Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, what better time to tell my story, something I haven’t done for a long time. I don’t think too much about it any longer, for fear it will bring back all those old memories I’ve managed to store away in the back of my mind somewhere.
The title of this post may be somewhat misleading, if construed that there is anything about having breast cancer that can be considered “lucky”. But, in looking back on my experience, I can see that several things which happened to me can be considered to be happy endings as compared to what could have been a much more unfavorable outcome.
In July of 1996, I was having a bit of a problem with my internal thermostat. Hot flashes. My friends were going through the same thing and the way to get rid of them was ERT (Estrogen Replacement Therapy). I went to Dr. L. for this and he casually asked, “So, how long since you’ve had a mammogram?” Uh. He would have to ask that. Too long, I’ve been busy, my career has taken me from place to place, contracting here and there. He strongly suggested I get a mammogram, and surprisingly, I did, even though I am sometimes apt to ignore sage advice.
I should have known something was up when the picture-taker came back for a second shot, but I remained blithely unaware. Until Dr. L. himself called me with the news. They see something. I’m recommending a surgeon, Dr. C. You know when doctors call you at home the news is never good, right? And they call in person? And it’s after five? And it’s a Friday evening? And, he said, stop the ERT immediately. Do not take one more pill.
Okay, I did that. I made my appointment with Dr C. If it is the last memory I have, I will not forget how wonderful this man was. He was an older version of Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and a more knowledgeable, trustworthy, understanding doctor I have yet to meet. He didn’t make me feel like I was ever wasting his time, if I had more questions, then he was there to answer them. And if he sometimes kept me waiting for an appointment, I knew he was with another patient as scared as I was, and I never minded. It was so very important, at that very frightening, emotional time in my life, not to be rushed through my appointments, and more important, my decisions.
He had an assistant surgeon, or apprentice surgeon, Dr. A., a Paul Ryan “numbers” kind of guy who was also great — in a different way. He talked to me very honestly, with his statistics and percentages, which helped me immensely when faced with all the choices to be made. He did love his numbers.
I had some bad news though. I was Stage IIB. For some reason, Stage II is the only one they divide between A and B. It’s a “size matters” kind of differentiation. A is better than B. I had lobular carcinoma rather than ductal. Ductal is a little better news, it tends to be more encapsulated. Lobular spreads it’s tiny fingers of cancer goo in amongst all the cells, the blood vessels, the fatty material within the breast. The tumor was “poorly differentiated”. This is real bad. When asked what that meant, I discovered the tumor did not in any way resemble healthy cells. “Well differentiated” would have been much better. These are things we don’t know before breast cancer, that there are tumors that are “better” than others. Mine was pretty awful.
I had a lumpectomy in September, but it was the decision of Dr. C. that he didn’t get it all. He didn’t feel good about it, so in October I had a full mastectomy.
Then came the good news. My lymph nodes were not affected, which meant the cancer hadn’t spread. It’s funny to think of it in those terms today, “Good news! Your cancer hasn’t spread!”
And then, according to Dr. C., it was “extremely estrogen-receptor positive”. He said he had never seen one with such high markers as mine. What’s that? That doesn’t sound good! But it is. It’s very good news. The ERP tumors can be treated easier than estrogen-receptor negative. Again, see the above gallows humor about Good News Tumors.
Now came a period of indecision. Dr. C. recommended “precautionary” chemotherapy and five years of Tamoxifen, a drug that sucks out the estrogen from the female body so any remaining cancer orphans can’t grow.
I was okay with the Tamoxifen, but not the chemo. I just didn’t want to do it. It’s a personal decision for me. I have a real phobia about it, and I wouldn’t view those chemicals entering my bloodstream as a “powerful army fighting against a vile enemy”. I would view it as poison entering my body, which would probably be with me always and may have side effects that last forever.
I decided against the chemo. And then, of course, second-guessed my decision for enough time that I could safely say to myself that it was too late to change my mind anyway because if there were orphans left behind that the Tamoxifen didn’t starve, then they’d already be relocating themselves in my bloodstream, liver and lungs. Even my brain.
But they didn’t. I am a sixteen-year survivor. I have been diagnosed and treated, and have not had a recurrence in all that time. I suppose it could still happen, but really, I think the odds are it won’t.
So. Back to lucky. If I hadn’t had hot flashes, I’d never have gone to seek relief. Dr. L. would never have suggested a mammogram and it would have gone undetected for much longer. Lobular carcinoma is harder to detect, it has no real lumpiness that you can feel. If it had gone on longer, my lymph nodes would have eventually been involved, which would have meant that it had spread beyond the breast and could potentially be in my blood stream already, or in my other organs. Those statistics, according to Dr. A., are a whole lot worse than the ones I had to contend with.
Don’t let anyone tell you that early detection is not the way to save millions of lives lost to this insidious disease every year.
Now the cynical part. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Every month should be. You will see no pink ribbons on this post. It is my opinion that pink ribbons do nothing to further the “cure”. We have been hoping to find a cure for decades, but if we did, what would happen to Breast Cancer Big Business?
If you feel inclined to donate to the breast cancer cause, donate directly. To hospitals, to hospice, to an individual who needs help, but please avoid organizations like The Susan G. Komen Foundation. These are fake charities, they are more big business than charity. Almost none of the funds go to breast cancer research, instead it goes to pay very highly-paid executives. They raise money because it costs money to raise more money.
Here is a good article to read if you are interested in how breast cancer is Big Business. Be forewarned that it is long, but informative and well-researched, and has an annoying advertising page that you have to skip.
The Big Business of Breast Cancer
Photo courtesy of Microsoft Clip Art