My Battles With Breast and Lung Cancer
My name is Susan, and I'm a 23-year breast cancer survivor.
In 1990 I found a lump in my breast when doing a self-exam in the shower. If you've never done a breast self-exam, I cannot stress enough to everyone the importance of doing this. I've had breast cancer three times, and each and every time I was the one who found the lumps—not a doctor. Please do a self-exam. If you're not sure how to do it, you can easily find how-to videos online.
I'm writing this article in the hopes that you will find it informational and helpful.
Performing a Breast Self-Exam
This exam should be done once a month right after your menstrual cycle. If you find anything abnormal, call your doctor immediately. Don't wait until the following week to see if whatever you found goes away. The sooner you do something about it, the better.
My Three Little MiraclesClick thumbnail to view full-size
My Breast Cancer Journey
The first time I had breast cancer, the doctors did a lumpectomy. The lump itself was malignant, but the lymph nodes that were removed during surgery came back benign. Because the doctor had removed the lump and the lymph nodes came back negative, the doctor decided that I did not need to undergo radiation or chemotherapy.
Unfortunately the lump came back within five months. This time, my treatment involved a full mastectomy along with six rounds of chemotherapy.
At this point in time, my husband and I were—and continue to be—happily married. Al is my rock and my biggest supporter. I've heard so many sad stories about men who have walked away after hearing that their girlfriend or wife has breast cancer.
Shortly after saying our "I do's," a miracle happened. I learned I was pregnant. We weren't even sure it was possible for me to conceive due to my past chemotherapy treatments. Worried that somehow the chemo might affect the baby, I asked my doctors, and they reassured me that not only would I be able to have a normal pregnancy, but that the baby would not be harmed in any way from the past treatments. Double miracle; not only was I pregnant, I was carrying twins.
Our two healthy baby boys, Allan and Matthew, were born in June of 1988, on their father's birthday. The pregnancy and delivery (natural birth with help of an epidural) were a piece of cake for me, and I loved being pregnant.
When the twins were two years old, I found a lump in my remaining breast. I was devastated. We were on our way to my step-sister's house on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. I had found the lump on Christmas Eve and called my oncologist. He instructed me to stop in at the hospital before driving to Ottawa. Al and the boys waited in the car while I went to see the doctor. After doing a needle biopsy it was confirmed that I once again had breast cancer. An appointment was set for me in January to see my surgeon to discuss my options.
Returning to the car quite upset, I told my husband the news. I remember turning and looking at my baby boys in the back seat and saying, "All I want in my life is to see my boys grow up."
In January I saw my surgeon, who recommended that I have a mastectomy as soon as possible. Before the end of the month I had this done, followed up again with six rounds of chemotherapy.
Shortly after I finished the chemo I conceived again, and I gave birth to a healthy eight-pound baby boy in December of 1992. I look at all three of my boys as miracles.
Garth, my third son, was my last egg—or so my oncologist informed me. After giving birth to him I went into menopause, which was due to the chemotherapy.
For the next 23 years, I remained completely cancer-free, and everything went along smoothly.
What Cancer Cannot Do
This year in September I was diagnosed with stage IV inoperable non-small cell lung cancer.
I had been having neck pain and stiffness, which I thought was due to sleeping with too many pillows. After two weeks, however, the pain worsened and I noticed that my neck was starting to swell. I also noticed that there were a few bumps on it.
Rather than going to see my family doctor (long story), I went to the emergency room on August 31. After examining my neck and learning about my past history with breast cancer, the ER doctor felt that there was a strong possibility that I had lung cancer. He sent me for a chest X-ray, and it came back showing a mass or tumor in the center of my chest. The doctor made an appointment for me to see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.
The ENT did several tests, including a needle biopsy as well as one in which a tube went up my nose and down into my throat. Then the grueling wait began.
The doctor suggested setting up an appointment with a team of specialists at the Stronach Cancer Centre in Newmarket, Ontario. He felt this would be better than sending me around to different specialists in Orillia (the town where I lived), which might end up with my being sent to Newmarket in the end. If it turned out I didn't have cancer, that would be great; but if it turned out to be cancer then the time saved could mean a world of difference in terms of my prognosis.
On September 30 I was diagnosed with lung cancer. At first I thought, okay, you can operate and take care of this right away, right? Wrong. What they told me next hit me like a ton of bricks. Learning that I had lung cancer was bad enough—but then I learned that it was inoperable, in both lungs, and that I had a tumor in my chest. It was all quite a shock, to say the least. On top of all that I was told that I had emphysema, as well. It must have been at the beginning stages, as I did not have any of its symptoms.
