Starting Out Life Living with Breast Cancer
I don’t remember a time when breast cancer wasn’t in my life.
Picture of me and grandma before her breast cancer, 1958
The first five years of my life were turbulent, to say the least. Started with my mother’s schizophrenia diagnosis when I was only six months old. My grandmother who met the challenge by taking me on to raise, was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was four years old. I watched as she suffered and died from it just six years later.
I didn’t think about it much as a kid except that I was freaked out about all the illness that surrounded me. Then when I was 17 years old I discovered a lump under my left arm. I told me father, who freaked out. I was in the hospital having a lumpectomy just two weeks later. I was shocked the incision was in the middle of my relatively new breast. It was benign. The surgeon told me that the scar would go away. I still have it over 40 years later.
At university, only 3 years later, I found another lump, same breast. I went to the teaching hospital associated with the school, and was referred to the leading tumor specialist in the Midwest. Diagnosis: fibrocystic breasts. I could expect lumps and if they cut them all out I would look like a road map I was told. I was also taught the importance of monitoring.
For the next decade I went to a gynecologist every six months, for regular exams and at only thirty I started yearly mammograms. But it wasn’t until 2003 that anything suspicious was found. This time on my right breast. I had a needle biopsy, and it was determined to be a hamartoma, a fibroadenoma, also benign. I found an amazing breast surgeon and on my first visit to her I said, “I have one rule. I will not die of breast cancer. What do I have to do?” That’s when I started sonograms every six months in addition to yearly diagnostic mammograms. That is, until 2008, when I started to lose faith in the medical profession starting with the radiologists who had been doing my mammograms for almost 20 years.
The Internet didn’t help much with all the distrust in over-diagnosis and over-treatment. It also didn’t help I was moved from my beloved Manhattan to the bucolic Hudson Valley. I needed time to adjust just in time for menopause. So the long and the short of it, I didn’t get a mammogram again for five years, during which time I did have this lump, but since it was so close to the hamartoma, I was not alarmed. That is, until a lymph node under my right arm got involved. I knew as soon as I went to my primary care physician, who is also a personal friend, I would be sent down the rabbit-hole of diagnostic tests. I was right.
The pathology report confirmed locally advance invasive ductal carcinoma, right axillary lymph node: metastatic ductal carcinoma. Damn, shit just got real. It could be Stage IV breast cancer, no cure, which would mean I’d be fighting this beast for the rest of my life. Off to an oncologist, and a PET CT to determine if it had spread to any other organs, but because of all he already knew, neoadjuvant chemotherapy was scheduled even before the scan.
The scan showed this beast had not spread beyond that one lymph node: no evidence of metastasis to bone or solid organs. This was excellent news. This gave me a solid chance of a cure. I was scheduled for AC → T, which meant four dose dense treatments of two powerful stalwarts of chemo - Adriamycin and Cytoxan - both in use for almost as long as I have been alive, followed by four dose dense treatments of Taxol, for which clinical trials began in 1984.
Before my fourth treatment of AC, just this week, Dr. Andrade, my medical oncologist, announced that progress has been “Excellent!” and that I was grabbing a Stage II breast cancer by the horns. I must say there is nothing like some good news to make the side-effects easier to take.
As my husband Tom said, “If they make this any easier on you it’s going to start to be fun. Then everyone’s going to want to do it!” That gets a big laugh from all the angels on my medical/surgical team.