Suspended Animation

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.

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It’s Okay

Today is the day. Today is the day I’ve been waiting nervously, anxiously for. Today is the day I’ve been dreading. I made the decision to have a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. I didn’t make the decision lightly. I came to this decision after three other lumpectomies, albeit all benign, and I don’t want to have to make a decision like this ever again.

I’ve joked about the cancer, mocked it and made fun of myself for getting breast cancer. Some might think I was being callous, not being caring and thoughtful of others that are and have gone through this, but I’m not. This has been the only way I can deal with having cancer. To mock it and laugh about it is my defense against it. Otherwise I would walk around like a zombie feeling sorry for myself, sorry, that is not me. Besides I wouldn’t put my family and friends through that misery.

My family and friends have been outstanding through this long waiting period. There have been lunches and dinners (with alcohol), shopping trips to buy zip up tops, pajamas and undershirts for the healing process and too many hugs to count. A dear coworker even bought me a massage for the night before surgery just to help me relax and have positive energy. Poor Mitch, who has especially had to endure my warped sense of humor and totally inappropriate comments, has no idea how much I love him. I told him last night that he was the best time I ever had. Just in case.

This morning after no food or drink after midnight, not even a cup of coffee, I get to go have dye injected in me, have both my boobs whacked off and the rebuilding begun. Of course on top of having all of this fun, I get to go wearing NO MAKEUP. This from the woman who gets up an hour early on hunting trips just to shower and put on makeup.

Now that today has finally come, I’m scared. I wasn’t going to let it get to me, but it did. Damn cancer. But I’ve decided that today it’s okay to be scared.

My World Turned Inside Out

I have been sitting here trying to think of something witty or profound to say and nothing comes to mind. I’m not feeling especially wise or funny right now. To be honest, I’m feeling lost and scared. Every year I go get my basic health exams done, you know the ones, Pap smear and mammogram. In the past both have come back questionable, so I always keep my annual appointments religiously. I had my first breast biopsy when I was eighteen. I’ve had three more since and so far they have all been benign. After the mammogram the technician put me back in a tiny room to wait half naked for the radiologist to read the X-rays and pronounce me free to go. There was a knock on the door and the technician said the radiologist saw something he didn’t like and wanted more x-rays.

After more smashing, contorting and discomfort I was sent back to my tiny little room to wait. Everything was going to be fine, I told myself, the same as always. The knock on the door and look on technician’s face said something different. The radiologist wanted to do a sonogram because he wasn’t sure if he saw something or if it was a shadow from the scar tissue made from the last breast biopsy I had done four years ago. Off I went to get a sonogram. This day was not turning out the way I had planned. The technician completed the sonogram and took off to show his work to the radiologist telling me to lie still and wait until he came back. I waited for what seemed like an eternity thinking what was wrong, how difficult could this be? The technician knocked on the door and in walked the radiologist with the technician. This was not good. The last time I saw the radiologist was four years ago when he saw the last lump. The radiologist explained that he wanted to watch the tech do the sonogram to see exactly what the tech was doing and what was showing on the screen. Oh goody, now I have two men looking at my naked chest and not in a good way.

After ten minutes of rolling the wand back and forth across my breast, the radiologist explained that the “lesion” or “mass” was new and not a shadow from the scar tissue of the previous biopsy. He said he would call my doctor and recommend either an MRI or a needle biopsy to find out if the lesion was benign or not. The technician made a DVD copy of the x-rays and the sonogram for me to take with me to the surgeon for show and tell. G-Rated of course. My gynecologist called and we discussed how to proceed. Once again it would be the needle biopsy, fun, fun, fun. She also explained that since I had been on hormones for seven years and if the mass turned out to be cancerous that I would have to stop taking the hormones. I told her that wasn’t she just the bearer of more bad news. I was not looking forward to hot flashes. Of course, I figured that it would be another benign tumor just like the previous three times. I called the surgeon’s office and made an appointment for Friday, October 11th, giving me a week and a half to stew about it. Outwardly I knew it would be nothing as always, but inwardly there was this little voice inside my head saying, “are you sure? What if…?”

I played off the impending office visit, telling Mitch and myself that it was no big deal, then immediately following up with a statement about just lopping both breasts off and not having to worry about this in the future. Friday finally came and I was so keyed up about going so that I could get this over with that I totally forgot to take my boob DVD with me. I walked into the reception area and signed in, making a joke about being early. The receptionist smiled, asked for the DVD and I gave her this stricken look, I couldn’t believe it, I forgot it. I knew exactly where it was, sitting on my dresser. I apologized profusely and walked out to call Mitch and ask him to drop what he was doing and bring it to me. What a nincompoop, I suck. Mitch being the saint he is, brought it to me in record breaking time so I could still make my appointment on time.