The first thing that my new doctors wanted to treat were the swollen lymph nodes, which were causing me pain in my neck. Kind of gives you a new perspective on the saying "pain in the neck." They wanted to see if they could shrink the tumors, so a five-day radiation treatment started three days later. I was told that I may not notice any difference right away and that it could take up to one month for the tumors to shrink. In the meantime I was prescribed Hydromorphone for the pain.
Following the radiation, chemotherapy began on November 8. To date I've had two complete rounds, and I have two more to go. A round consists of a three-week period. During week one I have two types of chemo, and the appointment takes roughly 5-1/2 hours. During week two I have one type of chemo, and this appointment takes just two hours. Week three is chemo-free, and the following week I start all over again with the next round. The drugs that I'm currently on for chemo are CISplatin and Gemcitabine.
I'm not sure exactly what will happen after I've completed the four rounds, other than a CAT scan, which will assess whether the tumors have shrunk or not. At this point my doctor has mentioned that he'd like to do a biopsy to see if I'm among the small fraction of people that can take chemo in the form of pills rather than intravenously.
How I Deal With Life's Many Challenges
I always try to look on the bright side of things.
Having a positive attitude is half the battle.
Support from family and friends makes my life so much easier.
My motto is "Live each day as if it were your last."
Life could be worse, whether you realize it or not. There is always someone out there that is far worse off than you are.
Life is full of choices, and I choose happiness (borrowed from a Facebook page).
When I wake up each morning, I'm happy to have another day to enjoy.
Quilts for Cancer Patients
My cousin Norma asked an organization called Victoria's Quilts Canada to make a quilt for me. This organization was founded by Betty Griffin in October of 2000. A group of volunteers hand-make quilts for cancer patients.
My Quilt From Victoria's Quilts Canada
Update: February 1, 2014
My Lung Cancer Battle Continues With Good News
A week ago yesterday I went for my first CAT scan since starting the chemotherapy treatments. I've had four rounds, each of which consists of two weeks of chemo followed by one week off. There were tumors in my lymph nodes, in my neck, one in my chest area, and in both lungs.
For the last week I've been anxiously awaiting the results. Yesterday I was quite happy to find out that one lung is now clear. In the other lung the tumor has shrunk a bit. I should have written down everything my oncologist told me, but I didn't. The tumors that were in my neck and the one in my chest have all shrunk by half.
I am so happy to learn that the chemo has indeed worked. The next step will be a change in the type of chemo drug. On February 14, Valentine's Day, I will begin an intravenous drug called Pemetrexed. This will be administered once every three weeks, and it takes a little less than an hour to administer. I'm quite happy about this, as the last treatments took anywhere from two hours to up to five hours to administer. Along with this new drug I will also be receiving vitamin B12 shots, folic acid, and corticosteroids to decrease the chance of side effects.
I will have CAT scans every three months to check on the tumors.
Update: February 28, 2014
It's been one month since I last updated this article. I've had one chemo treatment, and I'm scheduled for the second treatment next Friday. So far so good, and my body seems to be handling the new drug quite well. I still have aches and pains, which is to be expected, but I'm happy to say that the swelling in my legs and feet has disappeared.
One of the side effects of this new drug is fatigue, and I find I am taking many long naps. Some days I'll get up at eight in the morning, go back to lie down at ten and sleep the entire day away. This has happened several times. I've never been one to take naps, so I'm finding this is little different. Apparently one can experience some hair loss on this drug, and I have noticed my hair thinning quite a bit.
Some of you have asked me how long I'll be on chemo. As far as I know I will be on chemo for as long as my body can handle it. My oncologist said that I may be on this particular drug for up to nine months. After that, who knows.
I am trying to keep my spirits up by plugging along day by day. My positive attitude keeps me going—as well as all the support that I receive from my family, friends and all of you.
Update: June 6, 2014
Back in March I noticed that I was feeling very depressed and anxious after one of my chemo treatments. I had the symptoms of a clinical depression: lack of appetite, nothing tasted good (this can also be a symptom from chemo), no motivation to do anything, not wanting to get out of bed in the mornings, sad and miserable, etc. I also felt anxious in a way I'd never felt before, meaning that I didn't feel comfortable being alone. Hubby was sure that everything was due to chemo, and that I'd come around in a few days.
Two weeks passed, and my feelings seemed to only get worse. I went to the emergency room at the hospital and talked to a crisis councilor. She felt that it was due to the chemo and that I should talk to my oncologist.
