“My Voice” by Cheryl Saul

Cheryl Saul - 'Survivor'

Cheryl Saul, age at diagnosis – 51
Survivor of IDC, 2cm, Stage 2a, Pr-/Er-/HER-

My life has been met with some pretty tough challenges but the one I have embarked upon this year has been my toughest.

Back in 1983 when we were broad-sided in my car door by a speeding drunk driver who ran a stop sign, my body has had it’s share of turmoil. No one knew then that three years later I would need surgery to fix damage in the vertebrae, 3 more years later would suffer seizures from it, and 10 years later(with some misdiagnosis in between) finally be diagnosed with Syringomyelia ( a cyst that planted itself inside my spinal cord and remains there) all from one car accident. It was all a struggle but I learned to adapt and push my body to beyond what the specialists thought I should do.

In the Fall of ’04 I was told I had suspicious nodules on my thyroid. While my family Doctor was concerned and sent me for tests, a specialist and surgeon at the time dismissed it as nothing. I would have pursued it but a family crisis and death caused me to put it on the back burner and forget about it. Fast forward to ’08 when I could feel the one nodule and was starting to worry me so I continued the pursuit for clear answers. After grueling months of biopsies that kept coming back inconclusive, the oncology surgeon decided it was time to remove half or all of the thyroid and then get a clearer pathology report. Surgery was done Oct. ’09 and it came back not cancer. What a relief, or so I thought.

I had some joy about the results briefly,then the worry set right back in to my brain that something wasn’t right. It was like I had a little person sitting on my shoulder whispering, “keep looking, you’re not done yet”. Two weeks in to my recuperation I felt a sharp burning pain to the left side of my left breast. The area remained tender to the touch, like skin would feel if burned. I decided that evening during my shower to do my self exam and investigate that area. Imagine my surprise to feel a lump. I asked my husband to check it also and he agreed that something was there. I already had a Doctor appointment set up for thyroid level check within the week so I addressed the lump at that time and she was concerned, but said it could be just a cyst. A diagnostic mammogram was set up for Nov. 20.

On Nov 19th, I was feeling pretty confident that the results would show a cyst when I had examined myself again and thought the lump was smaller. I was wrong.

The diagnostic mammogram was awfully uncomfortable and extra views were taken. I was whisked off to ultrasound so they could do a more in depth look and view the lymph nodes under the arm. I could read the radiologist’s thoughts and expressions like she was an open book. When she was done she said that she had a seminar in the early afternoon but she would be willing to clear her schedule to do and immediate biopsy. There seems to be a sense of urgency here! I am at the hospital all alone and they are telling me I have cancer? My whole system went into shock. I remember two nurses gently walking me to a room, bundling me up in warmed up blankets and helping me call my husband  at work. They wanted him to come, but I wanted to be the one to talk to him on the phone. I could hear his whole world of hopes and dreams dissolve right over the phone when I heard his cry as he was hanging up the phone. I later learned from his staff that he nearly collapsed in grief.

My husband arrived thankfully before I was taken away for the biopsies. We needed alone time. We had just enough alone time before I was shipped off to a room with more strange medical equipment. I was about to undergo what they call a stereotactic needle core biopsy. It is all done by machine with the guidance of the radiologist. I am not going to go into all of the details as it sounds so frightening, and it is, but in the end it was okay. It was very uncomfortable but they do administer a numbing agent and I understand I could have had a mild sedative but I guess there was not enough time.

After all done I was rejoined with my husband back in a room and the staff girls kept checking on us, feeding me until it was time to go home. They knew they would be seeing me again on Nov 25 for the final results and I knew I would be seeing them a lot more than just the results day.

Nov 25th came and he had taken off work to go with me. It was the day before Thanksgiving. I put myself in “holiday mode” and consumed my thoughts with leaving that office and going home to make some holiday food so that I wouldn’t be thinking about the “C” word.

The Radiology Dr came in, sat down, and we could tell the news wasn’t good. She explained it was infiltrating ductal carcinoma(invasive breast cancer) and possible lymph node involvement. I would need a surgeon for mastectomy and an oncologist for treatment.   Happy Thanksgiving, huh? They had even made a phone call the day before to the surgeon’s office to schedule me an appointment with the same surgeon who operated on me for my thyroid.  We decided to go home and tell the family right way so we all could have a Thanksgiving the next day without bearing bad news then.

I had my appointment with surgeon to discuss my options and to hear how bad it was. We didn’t know the stage at until I had a PET scan, but it was classified as 2cm, possible stage 2, high grade and triple negative. The PET test shows if the cancer cells have migrated to other parts of the body. I will be having chemotherapy first she says. It would help reduce the size of the tumor prior to surgery to make reconstruction easier, and chemo will kill off anything hiding somewhere. This approach is called neo-adjuvant therapy – chemo BEFORE surgery. I felt okay about it. It gave me time to do Christmas festivities the way we have come to love. We eliminated a little prep, but not a lot.

I was scheduled to have my chemo port placed the following week, and meet with oncologist to hear the type of chemo and when the chemo will start. I was to have chemo every three weeks for 8 sessions with a clinical trial. My first infusion was 4 days before Christmas. By New Year’s my hair had begun to fall out. That was an uncomfortable achy feeling in my scalp until all the hair was gone. The infusions caused a significant drop in my white cell counts and I  received an injection of a white cell booster a week after every infusion. Low white cell counts put me in a house-bound isolation to avoid anyone harboring germs. Chemo also caused raw mucus membranes, resulting in an occasional bloody nose, persistent sore mouth, throat, and several gastrointestinal symptoms. Along with losing all of my hair, my nails turned black and a few of them loosened but never fell off. Someone also neglected to inform me that the combination of chemo drugs and the steroids used to combat chemo reactions would cause weight gain. I didn’t just gain a few pounds. I gained a lot, despite not being able to eat properly from a sore mouth and throat. To cope with the shock of my diagnosis,  wintry blues and isolation from germs and bacteria I began to search for online breast cancer support groups, blogs and networks, as well as keep family and friends up to date on my progress via a Facebook note page. I refused to let fear and depression set in.

Surprisingly, the time flew by quickly and the last chemo was in sight. New tests performed before surgery showed that my 2cm tumor was gone! Chemo had done it’s job. I changed my mind about a full mastectomy and chose a lumpectomy instead. Sentinel node biopsy showed no lymph node involvement. I began radiation one month after surgery and was given 35 doses. Everything went well until the last week when I suffered a nasty and painful burn near the neck/clavicle area.

I have an occasional “chemo brain” moment, feel some neuropathy come and go, but for the most part I feel my body slowly returning to a better state. I am blessed to have a superb caregiver, my husband, who never faltered in his loving support. The man is incredible. Crazy as this sounds, I had asked him to purchase a puppy for me shortly after my first chemo infusion, and with a little hesitation he did so. A sweet little puppy graced my feel bad days with warm kisses, puppy breath, and yes…piddle puddles, but I had something to focus on besides throwing myself a pity party. Little Baxter’s one year birthday and Thanksgiving fall  right at the time of my diagnosis the year before. They will both be a reason to celebrate thankfulness of life.