When they tell you, the first thought is of your beautiful children and your husband. What would life be like for them if I was gone? It made me incredibly sad to imagine them not having their mommy in their life, or picturing my husband alone in our bed.
Would they be okay financially?
My baby is 6 – would he have enough memories of me to carry him through to his adult life? What about all the important things- the boyfriends and the girlfriends, the school awards, the boo-boo kissing? Would I be here for my 9 year old’s black belt test? When each of them get married? Would I ever hold a grandchild?
Everyone asked- did they find it in your mammogram? The answer- no. I was changing after karate and as my arm brushed along my breast I felt a hardness there at the surface. It’d been at least 6 months since I’d done a self-breast exam. I did one immediately and it was not good. A giant lump about the size of the palm of my hand. I stood alone in the kitchen with my heart pounding, whispering “Oh God, no!” until my husband came in and I told him. He was calm on the surface, but I know him well enough to know he was panicked. But he hugged me and said that whatever happened, we would be okay.
It was one week shy of the date for my annual mammogram. I have had regular mammos for several years now, and never had anything unusual. What scared me the most was how big it was before I noticed it. Had I been doing monthly self breast exams- I might have discovered it earlier (take note ladies!) but I suspected that it had grown very large, very fast. That is what kept me up that first night.
God bless my local doctor – when I called first thing in the morning, they said they would fit me in for an appointment. I got the physical exam, an ultrasound, and a mammogram. They thought it was possible then that it was what is called a fibroadenoma. Something that happens fairly commonly, and grows and shrinks with your hormone levels. Relief! It explained why it was suddenly so large. I have had hormone issues since my last childbirth at age 42. But my doctor’s office is very pro-active and aggressive when it comes to things like this so they referred me to the MSU Breast Clinic.
But I was no longer panicked because I had a probable answer. God didn’t call me to have all these children only to take me away from them, right? The chance of cancer was remote enough. Only about 10% of lumps end up being cancerous according to one website.
The one thing that Tim and I have always said is “we are lucky”. So I hung on to that.
When MSU Breast Clinic called, they told me the earliest they could get me in was May 26th, weeks away. Even though I was pretty certain it would turn out negative, I asked if he could let me know if they had any cancellations in the meantime. I hoped that maybe I could get the biopsy and get the good news before we went on our trip to North Carolina for our nephew’s wedding.
I imagined talking to our family at the wedding: guess what I found, but thank God it was nothing.
My friend at work insisted that I needed to call the Breast Clinic back and make them fit me in as soon as possible. Even though I wanted to have this little scare over with quickly, my thought was that the people with real issues should be the ones they fit in first. I just needed a verification that it was nothing, other people, with real issues – they needed to be seen more than me. On my drive home from work that evening, they called me back- they had a cancellation and could fit me in on Tuesday. Four days away. Then we could leave on our trip Thursday feeling relieved.
I had to bring my last few years worth of mammograms and the ultrasound results to the appointment. I had put in a request at my doctor’s office, knowing that my last mammogram had just been sent off for a further evaluation by a radiologist, but they were certain they would have them back by Monday. By Monday afternoon, there was still no sign of them. I explained (in a slightly panicky voice) that the MSU clinic had said if I didn’t have all my records with me, they would cancel the appointment, then I wouldn’t get in for weeks. The ladies at my doctor’s office were so incredibly helpful and kind. They said they would call me as soon as they received them.
I worked from home Tuesday morning in hopes that the records would be there before I had to leave for Lansing. By 10:00 am, there were still no records. I did NOT want to miss my appointment, so I decided I would go even without the records and beg them to examine me anyway. I stopped by the doctor’s office on my way in, with minutes to spare, and they had just received the last mammogram back in the morning delivery. I jumped in my car, records secured, and headed off to my appointment so they could tell me it was nothing, and I could go back to being normal.
I went into the appointment feeling out of place. I didn’t belong there. The breast cancer specialist I was seeing was located in a surgical office. I certainly didn’t need surgery, but hey, if he was the Director of the Breast Clinic, of course I wanted to see the best.
I don’t want to say they looked grim after examining my records and me, but it was clear they were serious. He told me he wanted to call his colleague in the Radiology Department and see if he could see me soon. The radiologist wanted me to come right away. It was after 4:00 pm by then. This was my first stomach-dropping moment since I had found the lump. If they thought it was nothing, they’d just wait until they could fit me in, wouldn’t they?
