To acknowledge Breast Cancer Awareness Month, The Conway Daily Sun is printing occasional stories related to breast cancer, including survivors’ own stories.
My breast cancer story began in June of 2017. At that time, I was a 55-year-old and one-year post-menopausal woman, feeling great, as I’d lost about 25 pounds since the beginning of the year by eating a Paleo diet and walking every day.
It was time for my annual physical and all seemed to be well — even the manual breast exam performed by my doctor yielded no lumps. I was pleased, as in my younger years, my breasts were dense and fibrocystic. I was thrilled with the “all clear.”
My annual mammogram was scheduled for a week after my physical and I actually almost contemplated canceling it due to my good report, but my mother convinced me otherwise (as the saying goes, “Mother knows best”).
Thank God I didn’t cancel the appointment, as my mammogram saved my life! It identified suspicious micro-calcifications in both my breasts that were not present on prior year scans.
In most instances, it is normal, as you age, for breast tissue to calcify. But not all breast calcifications are normal. I learned that there are two types: macrocalcifications, usually changes in breast tissue resulting from old injuries, inflammation, or simply aging and usually not related to cancer; and microcalcifications, tiny specks of calcium that may be found in an area of rapidly dividing cells. When many are seen in a cluster, they may indicate cancer.
Unfortunately, brochures about breast cancer they rarely discuss microcalcifications. This for sure needs to change, as most women, like myself, probably have never heard of this type of breast cancer, which is a fast-growing one.
According to my surgeon, most calcifications are benign. But "microcalcification" is often used for malignancies, which are usually smaller, more numerous, clustered and variously shaped (rods, branches and teardrops). Calcifications associated with benign conditions are usually larger, fewer, widely dispersed and round.
About a week later, I had a diagnostic mammogram and a breast ultrasound. Magnification views of both breasts were needed in order to get a better picture of the quantity, shape and arrangement of the microcalcifications.
At that point, I decided not to tell my family about these follow-up diagnostic tests, as I did not want to worry them if everything was fine. After the tests were completed, the radiologist showed me the magnified views and the additional microcalcifications clustered n irregular patterns throughout both breasts. He informed me that when this is found, it is suspicious for cancer.
I was at a loss for words. There wasn’t any breast cancer in my family and my past mammograms were always fine.
The radiologist said the next step would be to perform core needle biopsies in both breasts.
Hesitantly, I agreed. However, because it was the middle of June, many of the radiologists were on vacation, so I had to wait six weeks (yes, six weeks!) before I could have these biopsies done and learn my fate.
I was not happy, but I had no other options at that point. And in case you were wondering, no, I did not share any of this with my family because I did not want to worry them.
In the meantime, I went on the internet to research what I did know about my diagnosis thus far. I also wanted to know what to expect with these needle biopsies, which would not be in my arm or leg but in my breasts! Not fun!
I researched everything I could about breast microcalcifications and the news didn’t look good, as if you had them in both breasts, many times it indicates a fast-growing breast cancer where the only option is a bilateral mastectomy. This was tough to swallow, but I wanted to prepare for the worst possible diagnosis once the pathology results came back from the biopsies.
As fate would have it, I learned in late July that my biopsies revealed I had a very aggressive and fast-growing cancer that was estrogen positive throughout both breasts.
Once I digested all of this information, the most difficult task was telling my family and friends about my diagnosis.
They all said, “Why you? It isn’t in your family!” I said, “Why not me? As one out of every eight women is diagnosed with invasive breast cancer every year, why not me?”
In the face of my greatest challenge, somehow, through faith, along with the love and support of family and friends, I found the strength and courage to have the surgery, and to fight this nasty disease with the hope of survival.
So, on Sept. 11, 2017, I had a bilateral mastectomy, along with breast reconstruction. The entire surgery took over eight hours to complete and I remained in the hospital for three days. I was just praying they got all the cancer and it hadn’t reached my lymph nodes.
A week after the surgery, the pathology revealed the cancer had not reached my lymph nodes (definitely something to be thankful for) but it did reveal that the cancer was invasive, meaning that it went beyond the milk ducts and into the lobes of the breast (stage 1-2) which for me, based on additional tissue biopsy testing meant I would need chemotherapy — ugh! So, I had yet another hurdle to overcome! But with the ongoing love and support of so many people, I (or rather we) bravely faced the challenge.
Everything you may have heard about chemo is true. It is pretty awful. The worst part initially was losing my long straight blonde locks. But I had read so many stories about patients’ hair coming out in clumps, I decided to have my head shaved. First, I got a bob haircut, then a pixie cut and then, when my hair began to fall out (I would see it on my pillow) I opted for the official buzz cut.
Chemo totally sucks, so don’t let anyone sugar-coat it. Not only do you lose all of your hair, but you also suffer: mouth and gum sores, dental caries, bone and muscle pain, physical and mental exhaustion, dehydration, neuropathy in your hands and feet, inability to sleep, depression, and the loss of fingernails and toenails, along with a compromised immune system.
During these dark days, not only was I blessed with a strong support system but incredible oncology caretakers. They were compassionate and optimistic people and made my chemo treatments a positive experience. Enough cannot be said about what these caregivers do for cancer patients and, most important, the hope they offer when you need it the most.
After finishing chemo in January 2018, I had four more breast reconstruction surgeries: in March, May, July and October 2018. Also, because my breast tissue pathology indicated my cancer was caused 98 percent by estrogen, I was put on estrogen blocker medication, which I will need to take for 10 years. I found it odd that I was still producing estrogen even after menopause, but you still produce it (another thing I learned).
Well by the end of 2018, I was finally “put back together again” (hey, Humpty there’s hope for you, too). What a journey, not one I planned to take, but through it, I learned humility, found my faith again, found courage, strength and endurance I never thought I had and learned that when you hit rock bottom and survive, it’s a chance to rebuild your life and relationships.
I learned to let go of anger and hate and instead to fill my heart with love and forgiveness.
I learned to cherish the people I love and to spend as much time with them as I can.
Life is truly a gift, and each day a blessing and also a chance for a new beginning. I’ve learned that change is a good thing, because through it, I’ve learned, I’ve grown and I became a better and stronger person.
I am so thankful, grateful and blessed to say that in January 2020, I will be two years in remission— definitely something to celebrate!
In closing, my cancer didn’t define me, but it did change me. So I am doing my best every day to make those changes positive ones.