Sunday, March 7, 2010

How I Met Cancer

I was determined to be a great mom.  When my daughter was born, I was overwhelmed by the feelings of both love and total responsibility for her life, safety, and well-being.  Between changings and feedings when I should have slept, I did research.  One bit of research was on breastfeeding.  Specifically, how to ensure my daughter had the maximal benefits from nursing.  While Americans frown upon anything inconvenient that does not involve generating a return; I felt the WHO (World Health Organization) had the most complete data and evidence for nourishing a child with breast milk for at least two years.  In addition, this time frame would also offer the greatest possible benefit in protection against developing breast cancer.  So I rented a breast pump from the hospital and pumped 2-3 times per day at the office because even though I had failed to provide my daughter with a father, I thought the least I could do was ensure a hearty immune system.

The first year was fairly easy in terms of pumping; the second year gradually became more difficult and by the time my daughter reached her second birthday, my milk had dried up and the breast pump was returned to the hospital.  Having been large breasted before nursing, after Olivia was born my breast became enormous, engorged torpedoes.  They no longer felt like a part of the whole me, rather these massive milk making monsters on the front of my body.  However, once the milk factory slowed to a stop, I became very aware of dense disc of tissue in one breast that was unaffected by the absence of milk.  It wasn't like the dense tissue that had been there pre-baby.  It was off-center, very hard and sometimes ached.  I scheduled an appointment with my general doctor for the following week.

I scheduled the appointment for my lunch hour since I wanted to disrupt my workday as little as possible.  When the doctor examined me she said it was most likely nothing but certainly was unusual so she sent me downstairs for a mammogram.  The department was having a slow day and worked me in right away.  After the mammogram, I went to the dressing room to put my shirt back on.  The nurse interrupted me and asked that I stay in the gown that the radiologist wanted to see an ultrasound of my lump as long as I was there. 

She walked me down the hall where I was given an ultrasound by a technician, and the radiologist came in to observe.  I went to get dressed and was told to go back upstairs to see my doctor.  When I saw my doctor's face, I felt genuine fear for the first time since discovering the lump.  She told me the surgeon next door was available to do a biopsy so why not just walk over and get one -- as long as I was there.  So I called my boss and left a message that I had come to the doctor's office and that they wanted to run some tests so I probably wouldn't be back to the office until late in the afternoon.

A short wait later, an assistant escorted me to the surgeon's office.  There, the surgeon was looking at my films.  He looked up and after introducing himself he told me, "This is definitely a fibroadenoma.  See the smooth edges?  Tumors have finger-like edges.  And you told your doctor that it hurts sometimes?  Tumors aren't painful.  Yes, this is definitely not cancer.  But I will do the biopsy to satisfy the other doctors."  While what he said was very reassuring, since being a small child I have had a strong dislike of needles.  The doctor said that a biopsy is a routine procedure that he'd do right there in the office (NO SEDATIVE?!)  He would use a local anesthetic and send me home ship shape in no time.  So I asked if there was a nurse who could hold my hand during the biopsy.  He did the biopsy and allowed me to watch on the ultrasound machine.  He said he would call me the following week with results.  Since he wasn't concerned, he would send it for standard processing (as opposed to expedited).

The following week when he hadn't called by Wednesday, I called his office.  I was told he was at lunch and hadn't gotten the results yet.  Less than an hour later my phone rang.  "I'm sorry to tell you this, but you have cancer.  It is very aggressive.  If you can come in later today, we need to discuss next steps."  One week later I had a modified radical mastectomy, sentinel node biopsy (negative for cancer), and a TRAM flap reconstruction surgery.  There were multiple follow up surgeries for the complication I had including severe necrosis which resulted in a very poor reconstruction with no symmetry.  

It was during these surgeries that I finally talked to an oncologist for the first time.  I was fortunate to find an exceptionally talented doctor with whom I "clicked".  She started me on dose-dense Epirubicin/Cytoxan chemotherapy only days after one of my reconstructive surgeries.  The first treatment was horrible, caused additional complications with my reconstruction, and was the beginning of the end of feeling healthy, energetic, and young.  That was the day when I actually started feeling "sick" and it wasn't a tenth as glamorous as it looks in the movies.


  1. cancer might be sexy in the movies, but it certainly sucks in real life!!

    I can't believe they told you over the phone!!!

  2. I'm so very sorry for your cancer, but I am so very thankful that we have found each other. By baring one another's burdens, maybe the journey will be easier for all of us.