When I gave birth, one of the things that was really important to me was to take a few minutes of free time (precious stuff with a newborn) to write down my son’s birth story. I wanted to record how it happened not only for him, but for myself as well, before I forgot it.
When I first started this blog, I was so shell-shocked from my diagnosis and the ensuing whirlwind of doctor’s appointments and treatments that I sort of glossed over the full story of how it all happened. And like that birth story, I want to record how it all went down. Right now I feel like I’ll never forget it, but as I’ve learned, time tends to blur memories and things can get fuzzy enough to disappear completely from your mind.
I also wanted to write this post in the event that some newly-diagnosed person or person with a suspicious lump happens upon this blog in their internet searching (I know I ended up reading a lot of blogs that way). I was hungry for information, but even more so, hungry for the experiences of others. I wanted to hear the good and the bad–I wanted to be prepared either way–but mostly the good, as I was looking for some hope to go along with my cold, hard facts.
So, in that spirit, here is my cancer diagnosis story (it’s long–sorry):
I don’t remember the exact day I noticed the lump, but I remember being aware of it around June of 2016. I’d love to say I was one of those conscientious people who did regular self-exams, but that’s not true. I noticed it in part because I was still breast feeding and more aware of my breasts in general, but also because it was pretty prominent–a hard little lump along the outer side near my armpit.
I honestly thought it was some kind of clog associated with breast feeding, or maybe a cyst. I remember thinking it felt different, so I decided to go to my OB-GYN to get it checked out.
I finally got around to doing that the week after July 4th, and the PA who felt me up that day said she thought it was probably nothing, but sent me to the breast center just in case. I was still oddly calm and sure it would just be some kind of benign thing.
At the breast center, they brought me in for an ultrasound. I’d had several ultrasounds before when I was pregnant, and I loved them. Seeing my baby moving around inside my body was one of the most amazing things I’d ever experienced (even if I needed help seeing him sometimes–those ultrasounds aren’t the clearest things!).
This was far less fun. As I laid on my side, the radiologist pressed the ultrasound wand against the side of my breast, pointing to the image on the screen.
“So, here is the lump,” he explained in a very calm, even tone. “Notice how it has jagged edges. And these little white spots here are micro-calcifications.”
I nodded and didn’t say much. I had no clue what any of it meant. Had I done any research beforehand, I probably would have lost my shit right then and there. Jagged edges and micro-calcifications are both signs of cancer.
When he was finished, he told me it looked suspicious, and they wanted to do a mammogram and a biopsy. Amazingly, there was an opening for the biopsy that afternoon, but the nurse told me I had some time before that appointment, so I should go get something to eat.
Oh yeah, food. I’d completely forgotten about lunch. Of course, I had zero appetite, because the impending biopsy completely freaked me out. I stumbled out into the blazing sun and somehow made it to my car. And then I promptly collapsed into a sobbing mess.
I somehow pulled it together enough to drive to a convenience store and buy a Cheerwine (nothing comforts me like my favorite sugary drink), and then I called Rodney, crying, and told him everything.
I dried my tears, finished my soda and staggered in a daze back up to the breast center. The mammogram was first. Being only 37 with no family history of breast cancer, I’d never had one. And I’m here to tell you the rumors are true–they’re no fun.
After that, I was taken to a small examining room for the biopsy. Continuing the theme of the day, this also was zero fun. I laid on my side and got a shot of local anesthesia. It always takes more than one shot for me (so tough!), but once I was sufficiently numb, the radiologist went to work. I could feel the pressure of the needle going into my body, and then the pulling as the device clicked and sucked out bits of tissue from the tumor.
The biopsy was done in a few minutes, and they sent me on my merry way to wait for the results. Of course, it was my luck that this all went down not only on a Friday–meaning I’d have the whole weekend to agonize–but also the Friday before I was to fly to Chicago for a Monday business trip. I spent most of the weekend consulting Dr. Google, who all but confirmed my fears that this was no ordinary benign occurrence.
As you may have read in one of my first posts, I got the news while on a layover in the Atlanta airport. Yeah, that sucked.
I had my first appointment at the cancer center the following week. I’d had some long doctor’s appointments before, but nothing like the four-hour marathon that is the first cancer consultation. On the one hand, it’s nice that they could assemble my team (it never failed to freak me out that I needed a full team to treat me) at one time instead of making me return for half-a-dozen individual appointments. But on the other, such an appointment makes for a pretty grueling morning.
My oncologist was the first doctor to visit with me and Rodney. After introducing himself, he informed me that I had been the subject of a weekly meeting of the area’s breast cancer doctors. Knowing you need a team is one thing; finding out your case was the talk of all the doctors in the area? Absolutely fucking terrifying. I was sure I was about to die.
Turns out, I was of interest because of my age and relative good health. My oncologist went on to tell me my stage (Stage II A) based on the fact that my tumor was around 2.5 cm and had not spread to my lymph nodes (that they could tell). He also told me that it was estrogen- and progesterone-positive (which means those two hormones essentially feed the cancer) and that it was HER2-negative (a protein that can be over-expressed in tumors). The growth rate was at 50%–fairly high, but not “NASCAR speed,” as my oncologist put it.
After telling me all that, he outlined my treatment plan (which changed due to my BRCA2-positive status), and answered the litany of questions Rodney and I had. The rest of the appointment is kind of a blur to me now. I saw my surgeon, the radiation oncologist (whom I never ended up seeing for treatment), nurses, a dietitian, a physical therapist–like I said, it was kind of grueling.
It’s crazy to me to think that day was almost seven months ago. I’ve had chemo, surgery, several MRIs and more doctor’s appointments than I can count since then. I’ve lost my hair and grown it back (well, it’s in process). And best of all, I’ve had a clean pathology report. I’m still not finished with this journey, but man, I’ve come a long way from the beginning.