English: pink ribbon
English: pink ribbon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a wife, a mother, a sister, and a daughter… a teacher and learner… a woman of God and child of God. There are many things that I could put on this list of “I ams.” One which I want to share with you today is this: I am a breast cancer survivor.

“What’s That?”

It was September 21, 2009. Women everywhere remember these dates — just ask them. It was early afternoon, and we (my husband, youngest son and I) were horseplaying in the master bedroom. My husband surprised me by picking me up under the arms, liked you’d hoist a small child up in the air (he’s 6’3″ and I’m 5’2″ so this is possible). Under my right arm, I felt a dull pain — “Ow! What was that?”

He put me down. On the side of my right breast, just below my armpit, we found it: a lump about the size of a large olive, that, at first touch, felt like one of my ribs. Except it moved. How could I miss this? 

“Honey, I have a lump.” His face fell. “What do you mean?” “I mean, there’s a lump on my breast.” The mood immediately went south from there. I don’t really remember the rest of that day, except that I resolved not to tell our adult children or my parents, until I had something concrete to tell them.

My doctor saw me first thing the next morning. She immediately scheduled a mammogram, an ultrasound, and a consult with a surgical oncologist, within a week’s time (I had told her I would prefer the appointments all IMMEDIATELY, but that didn’t happen).  I had missed my mammogram for about five years — didn’t have one while I was nursing my son, missed it the next year, moved to a new town, and just kept making excuses for not scheduling one until it became easy to not go. Mistake.

The mammogram confirmed that there was, in fact, a lump that wasn’t normal breast tissue. An ultrasound would tell them if it was fluid-filled (and more likely a benign cyst) or solid. It was solid. Next up, the surgeon to decide what we were going to do about it.

My husband kept things quiet. I learned, early on, that I could only share so much information with him at once. Not that I ever kept anything from him — I would never do that. It’s just that he could only process a small bit of information at a time, then he maxed out, and became paralyzed. We talked about the fact that the odds were in my favor, with about 80% of women finding out that the lump was benign. He agreed to accompany me to the surgeon.

“Why are we here?

We headed to the Neag Cancer Center, at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, Connecticut, to see Dr. Peter Deckers, surgical oncologist. As we walked under the archway into the Cancer Center, Anthony looked up and saw the sign, and asked, “Why are we coming here? Does this mean it could be cancer?” Somehow, either he didn’t understand or refused to acknowledge the implication of finding a lump in my breast. Stunned, he waited with me in the waiting room.

The receptionist, Gail, is a wonderful lady who calls all the girls “hon.” As I signed in, my husband suddenly disappeared, saying he had to go outside and get some fresh air. I explained to Gail that I thought my husband was having a harder time than I was at that time, and she concurred that it’s often harder for the spouse, who cannot busy himself with things, and must just look on. When he came back, she reassured him that Dr. Deckers was not only one of the best breast cancer surgeons at the facility, but he was also one of the kindest people (both we learned to be true).

Dr. Deckers examined me, and said that, because I was in my 40’s, I was too old to just watch the lump for changes (as I was heading into the age when cancers start to show up), but too young to do nothing (because I was not yet menopausal, estrogen being a great contributor to the growth of many breast cancers). He said it would be inappropriate to just biopsy the lump, and preferable to take the whole lump out for the biopsy. We agreed and would have had it done that day. But he said there was no hurry, and scheduled my surgery for October 8.

It Seemed Like Forever…

I had a quick business trip scheduled to Houston the next week. The surgeon assured me that I could go on my trip, and have the  surgery when I returned. So I reluctantly went on my trip. When I returned, I prepared for surgery.

Part of the preparation included telling our kids. The youngest, then five and a first grader, was the easiest. We told him, “Mami has something growing inside her that doesn’t belong, and the doctor is going to operate and take it out.” He was fine with that. We then talked about booboos, and hospital gowns, and how he would get on the bus at the next door neighbor’s house that day.

There would be no sugar-coating things for the adult children, however. So we told them that I found a lump and was having a biopsy, we told them the date and location, and promised to keep them informed. Then we prepared for the day of the surgery.

