Breast cancer was not going to be part of my personal experience. After all, I had breast fed both of my kids and had never smoked. In addition, in 1999, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—a disease that is supposed to put the body’s immune system into overdrive! That means my body should have been able to fight off cancer better than the average person’s. Because I had survived two rollover car accidents as an adult, the last of which caused major skeletal damage, and had suffered a variety of childhood traumas (both physical and emotional), I was pretty sure I had “paid my dues” for this lifetime.
Close to my 36th birthday, my mother told me she wanted me to get a mammogram. I didn’t take her suggestion too seriously since I knew that, unless a mass was felt, regular mammograms were not necessary until age 40. Then my mother told me she’d had a dream in which Grandma told her I needed to get my breasts checked.
My mom had detected a lump in her own breast when she was 46. It was a cyst with a small tumor attached to it, so she opted for a lumpectomy followed by tamoxifen for five years. And 12 years later, thank God, she is still cancer free. She had smoked for years, but had quit about 20 years before her diagnosis; she did not breast feed her children. Mom had no sisters or aunts, but her mother (my grandmother) did have breast cancer. My grandmother was diagnosed when she was in her 60s; she had smoked for more than 40 years.
I went in for my annual female checkup and was sent for a mammogram based on my family history—not on any clinical findings. A few months after my 36th birthday, I had the mammogram and was asked to return in 30 days so they could recheck my right breast. The report from the second mammogram said “probably benign, check in 6 months”. I guess I was relieved. I had no reason not to trust the radiologist—in fact, I trusted him with my life.
My physical condition had been reasonably stable since the diagnosis of MS more than two years before, but then it started going downhill fairly fast. Over the next six months, I went from being able to walk short distances on my own to having to use a cane. I also needed to use a walker even around the house. I was frustrated and scared. I had taken pretty good care of myself—not drinking alcohol at all, avoiding caffeine and eating right.
The doctors blamed my symptoms on the MS, even though I tried to tell them I felt achy all the time and that was not a symptom of MS. I was already pretty thin, so I didn’t lose much weight, and my high white blood cell count was normal for MS.
When I had my next mammogram, none of us could have imagined how bad the cancer would be. I was immediately given an ultrasound and the radiologist told me he was pretty sure I had a malignant tumor. The tumor was estimated to beone to one-and-a-halfcentimeters in diameter, so a lumpectomy was scheduled, along with dissection of the lymph nodes. The tumor turned out to befive centimeters across, located deep against the chest wall, with another small tumor nearby. Of the approximately 36 lymph nodes under my right arm, 18 were removed and three of those were positive for cancer. This meant months of chemotherapy, followed by radiation.
At my insistence, my younger sister (32-years-old) went in for a mammogram and a small cancerous tumor was found. Because it had not spread it could be removed by outpatient surgery. Thank God we caught it early; she was trying to conceive her first child at the time. With my sister’s diagnosis added to the family history, I decided to request genetic testing. My oldest child is female and now my sister has a daughter. The genetic test came back negative, but I was told later by a radiologist that they were testing only one of dozens of genes related to cancer.
Life after treatment
By the time I had started to heal and get a grip on the reality of life, the swelling had gone down from surgery. What I was left with after a partial mastectomy (instead of a lumpectomy) made me lopsided at best. I’m sure the surgeon was not prepared for such a large mass, so when the lab report indicated that there were not clear margins (not all of the cancerous cells had been removed), I had to undergo a re-excision of the site.
It took nine months from diagnosis to the end of my treatment. And, when it was finished, fate would throw me another challenge involving a hospital stay. My life has quite often been stranger than fiction and what I have shared here is definitely the abbreviated version. Ten months after completing radiation, I finished my book, “My Only Hope.” It is a mini-autobiography and a testimony to the Lord for bringing me through a very difficult time. My main purpose in writing the book is to encourage others not to give up, even when circumstances seem overwhelming.
God bless you.