I was amazed at all they could do there. They have a mammogram machine, an ultrasound machine, and a room with a t.v. so they can sit and consult with a patient and watch the ultrasound video right there as they spoke to them. Would we review my ultrasound here and would they show me what they’d found?
The radiologist did another ultrasound, looking closely at the lump, then moved to my armpit. He spent an inordinate amount of time there, and my heart started pounding. Then he told me he would do the biopsy first thing in the morning. He said there was something that seemed very obviously a cyst that he would do first. If it drained, they would test the fluid that was extracted, but he was pretty certain it would be fine. Then there were two other lumps within my breast that he would biopsy. And a lymph node in my armpit that looked bigger than normal that he wanted to check as well. My mind was spinning. The look on their faces as they spoke with me was … sympathetic. That couldn’t be good. He said the lumps were very suspicious. He said he wasn’t as concerned about the lymph node but just thought he might as well check it while he was in there. I went home deflated. But maybe he was wrong.
I spent the night tossing and turning and praying.
The biopsy went well, and was actually interesting to watch (I’m a scientist). He gave me some local anesthetic shots, then inserted a long needle into the lump. He used an ultrasound to guide where to go. He did this in each lump, and the lymph node. Only once did it hurt a little bit, although the snapping of the end of the needle as it reached out and grabbed the tissue was disconcerting.
When he was done, I asked if there was any chance that it was not cancer. I held my breath as he answered with “To be blunt, I’d be surprised if the lumps in your breast weren’t cancer. I’d be surprised if the lymph node was cancer.”
My stomach rolled. Cancer. Me. I was on that precipice. On the edge of being “me” or being “one of them”. I thought – Oh God, please let me still be “me”. At work afterward, I kept thinking about what our lives would be like. Cancer. Maybe he was wrong. I really wanted him to be surprised by being wrong.
I sent a lot of prayers upwards over the next day of waiting on the biopsy results – maybe there’d been a mistake and the biopsy would show that I didn’t really have cancer after all. He had said there would be results the next day, unless they needed to do further investigation by staining. I waited all day for the phone call. Nothing until after 5 pm. The answer was that they weren’t done yet. They needed to do more stains. I knew then what that meant. They used staining to determine the type of cells. It meant cancer. I had already read a ton of research and medical articles. I knew.
My breast was horribly bruised. To be honest, I have always bruised easily, and being a tomboy, I have always been a bit rough and tumble anyway. It hurt a little, but acetaminophen helped some. I would have preferred ibuprofen, but I was determined not to take that in case they wanted to do surgery right away. I didn’t want any delays. You know IF somehow this nightmare was real.
(Forewarning- this paragraph may be T.M.I. for some people. Read at your own risk.) In the meantime, I had my first period in over 5 years. Being a female during this time of the month sucks. Headaches, severe cramps, stomach issue, and the ever present fear of “leaking”. I had been on hormone pills since a few months after Andy was born to regulate my hormone levels. I had serious bleeding which landed me in the ER a few months after childbirth. I took regular birth control pills for the first few months, then switched to a daily low dose estrogen/progesterone that completely eliminated my periods. A lot of people don’t know this, but hormone imbalances can cause a whole bunch of other debilitating issues. Severe anxiety, GI issues, sleeplessness (like I needed any worse sleep than I normally get!), depression, extreme fatigue, etc. The ER doctor told me this back then, thankfully, otherwise I would have gone crazy imagining all the serious diseases that I would have thought I had. If it isn’t already clear, I am an excessive worrier (I will tell more about that in a later post). It took about a year, but the pills finally got control of my ovaries and regulated things to where the excessive bleeding stopped, and the anxiety and sleeplessness were manageable.
I held out hope right up until the radiologist called me with the news the following day. We were on our drive to North Carolina. With all the kids in the car. Breast cancer. But the lymph node he’d tested was negative – a slight bit of good news with the bad.
Cancer. I have cancer. I am no longer me. I am one of them. The person who walks around looking sick. Who loses her hair. Who doesn’t know if she’ll live or die. No more time for sitting around just goofing, thinking pleasant thoughts, wondering what fun thing I might want to do on the weekend. From now on, I’d be spending all my time trying to survive. Doctors appointments, and treatments, and fear.