So, I met with Dr. Herman, my radiation oncologist for a pre-radiation therapy consultation last week. He told me that my response to the chemo was fabulous. I knew that my medical oncologist had said something similar, but I also knew that the lump in my breast had immediately shrunk considerably through the first 4 rounds of chemo, then although it had gotten flatter, it stayed fairly consistently the same size during the last 4 rounds. This of course, caused me concern, as many people I know had their cancer nearly completely disappear from the chemo. Which left me wondering how the doctors knew they were removing the “cancer-part” of the breast when they got to the surgery. Previous mammograms? Best guess?
Dr. Herman explained it. The large lump left in my breast after chemo was mostly scar tissue. According to my pathology report, the actual cancer that was left at the time of my mastectomy only measured 7 mm. If you remember, my lump when discovered was 4.5 X 5.5 cm. Large enough, even though it hadn’t spread outside my breast, to make it a Stage 2 just due to sheer size. According to the doctor, that is a phenomenal reduction from chemo for lobular cancer. And he explained that most of the lump that could still be felt after chemo was just scar tissue. Wow. And – yay!
They set me up for a “simulation” in which I lay on a moveable bed (similar to the MRI, but this time on my back) and they did all sorts of measurements and simulations. I spent an hour laying on this hard surface with my left arm crooked above my head, in excruciating shoulder and armpit pain, while they put electrical tape on me, marked me with a permanent marker, moved me in and out of the x-ray chamber over and over, and then finally tattooed little dots on me in 5 different places. This is to ensure that each time I come in for the radiation treatment, I am laying in the exact same way, so that the radiation goes where it’s supposed to. So, after swearing I would never get a nasty tattoo, I now have 5 of them, permanent ones. Ah, well, so goes life.
I could refuse radiation if I wanted to, but since I am a worrier, I chose to continue with it. The worst case scenario without radiation therapy would be an approximate 8% chance of cancer recurring in what is left of the tissue and scar around my breast, although he said with my response to the chemo, he felt that chance was much lower for me than that worst case. By having the radiation therapy, it would reduce my chance of recurrence to less than 1%. For me, that big of a reduction is worth the side effects and possible issues of having radiation.
Each time something like this is revealed to me – like the Grade being downgraded to a 2, and this realization that what I thought was still cancer not responding to chemo, was instead simply scar tissue and that my response to chemo had been phenomenal – these things have given me that extra boost of positivity that I need to keep moving forward to feeling more human.
Quite a few months ago, I ran into my friend Ellen. She also had breast cancer, 11 years ago. I remember praying for her and worrying about her and her family, and yet I never thought much about how she always walked around with a smile on her face. I just figured maybe she had a low stage cancer, and a high chance of cure, so she didn’t have to worry. When we talked that day a few months ago, she told me that she actually was diagnosed at Stage 3. That she had now been cancer free for 11 years and had never once considered what her family would do without her.
She said that she set goals. Her first goal was to see her son graduate high school. She wasn’t sure at the time (as any cancer patient can tell you) that she would make it that far, but she decided she would never think about what would happen if she didn’t. She simply set out to live at least that long. He graduated a couple years ago, and she told me she set another goal at that time – to see her son graduate from college. She said that once that happened, she would set out to see him happily married, then grandchildren, and so on. All with a smile on her face and encouragement for others along the way.
I’ve mentioned my friend Bev. She wanted to be there for her boys. She is now 20 years cancer-free.
At work, I have a co-worker who always wears a head band or ribbon around her head. It never occurred to me why until one day, sick from chemo and proudly displaying my bald head “badge of honor”, I ran into her in the stairway and she told me her story. She’d been diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor when she was fairly newly married. Her husband lived across the country for his job temporarily, and they missed each other terribly.
The doctors put her into a trial cancer treatment, in which they took a sample from the cancerous tumor and created “antibodies” for it, which they then injected into her to fight the cancer. She also had radiation treatment to her brain, which left her with permanent hair loss in a band around her head (hair ribbon mystery solved!). Her husband moved home to help her through the treatments and she said she was never happier than having him there with her finally.
And of all the people in this research trial- she was the only one who was cured. Completely. She has been cancer free now for 13 or 14 years (she can’t remember without looking it up- she said she had so stopped worrying about cancer that she had actually forgotten how long ago it was). The doctors attributed it to her attitude. They even encouraged her to write a book to help others- about how to remain happy and positive while fighting cancer. She told me that she was just so happy to be with her husband all the time that she couldn’t help but be positive.
There is a great power in positivity. I am starting to feel it more and more. I have funky short hair, but I have hair again now. My shoulder and chest aches, but I’m alive. I am tired all the time, but I am alive. I am alive!