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Monday, July 27, 2009

Four Years and Counting

So, I thought this would be easier to write about. I have no problem talking about it but I don't bring up the subject up all the time.
Four years ago yesterday, July 26, at 9:10 p.m., (yeah, I remember the exact moment) I got a call from my surgeon - a call I was sweating about all day. He said that the lump he had taken from my breast was malignant.

I was 40 and had just had my first mammogram the month before. They saw calcifications on the image, took it again, said it was probably nothing, but sent me to get a sonogram. There was a lump. The surgeon could see the lump on the sonogram and we scheduled surgery to take it out. He said it was probably nothing but the surgery would confirm or deny that. I guess, because of my age and the fact that it was my first mammogram, to serve as a baseline for future exams, it probably was nothing.

I wasn't so sure. Sometimes I think you know the truth deep down inside. You can't explain how you know. Some will say you are just worried, over-anxious, which is to be expected. And you wonder, too, if you are just being a hypocondriac, for heaven's sake. But something deep inside is saying, no. And it's strangely calm, too, at that point. A least it was for me. Not content that I was right, but not screaming in panic. Yet.

After the surgery, another surgery was needed to take out the lump (a lumpectomy) and to extract some lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread there. If cancer cells move to the lymph nodes, they will move throughout the body, as fluids from the entire body pass through the nodes.

I don't know why then, but I also knew that cancer cells had spread to the lymph nodes.
And they had. I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer.

I was numb at first but really, my main thought was, "Ok, now what do we do? Let's do it."

Not that I didn't get upset. My brain would scream, "I have CANCER!" and it would shock me. I could barely say the word at first. As if saying it, acknowledging it out loud would make it too real, too devastating, as if it would rip me to shreds. One time I was laying down outside with my bunny, Sadie, looking up at the clouds. I thought, when I was little, I used to look at the clouds and I was fine. I watched the clouds last year and I thought I was fine. Now, here I am, watching the clouds again but I am not well. I have cancer.

After my lumpectomy, I had to wear a drain called a Jackson Pratt drain (wow) under my armpit. It removes blood and other fluids and needed to be emptied two or three times a day. It was very uncomfortable, as I could only sleep on my back and used a pillow to prop up my arm when I slept. Plus, when I moved my arm too fast, OW!

Anyway, my husband is a very nurturing man inside. He's also an engineer. He drained my drain for me every time, even though I said I could do it myself. And he wrote down the date and time he emptied it, plus the amount and color of said fluid. I still have the paper:

9-1 1:40 p.m. 20 cc opaque bright red
9-1 3:35 p.m. 30 cc opaque pinkish red
Even though such information was not required or even suggested by the doctor. But it is good to be detailed.

I had a wonderful oncologist at Hartford Hospital, Patricia DeFusco. My first appointment with her was extremely informative. Of course, she had gone over my records. Then we discussed options. She took a bunch of blank paper, went over each line of my pathology reports, and wrote down, as she explained, each test, each result, what these results were compared to other results in this type of breast cancer, my treatment options and survival rate and non-treatment, if I so chose - wrote everything down, answered my questions and wrote those down, too. This doctor is incredible.

Because whether you want it or not, you become more knowledgeable about your disease than you ever wanted to, in the briefest amount of time.

Here are a couple of fact that threw cold water on my face (in my words).

I will never be 0% free of never having cancer again. I've already had cancer and I am a woman with breasts. This doesn't mean that I will get it again. But the percentages of survival rates for no treatment vs. chemo vs. chemo/radiation, etc. decrease the more treatment you get. But it is never 0% again. Probably never was, obviously, for me.

But I felt fine. I have cancer and I feel fine. You're telling me that this chemo will make my hair fall out, make me sick, give me mouth sores, etc., etc. It was like learning all over again that I had cancer.

But I got over those and just wanted to start treatment already.

I had four months of chemo followed by 12 weeks of radiation. I cried because my hair would fall out from the chemo. But I decided that I didn't want to deal with clumps of hair falling out, so I shaved it off. As soon as hair started falling off my body (yeah, all hair, except my eyebrows and eyelashes - that would come later with another chemo drug), I made a lunch date with two girlfriends. One helped me shave off my hair and then we met the other for lunch. Oddly, I felt better after the hair was gone.

Here I am, bald. I could have made a wig out of my cat, Winnie's, fur.
The plusses of being bald include less time getting ready in the morning. Really, it was just a matter of choosing which hat to wear that day. Also, since all the hair on my body was gone, shaving was unnecesary. Yeah, I know. I would never chose to be bald, but if that's the way it's got to be then you have to find something good about it.
That was ok. After two months of chemo I was changed to another drug, which is standard protocol for my cancer. This one did make my eyelashes and eyebrows fall out. There was a brief moment in time when my eyebrows were perfectly groomed, just as neat and thin as I wanted them. That didn't last. I really hated that look. I think I looked strong without hair. I had cancer and I was tough. But no eyelashes and eyebrows PLUS no hair? I looked like an alien.

Of course, it grows back. My last chemo treatment was in January. This picture was taken that following April.

I would see people out in stores, total strangers, who would recognize that I had cancer and come up to me and say, My sister went through it and she's fine now, keep it up. Or, one woman who looked at me and said, I know what you're going through. I had it, too you will get through.

People at work would say they told their church group and they were praying for me. That still makes me cry. That total strangers would pray for my health is so incredibly touching, generous, and kind.

Thank you.

I hope this didn't upset anyone. It's not meant to scare but to inform. I just want women to get checked. Check themselves. Ask questions. Don't take vague or non-answers for answers. Take a friend, a sister, your husband with you if you need further tests, just to have someone there for support and because it's better to have an extra set of ears to listen to the answers. Take notes. Have questions written down when you go.

Don't be afraid. It was unusual that I was diagnosed at age 40, but not so rare. You can ask me questions if you like or visit these websites (and there are many more):

Susan G. Komen For the Cure

American Cancer Society

Network of Strength (formerly Y-Me)

These sites have information as well as message boards with which to meet others and ask all kinds of questions.

I really have been weaving lately and spinning! I will have more pictures up on that very soon!


  1. Heck, if I were as cute as you are bald then I woulda shaved my head a long time ago. Seriously, I think you are cute bald. I just started getting mamograms myself, actually. Thanks for posting this and I hope every thing turns out well for you.


  2. Oh, thank you! That's so sweet of you! I'm glad you're getting tests.