Breast Cancer Welcomes Me To The Club

Breast Cancer Welcomes Me To The Club

July 31, 2021

On Friday last week, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Blindsided. I felt like somebody had punched me in the gut as I was getting ready to go to a stranger’s home to do a loan signing as their Notary Public in an hour. It’s astounding to me how your world can change in an instant with a single phone call. My world stopped as I listened to the voice of the compassionate nurse on the other end explain they found a .4cm lump. “Infiltrating/ Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. The good news is it’s very small and very early.” Okay. That doesn’t sound too bad. Don’t freak out.

“Ummm…” I searched for words, trying to process what she said while wracking my brain for appropriate questions. “Is it malignant?”

“Yes, that’s what makes it cancer.” The tone of her voice dripped with sweet sympathy at my ignorance. She went on to tell me the plan is to go in and remove the lump and follow it up with radiation treatments.

“Is that chemo?” I felt like I was going to pass out.

“No. You don’t need chemo,” she reassured me. “Just radiation after they remove the lump.”

“Will I lose my hair?” The fact that, in this particular moment, I am more concerned about my vanity than my life doesn’t escape me.

“No, you won’t lose your hair. Can you come in on Wednesday to talk with the surgeon?”

I hang up and stare at myself in the mirror before me. I don’t know what to do. I’m frozen. I start walking around in circles, wondering who I should call, who I should tell first. My mother was still asleep in her bedroom downstairs. My eighteen-year-old daughter was on a plane somewhere over the Pacific ocean returning from Cancun with her best friend. I had to pick them up from the airport in three hours, right after finishing the loan signing.

I called my best friend. I forgot she was on her way to a much-needed weekend getaway with her fiancé. I felt horrible. I didn’t want to ruin her trip. She has been under a lot of stress of her own. But, true to being a best friend, she could tell something was wrong. I could barely get the words out as my voice caught in my throat.

“What?”

“I have cancer,” I repeated a little more clearly. I was having a hard time keeping it together. I had to assure her I would be fine and please, please, enjoy the fabulous weekend they had planned.

I contemplated canceling the loan signing — contacting the signing service to tell them I couldn’t make it. But that wouldn’t be fair to the borrowers. They were expecting me in thirty minutes. And it was only a few pages. I couldn’t put my business relationship with the signing service at risk for what would only take me fifteen minutes. The world can’t stop. There’s no time for that. So, I wiped away the tears, touched up my make-up, and kissed my ten-year-old son goodbye with a smile and a pat on the head — the usual.

By the time I got to the signer’s home ten minutes away, the glossiness in my eyes from the tears had disappeared, and I knocked on their door. Smiling. Behind not only a literal fabric mask across the lower half of my face but behind a mask of normalcy and friendliness to put them at ease. I can do this. And for those fifteen minutes, I forgot all about the cancer sitting in my breast as I explained their loan documents to them and collected their signatures.

And then I had to get in the car by myself and drive an hour away to LAX to pick up my daughter, her best friend, and her best friend’s dad, who took them on this amazing delayed high school graduation trip. I cried most of the way there and then called my 21-year-old son in New York.

“Hi, Mom!” He sounded happy. He’s been struggling out in NYC on his own, attending a prestigious school for Musical Theater. I envisioned his bright smile through the phone, and that brought on a wave of joy mixed with sadness. I hated that I was going to ruin that. When I asked what he was doing, he told me he was on a short break. He had just started a new job at Starbucks in Manhattan, and I didn’t want to rattle him in the middle of his shift. I told him to enjoy his break and call me later.

I hung up and remembered it was another one of my best friend’s birthdays. I had to call her to wish her a happy birthday. She moved to Arizona, and she had been helping me all week pull my resume together to find a more stable job with benefits since I’ll lose mine when the divorce is final. I don’t want her to think her birthday doesn’t matter to me. I won’t tell her my news today. Except when a best friend asks enthusiastically, “So how are you?” you can’t lie.

I spent the rest of the drive trying to figure out how to break this news to my daughter. I wondered how she would react. What her face would look like when I dropped this bomb. We have all already been through so much these last fourteen years, so much emotional turmoil with other family issues. It hardly seemed fair to be adding more to the mix.

