I realized the other day I’ve been holding my breath since October 22, 2013. That was the day my surgeon called to tell me I had breast cancer. The next thirty-six days were a gut twisting, pulse racing rush from doctor to doctor trying to make an informed decision that would hopefully be the best choice for me. On the thirty-sixth day, November 26th, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. The surgeries (2) one by my general surgeon to remove both breasts and one immediately following by my plastic surgeon to start the reconstruction process by implanting tissue expanders to stretch the remaining breast tissue over a period of time to a size of my choice. After I reach the size of my choosing, I will go back in for more surgery to remove the tissue expanders and put in the implants.
A few days after my surgery the results came back as Stage 1 cancer with nothing in my lymphatic system. Outstanding news and I thought I was done, but no I was told that I needed to call and make an appointment with an oncologist. I did and had to wait six weeks to get in to see the doctor. I had no idea that there are that many people with cancer. When the day finally came I thought for sure that it would just be a simple in and out, no cancer, pay your ten dollar copay and thank you very much for stopping by. But that wasn’t the case. The oncologist wanted to run another test, called an Oncotype DX test, where they test twenty-one genes of the cancer to see what the chances of it returning and then score the results. I told the doctor that I didn’t have any more cancer to share and he said that the lab saves it. Why would the lab save my cancer? If it was me, I would have tossed in the trash and been done with it.
The oncologist spent an hour just explaining my type of cancer and what different types of treatments were available. It was so overwhelming, because I kept thinking that was what I had the surgery for, to remove the cancer and my breasts so that there was nothing left to get cancer. Even my surgeon had said that he didn’t think I would have to have any extra treatment, eg. Chemotherapy because the cancer was so small and only stage 1. No matter how hard I tried to remain detached not getting my hopes up that this would all be over, I started believing that I would walk out of his office with a clean bill of health. So news of an additional test threw me back a few steps.
I went online to read up about the oncotype-DX test and found that the lab tests 21 genes of the cancer cell to check the likelihood of the cancer returning scoring it from 0 to 100. A score of 17 and below puts a cancer patient in the low range of the chance it returning, a score of 18 to 30 puts the patient in the moderate range of the chance of the cancer returning and a score of 31 to 100 puts the patient in the high risk range of the chance that the cancer will return.
Because the cancer was so small, .5 centimeters, when it was found, I decided that the score would have to be way below 17. Foolish me. When I went back for my appointment to get the results and score, I looked down at the report and all I saw was the number 23 screaming at me. I am in the moderate range, meaning I have a 14% chance of the cancer returning or an 86% chance of the cancer not returning depending on whether or not you are a pessimist or an optimist. My doctor was explaining what it meant and what we needed to do for treatment, but all I heard was a roaring in my ears, my throat closed and my eyes started to well up. Damn I wanted that score to be way below 17 so badly. I had to stop and focus and quit feeling sorry for myself. There are a lot of other women out there that would have given anything to get a score of 23 and I needed to sit up straight and stick out my chin. I can take it, I kept telling myself.
In the end, the doctor told me he was putting me on an estrogen negative drug, Arimidex, as a treatment. The drug is used for treating postmenopausal women with early breast cancer. I asked about the side effects and he said it causes hot flashes, bone softening and can cause joint pain and those are just some of the common side effects, the really bad side effects are a lot scarier. Goody I thought, I will be a bent over old woman walking around in the dead of winter wearing a sports bar and shorts. I am not looking forward to start taking the drug, but I don’t really have much of a choice, I haven’t come this far or gone through everything to date to give up now.
I go back to the doctor every three months for blood work for the next two years and take the drug for five years and if after that I’m still here, then I’m considered a breast cancer survivor. Now that I know what and how we’re treating me, I have a goal and can start planning life again and stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s time to exhale.