I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 31 – Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, stage IIIA, ER+/PR-/Her2+, with lymph node involvement, size of tumor: big enough to grab on to!
To tell my story I have to bring you back a few years. I had a breast reduction in January 2006. After the surgery I noticed a lump that did not go away. I went back to see the plastic surgeon, Dr. T, more than once and she assured me that the tissue was still settling and it could take up to a year after surgery for the tissue to become soft again. Ok, no problem. Well, a year later and still no change. I went back to see her again in March 2007, same chat: most likely scar tissue, nothing to worry about, but this time she referred me to a general surgeon just to be sure.
In July we found out that my mother had ovarian cancer again. It had been in remission for 5 years, but was now back. I kept putting off my appointment with the general surgeon, Dr. O, in order to be with her. I finally got in to see him in October. He said that based on my previous surgery and age that it was most likely scar tissue or fibrous breast tissue, he added that the only way to be sure was to do a biopsy. He also expressed to me that he didn’t feel that a biopsy was necessary since there had been no obvious change in the lump in over 2 years. I wasn't too keen on the idea of being cut open again so I was satisfied with both doctors feeling confident that it was nothing to worry about. My mom wanted me to get the biopsy but I told her that 2 doctors told me the same thing – it’s nothing to worry about!
In December my mother lost her battle with ovarian cancer at age 56. The last months were hell for her, she was constantly sick from the chemo and rapidly losing weight. The doctors were not able to administer the chemo on a regular schedule because of low blood counts and so on, so that gave time for the cancer to spread throughout her entire abdomen. The tumors were so large that they were obstructing her intestines and she decided that enough was enough; she was done with being in constant pain, it was a living hell. She passed on December 9th, two weeks after stopping treatment.
In January I noticed that my bra was not fitting anymore on the right side. I knew that the dryer didn’t shrink just half of my bras, so obviously my breast was growing - but why only one? Maybe it was stress. I called Dr. O back and told him what was going on and that I was ready for the biopsy. I saw him that next week and he suggested that since I had never had a mammogram I get one done before the biopsy. Fine, boob squish scheduled for January 31st and cut open February 8th. He was still telling me that it wasn’t cancer and that my breast getting larger could be a result of hormones. He said that seeing an endocrinologist would be the next step when the biopsy comes back benign.
The day of the biopsy he told me the results of the mammogram, “suspect multiple cysts in the right breast”. Ok I can deal with that, just drain them. When I woke up in recovery and Dr. O came to talk with me there was a very different look on his face. He told me that it definitely was not a cyst because it was hard as a rock and to be extra cautious he took a large piece of it for biopsy. He made me an appointment for that next Tuesday to go over the results.
February 12th, results day. I remember this day so clearly. Aside from some soreness from the biopsy I was feeling pretty good. I just had an awesome weekend and I was looking forward to planning a snowboard trip out west. My appointment was first thing in the morning so I got in to see the doctor right away. I knew the moment I walked in because he had that same look on his face. “I wish I had better news for you”. What? Wait a minute; you’re supposed to tell me that everything was ok, just like you were saying all along! We spoke for about 20 minutes all the while tears streaming down my face and thoughts of my mother bouncing around my head. He kept telling me that he’s never had a case like this and quite know what to say. His office had already made me an appointment to see an oncologist in Springfield the next day, Dr. K. What a coincidence, she was my mother’s doctor! Before leaving his office, the nurse kept offering to have someone drive me home. Nope, I’m fine – I just need to be alone. I sat in my car for a while thinking what now, how do I tell this to my family and friends. Most of my friends knew about my biopsy and I knew they would be wondering, I didn’t really want to talk to anyone so I sent out a mass text “Bad news, its cancer”, then I called work and let them know that I wouldn’t be in for a few days.
I met with Dr. K the next day. She didn’t immediately recognize me when she came into the exam room, but when she made the connection the look on her face was priceless! We spoke briefly about my mom and then she did an exam. After that we spoke at length about my options and what she thought the best course of action was. Basically, we needed to do a lot more testing to find out exactly how big this was and how far it had spread. It was hard in the beginning to give people information. It was trickling in at every scan and every test. At one point it was like, where the f@#k is the end of this ball of yarn!
February was a blur, filled with appointments, tests, and 2nd opinions. First thing was to get a fine needle aspiration of the lymph nodes to see if it had spread beyond the breast – yup, positive for cancer. I had a CT of my head, chest and abdomen – all clear, an MRI of my breasts – size of tumor 9.2 cm in the right breast and a “suspicious area” in the left breast, a bone scan – negative, genetic testing – negative for the BRCA1/BRCA2 gene mutations and a MUGA scan of my heart to develop a baseline (in case chemo damaged my heart). I also had to have a port put in for chemo (bad Irish veins) and a marker placed at the site of the tumor (titanium clip). By the end of all that I felt like a human pin cushion! When all the info was in the plan of action was chemo, surgery, radiation and hormone therapy.