It seemed like an eternity…

“We Found a Little Bit of Cancer”

The day of the surgery, we got up very early, and dropped our youngest son off at our neighbor’s house at 6:00 a.m. When we got to the outpatient surgical center, I dressed in a hospital gown, they took my vitals, and the surgeon and anesthesiologist met with us to go over what their jobs would be in the operating room. Dr. Deckers drew on my breast with a Sharpie, to show me where they would be cutting. He said they would take out the whole lump in a procedure called a partial mastectomy, or wide excision biopsy, and that the pathologist would do a quick examination of the tissue right there in the OR.

After everyone left, we joked and played, to work out some of the anxiety: my husband always fools with the otoscopes, and offers to check my ears, whenever we are at the doctor’s office together. I told him we’d get thrown out if he didn’t behave. The nurse finally came in and gave me a little sedative (which is almost all I need), and hooked up my IV, then I kissed my husband and they wheeled me into surgery.

In the OR, they gave me blankets that they had toasted for me (the OR being terribly cold), and I recognized Dr. Deckers’ kind eyes over his surgical mask. They put the anesthesia in my IV, and Dr. Deckers said goodnight — that was all I remembered until…

“We found a little cancer.” Somehow, “little” and “cancer” in the same sentence is like saying a “little pregnant.” Making the cancer small in no way diminished the wash of despair that tried to sweep over me. I remember shaking the anesthesia off my brain quickly, and bawling for about 5 minutes, knowing that Dr. Deckers had already broken the news to my husband, who was sitting alone in the waiting room. Believe it or not, that was my biggest anguish: that I was not with him when he found out.

Knowing my family needed me to be strong, I resolved to do whatever it took to get well again. No matter what.

The Journey Begins

The doctor diagnosed me with invasive ductal carcinoma, Stage 1, meaning that the tumor began in the mammary duct, then burst through the duct into surrounding tissue, riding the ribcage on the outer side of my right breast. The tumor was Stage 1, because the actual malignancy was under 2.5 cm — it was about the size of a Jelly Belly jelly bean. The surgeon removed the tumor and a margin of healthy surrounding tissue — a chunk about 5 cm long, or 2 inches, and a little narrower. This made it more than a lumpectomy, but less than a mastectomy.

My recovery from this surgery took a couple of days. It was not that difficult to move around, but I couldn’t lift things until I was fully healed. I returned to the doctor for the results of the full pathology report a couple of weeks later.

Dr. Deckers shared with me that an examination of the location of the cancer cells within the rest of the lump made him unhappy about the margin that he cut along the ribcage. He also had concerns about the proximity of the outermost cancer cells to my lymph nodes. He said he wanted to repeat the surgery, taking a greater margin around the incised area, and doing a sentinal node biopsy at that time, to determine if there were any cancer cells present in my lymph nodes under the right arm.

We prepared to return for another surgery (two, actually) on October 21.

Swine Flu Hits

Two days before my second surgery, both my youngest son and husband were taken to their beds with the terrible flu that swept the nation. There was no way Anthony could accompany me to this surgery. I was dejected and anxious.

Fortunately, a friend and co-worker, and fellow cancer survivor, was able to bring me to the surgery that day. I left the guys in bed.

The surgery was repeated, Dr. Deckers removing a thin layer of muscle along my chest wall and seven lymph nodes, which were clean. They attached a drain tube to my incision and explained how to empty it, put me in a sling, and sent me home.

The recovery from axillary dissection (removal of lymph nodes) is much more painful than the recovery from the actual breast surgery. Unlike the stitches on my breast incision, surgical staples held my armpit incision together. Rolling over hurt. Laying still hurt. Standing up hurt. I was not a happy woman. But I was committed to doing what I could to get well.

The Rest of My Treatment

Here is the rest of my treatment, in summary (I will talk about each part in more detail in future posts):

  • three cycles of chemotherapy (taxotere/cytoxan)
  • 36 treatments of radiation, the last 8 including a “boost” directly on the incision
  • physical therapy for my right arm
  • tamoxifen/arimedex for five years
  • a host of other follow-up tests

I remain cancer-free, through the healing power of prayer and God, two years later.

Life Changing Circumstances

Just before I found the lump in my breast, I had been studying the Book of Job, where God allowed Satan to challenge and test Job, because God already knew that Job would pass the test. When I first heard the diagnosis, I knew that I would be fine. And that God would use these circumstances to teach me, my family and my friends something about Himself.

I would not trade the experience for anything in the world. In future posts, I will try to explain why. So stay tuned!