Two days later I woke up feeling a bit suicidal. Back to emergency I went. I saw the same crisis councilor, and she had the doctor prescribe an anti-depressant. She sent me home and told me I should try to avoid being alone—that I should try to always be with someone. Some days I would ride along with my husband to work and sit in the truck for hours rather than staying at home. Talk about feeling like a dog.
When I got an appointment with my oncologist, he referred me to a doctor to speak with. She put me on a medication for anxiety (which worked after taking one pill), and Abilify to boost the anti-depressant. She felt that all of these issues were brought on by a drug I take for three days every three weeks called Dexamethasone. I take this before chemo for anti-nausea, and it is a steroid. It can cause depression and anxiety along with a lot of other symptoms.
I can happily say that this week I'm feeling like my old self and onto the good news...
My newest CT scan report from May 20:
"The right apical lung nodule which previously measured 15 x 9 mm now measures 9 x 6 a spiculated nodule inferior to this towards the right apex which previously measured 10 mm now measures 6 mm. No new lung nodules are seen.
"No mediastinal node greater than 8 mm is identified."
Basically, this means is that there is significant decrease in the nodules.
I will be continuing with the current chemo treatments every three weeks, and another scan will most likely be done in 3-4 months.
Update: July 20, 2014
My New Port
On July 10 I had a port installed. I was awake for the procedure, which not only frightened me but surprised me, as well.
I was given a local anesthetic, and the area was frozen. The insertion areas have healed already, and I’m set to try out the port on the 30th of the month.
I’m sure that this will be much easier and time saving for chemo, CAT scans, and MRIs. The port can be used for obtaining blood, as well, if that is necessary.
On July 30 I had my chemo delivered via my port. I could not believe how quickly and painlessly this treatment was. I'm now wishing I would have had the port installed last November when chemo started.
Update: October 20, 2014
Things are looking up and I'm still positive, if not more so, than when I was first diagnosed. The cancer is still in my lymph nodes, but on X-rays you can no longer see the lung tumors. We will not know if the tumors have totally gone away until my next CAT scan.
Yesterday I had an appointment with my pain management doctor. When I described the pain I was having, he asked me if the Hydromorphone was helping. I never do notice any difference in the pain I experience when I take the drug. The pain is quite bizarre to me in that it comes and goes in intervals. The best way for me to describe it is by saying it feels like being hit my a Mac truck. It doesn't matter where you touch me, it hurts like hell. The doctor suggested that I may be suffering from fibromyalgia.
He is weaning me off of the Hydromorphone and has prescribed a new drug called Teva-Pregabalin. I should know within a week if this alleviates some of the pain.
Update: November 3, 2014
Cancer in My Lungs Has Disappeared
On October 21 I had a CAT scan done of my lungs and abdomen. This past Friday my regular oncologist was at a conference, so I saw one of his team members. We discussed the outcome of my latest scan, and miracles do happen. The nodes and or tumors have all disappeared—and not just from one lung but from both! My body has responded well to the chemotherapy, and I'm so thankful to all my healthcare providers at the Stronach Regional Cancer Centre.
My oncologist told me that once the cancer is in the lymph nodes it will always be there. I still have a fight ahead of me, but I've made it this far and I plan to continue to fight this disease.
The new drug that I'm taking for the fibromyalgia is working quite well, and the pain that I was having has drastically gone down.
Life is good.
Update: December 2014
I am thrilled and happy to report that since my last CAT scan showed no cancer in the lungs, I'm now officially in remission. My oncologist has ordered 12 more rounds of chemo as a precaution, and I'm happy with that.
Update: October 2015
Thought I'd stop by to give you an update since it has been awhile. I'm still in remission and receiving Pedmetrexed every 3-4 weeks. My oncologist feels that I'm doing so well that he only needs to see me every second chemo treatment.
All in life is good!
Update: July 2016
Things are going well, and I've received 35 treatments so far of the Pedmetrexed. According to my oncologist, I'm getting close to breaking an all-time record.
My CAT scans are coming back clear, and I have another one scheduled for the beginning of August. I'm always nervous about them coming back with bad news, but so far so good.
Update: April 19, 2017
Yesterday I saw my oncologist before having my 44th Pemetrexed chemo treatment. He happily told me that my CAT scan from last week came back clear. Not only were my lungs clear, but my neck showed no signs of cancer in the lymph nodes. I am thrilled and so happy about this great news.
I am still going for the Pemetrexed treatments, but now I go only once every two months instead of once per month.
Thank you, everyone, for all the good wishes and prayers.
Live each day as if it were your last.
All photos used in this article are the property of the author Susan Zutautas, unless otherwise stated. If you'd like to borrow or use any of the photos, please do so only after receiving written permission.