At the end of most of these tests I went down to Boston for a 2nd opinion at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. One of the great things about living in MA is that many of the best hospitals are at your disposal! They told me pretty much what Dr. K had only some slight differences. On my way back home I called Dr. K to discuss my appointment, she agreed to speak with the docs at Dana-Farber the next day and come up with a treatment plan that we were all comfortable with. I was so glad that she did because I wanted to get treatment closer to home and I was comfortable with her as my doctor. She’s a “shoot from the hip” kind of woman and won’t candy-coat the situation.
I started chemo on March 4th. My treatment: 6 rounds of Taxotere and Carboplatin every 21 days plus Herceptin weekly for a year. The worst part about chemo was the hot flashes, losing taste buds (and gaining a ton of weight), fatigue and muscle/joint pain. Even losing my hair wasn’t all that bad, I got pretty handy with the buzzers and a bic razor! The best thing about chemo – no more allergies! That’s right! I had allergies really bad all my life and for the first time, I was symptom free without medication.
Family and friends came with me to the first few treatments. We joked that I was the Samantha character from “Sex and the City”, only younger and not promiscuous. The nurses got a kick out of us. I would bring my laptop, iPod, magazines, cards and whatever else we could find to make the hours pass by quickly. I was determined to lead a semi-normal life so I was driving myself to my appointments and even went to chemo alone for the last two cycles. I worked part-time for a while but eventually just ended up taking a medical leave. I was trying to get out of the house every day, but some days I never made it off the couch.
On a positive note, I had an excellent response to chemo. After the first few treatments the tumor was noticeably shrinking. I had to start thinking about the surgery. From day 1 the doctors were talking mastectomy. I was hoping that since the tumor was shrinking, lumpectomy would be more like it. I was wrong. I found a great breast surgeon, Dr. C, and also a great plastic surgeon, Dr. B. It became apparent that the best option was going to be mastectomy, but now the question was remove just the right or remove them both, and what type of reconstruction – implants or tissue transfer. After some great advice I decided to have both removed and do an “immediate delayed reconstruction”. Since I had to have radiation it was not a good idea to do reconstruction at the time of the mastectomy. Instead they inserted tissue expanders to fill the breast area and after radiation I would have a DIEP Flap for reconstruction. This is a procedure that Dr. B does not do but would start the reconstruction process by doing the expanders. The DIEP requires a micro-surgeon because they have to sever the blood flow to the tissue at the donor site (abdomen) and reattach it at the chest. There aren’t too many doctors that do this procedure, in my area. I decided to travel down to Boston to find one that did them on a regular basis. I met with Dr. SC at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and was immediately convinced that she was the doctor that could restore my breasts, and give me a tummy tuck in the process!!
I finished chemo on June 17th and had my mastectomy on July 23rd. Even though I was having tissue expanders inserted I was still afraid that I would have a flat chest. I had seen pictures of mastectomies and they were NOT pretty. They removed both breasts, 13 lymph nodes on the right and 2 on the left. The surgery went well but the recovery time was much longer than I had anticipated. I was psyched when I got the pathology from the surgery, “complete response to chemo, no residual cancer in the tissue or lymph nodes”. Finally, some good news!
I was amazed that for 2 years I had this huge lump in my breast and all along it was cancer. I thought that at least part of it must be scar tissue, there was no way the whole thing could be cancer! But, I was wrong. When it finally came time for the surgery, my boob was completely squishy for the first time since before the reduction. I couldn’t even feel a lump or anything abnormal. How could that have been missed for so long?! It is still a mystery to me. I’ve only started my road to recovery. I still have to have 6 weeks of radiation 5x a week. The doctors feel that radiation will be beneficial to reduce the chance of local recurrence. After radiation is finished I have to wait 6 months before I can begin the reconstruction process. In the meantime, I’m still going to the hospital to get infusions of Herceptin every 21 days. I have also started hormone therapy which will continue for 5 years; at least it’s just a daily pill.
Cancer has taken a lot from me: my mother, my breasts, my hair, my period (at least for now) and possibly the chance of having children, just to name a few. Aside from losing my mother to this horrible disease, I wouldn’t change a thing because cancer gave me a new perspective on life. Before the big “C” I was pretty much floating along in my life. I stressed about stupid shit, didn’t make healthy lifestyle choices, and avoided any real responsibility. Now I’m seeing the world through rejuvenated eyes. I have to stop and wonder, why just 1 month after my mom’s passing did the tumor start to grow when it hadn’t changed in 2 years? She knew I didn’t want to have the biopsy, so did she have something to do with it growing to make me take notice? Maybe, maybe not . . . I choose to think so.
Ad astra per aspera – a rough road leads to the stars!
Today's guest post was written by a friend of mine from high school. She has had a difficult journey and is currently fighting breast cancer. Please read what she wrote and leave her a comment. If you want to know more about Kelly you can visit her blog at www.bcsurvivor2008.blogspot.com