But, it would have to wait until we were alone. I greeted her, her friend, and her friend’s father with big happy hugs and loaded everyone up in the car. The four of us drove for two hours in the Southern California traffic as they all excitedly shared their adventures with me and told me crazy stories about people they had met. And I was so happy to hear every single detail. I laughed with them as they told me one story after another until all of the stories were exhausted, and her friend had fallen asleep, and the rest of the car was lulled into silence as we slowly made our way along the freeways. And then my reality would wash over me and remind me I had cancer, and I had to tell my daughter, who was beaming from her vacation. It took everything in me to hold the tears back.

After we dropped her friend and her dad off at their home, my daughter continued sharing with me about her trip. This is good. I shouldn’t tell her while I’m driving. Just as we pulled into our driveway, she finished her story, and I put the car in park. “I need to talk to you about something before we go inside.” Because inside, was my mother and my other son. And I needed to tell everyone separately.

My daughter grabbed my hand as I relayed to her everything I learned that morning. I assured her I wasn’t going to die. “This isn’t a death sentence” (words I have since repeated dozens of times to people in my life because the more I say it, the more I understand it’s true). We went inside, and I told my mother. She didn’t want to believe it. Neither do I.

My oldest son finally called me back. He shared passages from a book his Musical Theater teacher had just given him: “Heal Your Body” by Louise Hay. She believes that our breasts represent mothering and nurturing, and nourishment. And that breast issues come from putting everyone else first and refusing to nourish the self. She also believes cancer comes from deep hurt and longstanding resentment. That pierced my soul. I cried. And then I told him I actually had her other book, “You Can Heal Your Life,” and had recently passed it on to my daughter.

It was a difficult weekend as I continued to share with family and close friends. I would get overwhelmed. I would fall into despair. I would get angry. I mostly kept all of that to myself, but it sometimes spilled out. People were understanding and comforting as I worked through so many emotions.

On Wednesday, my best friend went with me to meet the surgeon. She offered to take notes and remind me to ask the questions I had written out. The surgeon explained that Infiltrating/ Invasive Ductal Carcinoma is when cancer is in the milk ducts but has infiltrated out. In addition to that, they also found some cancer “in situ,” meaning contained inside another duct. She assured me again they caught this very early.

So about that. I had gone to my primary care doctor a couple of weeks earlier for a regular physical exam because it had been a while. She told me I was overdue for a mammogram; it had been a year and a half.

“I thought mammograms were every five years?” I asked.

“Every year!”

She did a breast exam, noted I had dense breast tissue, and said she would put the order in for a mammogram. Radiology called me a few days later and set up the appointment. When I showed up at the designated time, they took me back for an ultrasound instead of a mammogram. I was confused but didn’t understand how it all worked, so I just went with it. As the technician moved the wand across my chest, stopping to click for pictures periodically, she casually asked me if I had requested an ultrasound.

“No. I thought I was coming in for a mammogram.”

She went and got a doctor. He came in and asked me why I was having an ultrasound. I was confused why they all thought I had anything to do with requesting this. He went on to tell me he didn’t understand why I was in there for an ultrasound instead of a mammogram because typically, ultrasounds follow mammograms if something is detected. There were no notes from my doctor indicating any concerns. He seemed slightly annoyed that my doctor would order this for no apparent reason. He explained that whenever they do an ultrasound on dense breast tissue, they will always find something. “It’s like going on a wild goose chase when we don’t have any idea what we’re looking for.”

He showed me on the screen the lump they found. He told me it was likely nothing, but it’s hard to know for sure with dense breast tissue. So, we could do a biopsy to make sure, or we could wait and watch it for two years. I asked what was involved with getting a biopsy as I tried to weigh if it was worth it. He explained they would stick a long needle into my breast after applying a local anesthetic. The needle would pull out tissue samples from the lump, and they would insert a titanium chip into the mass to track it in the future. I told him I thought we should go ahead with the biopsy just for peace of mind. It didn’t seem to make sense to wait two years.

