In 1985 when I was 34, my husband found a lump in my breast. I think it’s interesting to know that many lumps are found by the woman’s partner. Anyway, I went to my personal doctor who said let’s watch it for a month.
When I came back a month later, he said he felt it was nothing and I should just ignore it. Both my husband and my sister encouraged me to get a second opinion. I went to my gynecologist who also felt it was nothing but recommended I get a mammogram and a needle biopsy.
The mammogram showed nothing, so I went to the surgeon for the needle biopsy. It didn’t work, but my husband and I decided to have the lump removed anyway. The surgeon was a little reluctant because I had no family history or other risk factors and because the lump was in the nipple area (more commonly associated with benign lumps).
I was under local anesthesia for the procedure, so I was awake and talking with the surgeon and the nurses. Suddenly, the mood changed and everyone got very quiet. At that moment I knew I had breast cancer. The surgeon told me he was calling the pathologist in because the lump looked suspicious. The pathologist did a frozen section there and confirmed it was cancerous. The surgeon decided to try to get clear margins right then.
The surgeon suggested I get a second opinion. He said no one would tell me I didn’t have cancer, but if another doctor suggested I have a mastectomy, I should get a third opinion because he felt I was a good candidate for a lumpectomy (which I had just had) with radiation.
There were no radiation facilities in my area at that time, so I went to Hartford, Conn., for a second opinion. I saw Dr. Peter Deckers, who at that time was one of the first doctors involved in the NSABP Tamoxifen Trial. He did my axillary dissection and checked to make sure I had clear margins in my breast tissue. My lymph nodes were clean, so I never had chemotherapy. For the next six weeks, I stayed there to have radiation therapy and went home for the weekends.
I read everything I could get my hands on that first month. Everything talked about a five-year survival rate, so I felt I had only five years to live. It was very frightening. I had three children, daughter 9 and two teenage sons, 13 and 15. I didn’t realize that survival could be more than five years.
After I finished the radiation treatments, Dr. Deckers suggested I enroll in the tamoxifen trial. My tumor was ER+, and I was involved in the trial for 10 years. I felt I would never have enough money or influence to affect breast cancer, but I could donate the use of my body through this study. Maybe the results wouldn’t help me personally, but I have a daughter and four sisters, and maybe this information would help them.
I later learned I was on tamoxifen for the first five years and a placebo for the next five. They have now determined that five years is the optimal time to stay on tamoxifen, so I was lucky. I never had any side effects, and I didn’t experience early menopause like other women on tamoxifen do.
Now, 12 years later, I feel like I learned a lot from having breast cancer. It tells you how strong you can be and what is most important in your life. I learned a lot about myself as well as about breast cancer. Breast cancer really put a stop to the hectic pace of my life and made me look at what really matters – my family.