MY PINK RIBBON
Breast cancer had only ever been a hazy, distant possibility to me. My grandmother had it. I have friends who have had it, and one good friend died from a particularly vicious recurrence of it. At every yearly “Well Woman” exam, the doctor would encourage me to be proactive in my self-exams. One GP told me to use some of my “soaping up” time in the shower each day to suds up the girls. She said this would help me get well familiar with the shape and feel of them. “When you do this, you’re not looking for lumps,” she told me, “you’re looking for changes.” I thought this was great advice, and immediately built that into my bathing routine. (But never when my husband is around, lest he start making that “Bow chicka wow wow” sound).
But it was my very first mammogram, at age 40, that found a weird little spot in my right breast. It wasn’t big enough or dense enough for anyone to feel; only a mammogram could have caught it at that early point. I had already been informed that – due to the size and density of my breasts – any mammogram I had would almost certainly be followed by an ultrasound (and it was.) The radiologist couldn’t exactly identify what the spot was, in either scan. It didn’t look dangerous or even ill-tempered, however, so he gave me the option of either scheduling a biopsy to resolve the question immediately, or do another mammogram in six months to see if anything had changed. As I am not, by nature, a worrier, and because I was stepping into a crazy-busy season of life, I chose the “Wait 6 months and see” option. I didn’t think about it again. Six months later I was regretting that choice, because I had to go back to the doctor – AGAIN – and get squished – AGAIN – followed by an ultrasound – AGAIN – and darned if that little bugger wasn’t still there. It hadn’t really changed much in size or density, though, so the doctor told me I had the same two choices: biopsy, or give it time. I replied,
“DUDE. If the biopsy will keep me from having to come back and get squished every six months, let’s just knock that out. I got things to do.”
We scheduled the biopsy for three weeks away, on January 10. On January 11, someone said the word “cancer” to me – about me – for the first time. The week after that I was meeting with a breast surgeon, who informed my husband and me I had a “Grade 1 invasive ductal carcinoma with a mucinous feature”. The week after that I had my first-ever MRI, which determined the carcinoma was about 8 mm across and 5 mm wide. The week after that the hubby drove me to the hospital for a lumpectomy, where The Little Bugger and its four closest sentinel lymph nodes (aka “The Posse”) were removed with clean margins.
I was extremely fortunate in a number of ways: I had a rare kind of cancer, one with favorable features. It was very small, non-aggressive, didn’t grow quickly, and wasn’t knocking over 7-Elevens or beating up old people on the weekends. None of the lymph nodes tested positive for carcinoma. I didn’t need a full mastectomy, and the lumpectomy barely even changed the shape of my breast. My medical oncologist told me it would be ridiculous to even consider chemotherapy for this kind of cancer. I had two weeks of Accelerated Partial Breast Irradiation (APBI), which gave me a slight tan on the inside curve of my right breast, leading to its designation as my “Mali-boob.” My chance of recurrence is only around 5%. Six months later, I am sailing through my follow-ups, and have only a couple of small scars and some residual odd sensation in my right armpit to show for it all. Someone usually has to remind me I had breast cancer for it be forefront in my mind.
I think I’ve had the best imaginable breast cancer experience that it’s possible to have (short of, you know, not having breast cancer). Some of that is certainly due to the nature of my cancer, but the importance of early detection in this case cannot be overstated. I lost count of the number of medical professionals who told me, at age 41, “You’re so young.” So young to have breast cancer, so young to be having this surgery, so young to be going through radiation.
The cancer didn’t care that I was “so young.” It wasn’t going to wait until I reached (what I would consider to be) a cancer-appropriate age.
We can’t always predict when something outside the norm might happen, but we can certainly be proactive. I consider myself fortunate and blessed to have stopped this cancer before it really got out of the gate. My very first mammogram made that possible. Obviously, I’ve not succeeded in reducing the number of mammograms I must do, as I had hoped to accomplish by going ahead with the biopsy.
I’ve had three scans this year, alone, with a fourth coming up in another few months. But I don’t begrudge the time or the effort anymore. Though this particular cancer would have taken a long, long time to hurt me, who’s to say whether another might not come along with a much less pleasant personality? I’ll use whatever tools I’ve got to stay ahead of it.
There have been good things to have come out of this process. I took the recommendation of a friend who had been through ovarian cancer, and cranked up a Caring Bridge site. It allowed me to keep my medical updates in one place (instead of trying to keep up with everyone via emails, phone calls, and very public social media posts,) and allowed anyone who so desired, to follow along. It surprised me to find the hardest part of dealing with my own cancer diagnosis was managing the emotions of those who loved me best. Despite my best attempts to relay the positive aspects of my diagnosis (because, let’s face it, as these things go, my cancer was a bit of pansy,) friends and family members gasped, panicked, worried, or simply burst into tears. People have immediate, visceral reactions to the “C” word; it’s a very personal response that you cannot change for someone else. The CB site gave me an opportunity to keep people involved while setting the tone for my own experience.
“And if nothing else, the account of my diagnosis and treatment encouraged more than one friend to catch up on her own mammograms.”
This includes my beautiful friend Marianne, whose 3D mammogram caught a very dangerous Little Bugger of her own before it had an opportunity to diminish her life. For that alone, I’d go through every bit of it again.
Bosom buddies gotta stick together, ya know? :-)