I took my prize back inside with me and handed it over to the receptionist to give to the surgeon. Once ushered in to the examination room, I got undressed from the waist up, donned the fashionable gown and waited for my surgeon to come in make it all better. We crossed the hall to the room with his sonogram machine so that he could find the lesion again and know where to stab me so he could take the tissue samples for testing. His nurse squirted the lubricant on my skin, and it was off the races with my surgeon rolling the wand over the area marked on the sonogram and x-rays searching for the lesion. He couldn’t find it. Back and forth he rolled it over and over and didn’t see anything suspect. He was getting frustrated and I was getting worried. Was I wasting everyone’s time on a witch hunt? Of course I wasn’t the one that found it the first time, but my brain works in a weird twisted way, I blame myself first. After about fifteen minutes of a fruitless search for the mass, my surgeon decided he wanted to call in the big guns.

It was decided that I would go to the Women’s Center and get a sonogram needle biopsy there by the hospital’s radiologist. Evidently the women’s center had a bigger better sonogram machine and they would stand a better chance of finding it than the surgeon’s office machine. Since it was after four on Friday, I would have to wait until Monday the following week for the scheduler at the women’s center to call and set up an appointment, another weekend of waiting and wondering. The stress was really starting to build and the little voice was getting louder, the “what ifs” coming more and more. I still presented an outward, “this is no big deal.” But inside I had a bad feeling and told Mitch so that night in bed.

His response was, “What do you want to do?”

“There’s nothing I can do but wait. I just want it done and know the outcome, that’s all.”

Monday afternoon on the 14th I got a call from the scheduler setting up my appointment for that Wednesday at 2pm. I wish I could have gone right then, I don’t do waiting well. You should see me during the Christmas season, I make Mitch crazy. Thankfully I was not responsible for taking the DVD to the center; my surgeon’s nurse ran that over for me. The staff at the Women’s Center was amazing, caring kind women that treated me so wonderfully. I can truthfully say that everyone I had dealt with so far have been the most wonderful caring professionals in the healthcare field. These are special people to do what they do every day.

As the radiologist took the syringe and prepared to stab me with it the technician reached down and grabbed my hand and held it. I looked up at her and she had such a soft sweet smile on her face, it was almost like having my mom standing there holding my hand telling me that everything would be alright. That was so unexpected and reassuring, I almost started crying. I felt like I wasn’t alone in this, that they were there rooting for me as much as I was. I felt a sharp prick and then a burning sensation in my left breast; I looked up at the screen and could see the needle moving back and forth squirting the lidocaine around the area to be snipped. It was weird and a little creepy looking at the screen and seeing the needle then the fireplace log starter moving around inside me while the radiologist hunted for the best site to take tissue samples. Again it was time for more waiting. Two to three days before I would get the results and since it was late Wednesday afternoon, I probably would not get the results until Monday.

Monday came and went no phone call; does that mean good or bad news? Tuesday I called the doctor’s office finally out of patience and was told that the results had just gotten there but the doctor hadn’t read them yet and would call me back as soon as he read through the report. My world stopped as soon as I heard the doctor’s voice on the other end of the phone, “I’m sorry, the pathology report shows you have breast cancer. It’s a small mass, which is good…” he droned on. But that was all I heard, “breast cancer” then there was a roaring in my ears and my chest tightened. I squeezed back tears, took a deep breath and clenched my jaw shut to keep from blubbering out loud. No, my mind screamed, no not now, not today. Like any other day would be a better day for cancer. I focused on what the doctor was saying. He said that he wanted me to come in and talk to him and discuss our plan of action. The sooner the better, I could come in today or tomorrow whichever was better for me. I could get a mastectomy or a lumpectomy and get radiation therapy.

I told myself I could do this and called Mitch to tell him. As soon as I started to tell him, I couldn’t talk, tears ran down my face, I took a breath and blurted it out. In his usual calm voice he said that we would get through this. We would go to the doctor’s office discuss our options and go from there. “WE” being the operative word. Not you but we. We were a couple, a team and we would fight the fight together. I don’t think I could have loved him more than at that moment. Mitch had my back, no matter what.

It is funny how you can read something and it doesn’t affect you as much as saying it out loud. I could see the words breast cancer in my mind or even say breast cancer out loud, but when I added the two words, “I have”, I would tear up, my voice dropped to a whisper and I could barely speak the entire sentence, “I have breast cancer.” It took me three days to be able say that without crying, but now I can and I can smile and think about the positives in my life. I am working with the surgeon, doing research and talking the best source in the world, my friend who went through this last year and is amazing. She is the strongest woman I know who has inspired me to try to be half as strong as she was.

I gave myself a wallow time to feel sorry for myself, but now it’s time to get beyond that and fight the fight of my life. I’m done wallowing it’s time to put on the boxing gloves.