In books and movies, we frequently read or hear of women who died of breast cancer. This is a rather negative picture as breast cancer doesn't have to be fatal, plenty of women survive this condition. I did.
On Thursday, June 9, 2016, I went for a mammogram without a care in the world. I'd been going for mammograms since I was 45, swanning in and out of the clinic safe in the knowledge that my chances of getting breast cancer were minimum. After all, nobody in my family had ever been diagnosed with this illness.
Forty minutes after leaving the clinic, I received a call from one of the nurses that a lump had been found and I was scheduled for a biopsy the following Tuesday. The news hit me like a ton of bricks and for a moment the world stood still. I literally stopped dead on the sidewalk, oblivious to everything around me.
"I have cancer?" I managed to say after a few seconds.
"No, no, no," the nurse was quick to assure me. "Finding a lump doesn't mean you have cancer. That's why we want to do a biopsy."
"Next Tuesday!" I said. "You want me to wait four days before I can go for this biopsy? Can't I go sooner?"
The answer was no. Other women were scheduled for a biopsy and I just had to wait my turn. The nurse might have well have said that I had to wait four years.
When Tuesday finally came around I made my way to the clinic, both happy that the day was finally here, but dreading the examination. What if the lump turned out to be cancerous? It was the question that had plagued me for the past four days and had given me sleepless nights.
A nurse explained the procedure to me. I would receive a local anesthetic, three samples of the lump would be taken, and then examined to see if the lump was benign or malignant. The procedure would be completely painless. I didn't care, I just wanted her to get on with it. When I asked the nurse after the procedure what the results were, she said I would have to wait ten days for the outcome. Ten days! I would have to wait another ten days!
Consultation with the doctor
After ten long days and nights, during which I alternatively was torn between hope and despair I finally got to see the doctor. He came straight to the point. The lump was malignant. Once again the world stood still. I had breast cancer. Breast cancer. The words flashed in my mind like a big red neon sign.
When I was able to drag my mind back to what the doctor was saying, he informed me that I had three choices. I could have radiation to reduce the lump, surgery and then radiation, or choose for alternative medicine. He would give me a few days to think things over before making a decision. I didn't need to think things over, I wanted the surgery. I'm a firm believer that if anything is wrong in a body, it should be cut out. "Even with surgery you will still need radiation," the doctor said. That was fine with me.
On Tuesday, July 19th, I made my way to the hospital. Relieved that the cancer was finally about to be cut out of me. Was I scared? Not at all, I've seen enough hospital shows to know that doctors and nurses are perfectly capable and I would be in good hands.
At the hospital, I was surprised to see so many women. Some already had their surgery and were recovering in a bed, others were waiting to be treated.
After registering and donning a gown, I was taken to a room where the affected breast was fitted with a wire and then I had a mammogram to make sure that the wire was in the correct place. Next, a blue dye was injected into the wire which would pinpoint the cancerous cells.
I had checked into the hospital at 8:00 a.m. and now at 12:15 p.m., it was finally time to make my way to the surgery waiting room. Seated in a very comfortable chair, the anesthetist came to talk to me. He wanted to know about previous surgeries, allergies, etc. When all this was taken care of, a nurse accompanied me to the operating room.
The first thing I noticed when I walked into the operating room was how cold it was. I positively shivered in my thin gown. Once on the operating table, I was covered with a sheet and the gown was expertly removed by a nurse. She asked me how I was feeling. I was feeling absolutely fine, freezing cold, but fine.
The anesthetist asked me the same question. I gave him the same answer. "The only thing is," I told him, "I'm still awake." "Don't worry," he said, "you won't be for much longer." Moments later I started feeling woozy like I was drifting on a cloud. "What's going on?" I asked the anesthetist, "I feel funny." "I've given you a mild sedative," he said. Oh, well, this felt nice, very nice.
Next thing I knew, I woke up in the recovery room, a nurse hovering over me, holding something in her hand. "Do you want something for the pain?" she asked. No, I didn't. Even though two incisions were made in my breast (one to remove the cancerous lump and one to test the lymph nodes to determine if cancer had spread) I didn't feel any pain. An hour later I was wheeled to a room where a nurse checked both incisions and brought me juice and crackers.
At 4:00 p.m. I was discharged.
While some women feel fine after a week or two, it took me a month to fully recover from the surgery. I was told not to shower for the first 24 hours, and after that if I showered to apply clean bandages. Other than that I was to rest and not to overexert myself.
Sometime in September, when the surgical wounds were healed and I was feeling like my old self again, I met with the radiation and chemotherapy specialist. Since I am extremely sensitive to medication it was decided that I didn't need chemo, only radiation. The doctor told me that my lump was stage 1 and non-aggressive. She recommended 16 days of radiation.
Before starting radiation, I had a CT-scan. During this scan, four tiny tattoos were placed on top, below and on either side of the affected breast. These tattoos were for the benefit of the radiation technicians so they knew exactly where to position the radiation machine.
On the day that I was to start radiation, I made my way to yet another hospital, specializing in all kinds of cancer. If I expected doom and gloom, I was mistaken. People were smiling and chatting and everyone, from the doctors, to the nurses, technicians, and people, in general, were very friendly, patient, caring, and helpful.
At the radiation department I was asked to put on a gown and then taken to the radiation room. The first time I saw the radiation machine is was in awe. I had researched radiation online ahead of time, and looked at pictures, but the real thing was still rather impressive.
The technicians asked me to lie down on the radiation table, measured my breast as to where to aim the radiation beam and asked me to lie perfectly still. When I asked if I would see or hear anything they assured me that I would see or feel nothing, I would only hear the soft hum of the machine. Then they left the room and the treatment was started.
For fifteen more consecutive days I made my way to the hospital. Usually within 20 minutes I was in and out. Every time I found juice and crackers in the waiting room, while a few enormous fish tanks provided soothing entertainment.
After the second week my breast started showing a redness, which I was told was perfectly normal. As the radiation burns away any remaining microscopic cancer cells within the breast, the skin of the breast takes a beating. This is why I was advised to use a soothing lotion after each treatment. Never before treatment, but always after.
When the radiation treatment was over I met with yet another doctor who advised me on medication. Since my case of breast cancer was caused by too much estrogen, she recommended medication to reduce estrogen. She did mention that with this medication came the risk of blood clots and increased the risk of ovarian cancer. I decided not to take the medication. My cancer had been stage 1 and non-aggressive, so the chances that cancer came back were minimum.
It's been three years and I'm perfectly fine. Every year I go for a mammogram to monitor the breast, every year I'm anxious for the results, but so far the outcome has been negative. As the doctor said, I am officially a breast cancer survivor.
The diagnosis of breast cancer is not nearly as frightening as it used to be. The key to survival is early detection which can only be done with annual mammograms. If breast cancer is detected at stage one, it's possible that the patient only needs surgery and radiation. The longer the cancer is ignored, the greater the chance that chemotherapy is needed and the survival rate is less.