it isn’t. We have always been a military family, and we are used to dealing with major life-changing decisions together even with distance between. It was quite normal that he was not going to be with me when the results came in. It did not bother me.
I also knew that he was going to “covertly” start researching breast cancer. I am the type who will let it ride until I need to research it. I was not going to look up a bunch of information online to read then stew over and make myself a nervous wreck, which would not be good for me or anybody. He, on the other hand, was used to being in charge and armed with information so he could manage the situation no matter which way it fell. I knew I could completely rely on him to hear the results and know what they meant. He was my advocate.
The Biopsy Experience
On March 29th, I had a biopsy. The nurse came in to prepare me for the biopsy. I took off my bra and top, and a nurse gave me a heated blanket. Since it was on my left side, she placed a pillow under my left side to prop me up. I was expecting a table that I would lie flat on and place my breast in a hole, which was what I did for my first biopsy last year. The nurse explained that the location of the lump did not make that a convenient position. The radiologist came and introduced herself. She numbed the area then she used and ultrasound guided needle to go in to take the sample tissue.
The doctor and the nurse were so congenial. They asked me questions about my family and teaching, and they talked about what they had done for the weekend. It was a very pleasant environment.
The worst part for me was the bandage the nurse wrapped around me for pressure. It is difficult to stop bleeding on the breast, so it has to be tight. I will be honest, both times it was wrapped so tight I couldn't breathe and it hurt my sternum and my back. After about 3 hours, my husband loosened it. Since he was a career soldier, he had field dressing experience. It was still tight, but I could breathe and the pain was not there. I had to sleep in it.
On the way out, my nurse advocate told us she was going to call at 4:00 p.m. on March 31st, and she gave us her number if either of us had questions. My husband told her he was going to be gone and explained our plan for him to return if he had to. I don’t think she really understood our situation, and it was obvious that she believed he should stay home. She asked me if I had someone to call to be with me when I got the call. I told her I did; of course, I was not going to call someone. Maybe I should have, but I just wanted this to stay between me and my husband for the time. It just wasn't my style to call someone before knowing the results. It would only alarm others if I shared it, and I would have felt silly if it was just another cyst or calcification.
The Results Call
On March 31st, the call came. “Susan, it’s cancer. It is…” I was in shock even though I suspected it and expected it. There is nothing that can prepare you for those words, even if you tried to prepare for it. I was not hearing anything beyond “it’s cancer,” and stopped her, “Please call my husband with the details because I will not remember a thing.” While I was talking to her, my husband was trying to call me. I hung up and did not even attempt to call him back so the nurse could reach him. I simply stared into my kitchen.
He called me and wanted to know how I was doing. I told him that even though I thought I was prepared, I was actually feeling shocked. He asked me if I wanted to know what she said. I told him that I did, but I did not want all the medical jargon. He is extremely scientific-minded, and, well, I am not. I had to tell him that I could not take his minute detailed description. I needed laymen’s terms. He understood. “Okay, you have a 6.5 mm tumor in your left breast. It is very small. You will have a breast MRI next Monday on April 4th. You see the surgeon next Thursday on April 7th, and I will be home on Wednesday.” That is what I needed, but it hit me: my left breast??? I never had a problem with my left breast – what the...? I could not feel any lump in my left breast! Then he said, “I can come home tonight.” That was touching to me and actually romantic for us. I could tell that my constantly-in-control-husband felt helpless.
“No, I am going to call my best friends and my sisters. I am sure there will be a house full of women within the next 30 minutes.” We both laughed, and he agreed to wait. I also assured him that I had to get ready for a substitute and make sure bills were paid and blah, blah, blah… as goes the details of a busy life. I was going to keep myself busy. I was not going to curl up in a ball and fall into self-pity. Knowing these things actually gave me comfort. I would not have time to dwell on it. He, on the other hand, was going to dwell on it in his off-time in a hotel room and would be researching every legitimate piece of information on breast cancer. (Legitimate sites: MayoClinic.org, breastcancer.org,and Livestrong.org).
By this time, I had “sucked it up,” and was being strong for him. While giving him some relief on my mental status, I didn’t fool him, but that is how we do things. We take care of business first. I could tell he wanted to tell me about his research, but he knew I was not ready and needed to take this cancer thing a step at a time. He said he would complete the job exercise setup and be home by Wednesday. I was good with that. I know some do not understand this situation, but it is quite normal to us.
Dealing with the Results
My way of dealing with my cancer results may be foreign to some of you. If you suspect you have cancer, please reflect on how you are going to handle it. It is not easy. I did not want to be a burden to my husband or my kids. I didn't want to leave a mess behind for a substitute at the end of the school year. I thought I had to be strong, and, for the most part, I was, but there were times I had to let go and allow others to help me. Not an easy thing for me, but my friends and loved ones needed to know they were helping, too.
Please share how you dealt with the news for yourself or for a loved one in the comments. I think sharing the experience is important for myself and for others.
Next up: Being Strong for Others