In late April or early May of 2007 I woke up one morning, and as I was getting out of bed I felt pain in my right breast. While I was showering I did a breast exam on that side and felt a large, diffuse mass. I honestly was pretty freaked out and knew it was not good. I decided to stop in at my doctor’s office on my way to work that morning. My regular doctor was not available so I saw one of her colleagues. He did an exam and asked me some questions, such as how old was I, was there a history of breast cancer in my family, etc. There was really no history in my immediate family although my father and paternal grandfather both had prostate cancer and I was 38 at the time. He said there was no way it was cancer as cancer wouldn’t be painful, I was too young and I didn’t have a family history. He thought it was fibrocystic breast disease and told me to wait 6 weeks and if it didn’t resolve on it’s own to come back.
As I left the office I decided I didn’t like that answer so when I got to work I called back and made an appointment for the next morning; still not with my regular doctor but with a different one than the one I’d just seen. The next morning I saw a female doctor who basically told me the same things the first doctor had said but told me she’d send me for a mammogram since I was almost 40 anyway. I had the mammogram about a week or so later along with a sonogram. The mammogram didn’t really show anything but the sonogram showed something, apparently they weren’t sure what. I was eventually sent to see a surgeon who spoke to the radiologist on the phone while I was in his office. By this time I was seeing some physical changes to my breast; the nipple was partially inverted and the skin looked like orange peel. This surgeon told me that it wasn’t breast cancer; it was fibrocystic breast disease and suggested some homeopathic remedies. When I pointed out the changes to my breast, especially the inverted nipple, his response was that it “wasn’t really inverted”. I told him that maybe it wasn’t all the way inverted but it no longer looked like the other one and it used to. He kept insisting it was nothing and to try supplements and such for it. I knew he was wrong but I’d now had three doctors’ tell me it was nothing.
I had an appointment with my regular physician coming up at the beginning of July (this was now June), so I thought I’d wait and see if she’d take me seriously. When she did her exam and saw my breast she told me she was concerned. I told her I was too but three doctors had already told me it was nothing, including one surgeon. She said she’d like me to see a surgeon she knew personally and I agreed. Once he saw the breast, he scheduled an MRI and a biopsy. The MRI showed large lesions by this time that they termed “highly suspicious”. The biopsy confirmed it was cancer; this was about August 25th, 2007. My surgeon scheduled a mastectomy for the 30th; I had 4 days to get everything in order while being in a state of shock. Luckily I had a very strong support group of friends who helped me get to my appointments and drive up to see my mom before the operation.
I came through the surgery fine and stayed in the hospital one night. Because I lived alone and couldn’t do anything much for myself for a couple of weeks my friends took shifts and stayed with me. I was out of work for 2 ½ weeks and then I went back to working full time. This was best for me because it gave me something to do other than think about cancer and my prognosis 24/7 but for others it might not be the best thing; everyone is different. I found out that I was Stage IIIA and started chemo in October, 2007. The first oncologist I saw was not the right one for me; during my initial appointment with him, I got the impression he didn’t think I was going to make it and I went home and cried to my mom on the phone. Then I got mad. I called and got an appointment with a different oncologist who was awesome and made me feel hope instead of fear. I very strongly believe that state of mind has a lot to do with health and encourage anyone facing a health crisis to find the right health care team for them. I did two separate phases of chemo lasting a total of 5 months. I lost all of my hair, including most of my eyebrows and eyelashes. I didn’t really lose any weight and I went back to the gym as soon as I felt able; that really helped me to feel in some control of my life.
After chemo I did 6 ½ weeks of radiation which burned me pretty badly. I never skipped either a chemo or radiation treatment because I knew my prognosis was not the best and I wanted to have the best chance of beating this as I possibly could. While I was going through radiation treatment I also started taking Tamoxifen; I’ve now been on it for almost 4 years and have one more to go. There have been some side effects but to me they are worth it. I will do anything I have to do to keep myself healthy and alive.
It’s now been 4 ½ years since my diagnosis and I have remained cancer free. I expect to hit my 5 year mark without a recurrence. My oncologist used to worry about me a lot but now tells me “you’re cured”. I know it can come back but I choose to believe that it won’t and I do what I can to make that a reality. I try to eat healthy, I exercise and I surround myself with people who enhance my life. If it comes back, I’ll beat it again because the other option is not acceptable to me.
There are many things I’ve learned along the way but to me two of the most important are these:
Believe in yourself. If you think something is wrong, even if several doctors tell you it’s nothing believe yourself and keep getting other opinions. No one knows you better than you know yourself.
Assemble the best health care team you can for yourself and then trust them. I have seen some of my friends second guess their doctors and adjust their own treatment and not for the better. I have a dear friend who recently lost her battle and what I keep coming back to is that she never finished any of her treatments because of the side effects and because I believe she thought she knew better than her doctors. This may seem to counteract my first point but it doesn’t; once you have a team you trust then I believe you can confidently put yourself in their hands and know that they are doing the right things for you.
I did my job by advocating for myself and pushing until I found doctors who would listen to me. Once I did I knew I could trust them to give me the best advice and care and I did what they told me. Maybe I’d still be here even if I hadn’t done that. Maybe my friend would still have lost her battle even if she had. I just know what’s worked for me and I also know that most of my doctors didn’t think I’d still be here, especially without a recurrence. Yet here I am and here I plan to stay. And I wish that for everyone who gets this diagnosis; that we can be strong and beat it and serve as beacons of hope for the next group until we can finally wipe breast cancer out once and for all.