So, now in front of the surgeon, she said she went looking for why I got the ultrasound, and there were no notes. I told her how I even checked my after-visit summary from my primary care doctor, and it showed she ordered a mammogram. So, how this all came about really is nothing short of miraculous. The only thing I can think of is whoever called me and scheduled the appointment must have coded it incorrectly (or however they put in appointments at Kaiser).

The surgeon explained since it was small and caught so early, they could do a lumpectomy with radiation. This would involve her going in and digging out the cancer, along with some of the healthy tissue surrounding it.

“Will it leave my breast deformed?” My vanity is showing again.

“It may. As a surgeon, I have to remind myself that my job is to make sure I get all of the cancer out. I can’t get distracted with how the breast will look when I’m done.”

“I read they can take fat from my belly and fill my breast in with that. I have plenty! Can we do that?” I’m starting to see the benefit of possible liposuction.

“No. Kaiser doesn’t do any reconstruction with lumpectomies.” Well, damn.

Following the lumpectomy, I would have to go through radiation treatments that can last from four to six weeks, five days a week. It will burn any remaining hidden cancer from the inside out, and could leave me with a permanent sunburn on my left breast, burns on the skin, and it may damage the skin so that if my breast was left deformed from the surgery and I ever wanted to get implants in the future, I may not be able to. The rate of recurrence is 10–15% in that same breast. I want to cry.

The other option is a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, and that only has a recurrence rate of 5%. I could get both breasts done if I wanted. Fake boobs? I had been seriously wishing for a couple of years that I could get a boob job since nursing three children ruined my once beautiful, perky breasts. And because they caught this so early, there’s a good chance I won’t need any radiation. The best part? My soon-to-be-ex-husband’s insurance would cover everything. Thank God the divorce isn’t finalized.

But as much as I wanted to focus on the fun possibility of getting a free boob job, the reality isn’t that fun. I’ve done my research in the few short days since my diagnosis. It’s a painful surgery that can have complications… like any major surgery. I will have tubes coming out of my chest for a couple of weeks that I’ll need to drain fluid from and probably be unable to return to everyday life and work for six weeks. And of course, those beautiful new breasts will be adorned with horrific scars… because getting implants after a mastectomy isn’t the same as getting a boob job.

Since that meeting, the past two days have been a roller coaster of emotions for me as I try to figure out the best route. I joined support groups on Facebook, posted my scenario, and asked what others in my situation have done. For every person who said they had a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction and no regrets, someone else would share their horror story. I caused a heated debate between people on lumpectomy vs. mastectomy and have come to realize there’s a whole lot of contradictory information out there. So, I decided to close my circle of information a bit.

I had lunch with a girlfriend who had a double mastectomy almost five years ago. She chose to stay flat. She had a bit of a nightmare scenario with her surgery, and it was a long road of recovery for her, but she understands what I’m facing and will be there for me in solidarity as I navigate this. I’ve had a few of my friends and family tell me of friends of theirs who had a double mastectomy with reconstruction, and they are thrilled with their results. Today, I’m at peace with my decision to do the same. I meet with the plastic surgeon on Monday.

I asked my ten-year-old son if he knew what cancer was. “Yes. My friend’s friend died from it.” Oof. I explained to him that I have cancer, but I’m not going to die. I told him out of all of the cancers, I have the one they can treat and cure because they found it early. I have the best cancer you can hope to get. But if he sees me crying, it’s because I’m scared of the hard road ahead, of what my body will be going through, and I’m going to be in some pain, so that makes me upset to think about. But I assured him I wasn’t crying because I was going to die. I’m not quite sure how a ten-year-old processes that kind of information.

I’ve made it through this first week. A week that is going to change my life forever. I’m scared. I still get overwhelmed and cry. And I’m sure I will continue to cry throughout this ordeal. But I’m also grateful for the gift I’ve been given of early detection, of the best-case scenario for a shitty situation, for having health insurance that covers everything with no money out of pocket. I’m incredibly grateful for the family and friends who have reached out to me to offer their love and support. And I’m grateful for my children and the strength they have to endure yet another emotional gut-punch. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Now my focus is on getting my body as strong and healthy as possible over the next month as I prepare for this battle. I know I will come out the other side of this a better person. And for that, I will always consider this trial a gift.

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