First Mammogram since Diagnosis

The next mammogram had been looming for quite some time.   That day was September 25, 2012 and ironically, it was one year to the day that I had the mammogram that changed my world and started my breast cancer journey on September 25, 2011.  Even though this mammogram was at a different hospital 60 miles away from home, the flashbacks were hard and heavy.

Mentally, I had prepared myself if told I had cancer again, I would be ready to go in as quickly as possible for surgery and then the process would start over again.  It was necessary to prepare myself.  I had learned too much to be Pollyanna.

After I stripped to the waist and put on my front-closing gown, I went to sit with the other women in the waiting room decorated with a slightly outdated pink flower border but very comfortable chairs.  There were 8 of us. The first thing I noticed was that two of us had “chemo haircuts” and the rest had normal hair.  Remembering the statistics that 1 out of 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, I was thinking that in this room 2 out of 8 women had breast cancer. You could see the looks of uneasiness on the other women’s faces as they looked at me and the other woman with our “chemo cuts” hoping their fate was not the same as ours.

The events of the previous year played over in my mind—bringing my mammogram images and test results from my small Ohio hospital to the University of Michigan Cancer Center and my knees buckling as I entered through the doors.  Seeing the Breast Surgeon for the first time, waiting for the Tumor Board to tell me my course of treatment, then receiving that dreaded official diagnosis of Stage 3 Triple Positive Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.   Surgery day for mastectomy the day before Thanksgiving and stoically saying goodbye to my left breast.  Onto meeting with my Oncologist, then beginning 5 long months of Chemotherapy two days after Christmas.  Then real suffering with grueling Chemotherapy treatments, steroids, and meds, meds, meds.  All these memories bombarded my brain, and I had no control over the slideshow.

The review continued as I remembered meeting with the Radiology Oncologist for the first time and being in tears followed by 7 weeks of Radiation in the middle of a 100 degree summer.   My mind flashed to getting up on that cold table under that huge, intimidating radiation machine day after day.   There is Lymphedema in my left arm, heart damage from Herceptin, going to the cardiologist, and scans upon scans upon scans.  Then the positive memories began as I started remembering each and every act of love and kindness by family and friends – food, flowers, drives to treatment, gifts and cards, cards and more cards.

Watching the other women go back for the dreaded squeezes, I pondered how demeaning all of this seemed.  And I chuckled to myself as I thought that some designer should come up with something better than these awful well-worn teal gowns we were all wearing and trying to hold shut to keep from exposing ourselves feeling already so vulnerable.

I watched as other women were called back – the young Asian mom, the two elderly women, one on a cane, one with perfectly coiffed red-tinted hair, the Muslim woman with her lovely head scarf, and then the other “chemo haircut” lady.  In the midst of these observations, one woman ran out of the mammography area and yelled to her waiting daughter, “Get me the hell out of here!” and flew to the reception area.  The young daughter, probably in her 20s, said to us, “I am sorry, my mom gets so afraid.”  We all nodded our heads and understood.

Suddenly, it was my turn as I heard my name announced.   Cathy, my mammogram technician, was extremely kind. First, she made me laugh, then asked me all the usual medical history questions.  When she led me to the mammogram machine,  I felt so anxious, I put my arm into the machine instead of my breast!

Even more flashbacks started coming at this point firing in my brain like a semi-automatic weapon.  I remembered the look of horror on the face of my mammogram technician one year ago, hearing  “you need an immediate ultrasound” and “the doctor needs to speak with you right away”.  I remembered lying on the first cold table of so many having the breast biopsy and waiting by the telephone for results.   It was difficult to separate the year-apart events in my mind.

But then, I was whisked back into the present moment as Cathy said, “Go back to the waiting room, and we will call you for more photos or results in about 10 minutes.”  Once you have had breast cancer, most hospitals give you immediate results rather than make you wait 2 weeks. Those 10 minutes are a blur to me.  Suddenly, peace descended and my crazy thoughts ended.  I then did what any nervous woman does–go to the bathroom!!

As I was exiting the bathroom, I heard my name being called again.  Another woman, dressed in white, greeted me.  I don’t remember her name.  She had a letter in her hand and before we walked got back to a room, she blurted out in a professional voice, “The doctors see nothing unusual or alarming in your mammogram.  Here is your letter stating those facts.”  I felt shock and disbelief for a moment as I let her words sink in.  Tears started falling down my cheeks, and I asked her if I could hug her.  Her rather stilted demeanor immediately became warm, friendly and congratulatory.  I remember babbling something to her like “I have had so much bad news, God chose you to deliver this good news to me” like she was the Messiah.

I bolted through the door into the waiting room and hesitated a moment.  I simply could not keep the good news to myself as I saw those women sitting there.  Out of my mouth came this announcement:  “I just got the all clear on my mammogram after one year of breast cancer treatment!!”  The women started to applaud.  In my fog I heard, “You deserve it”  “Good for you” and “I am so happy for you!”

As I went back to the dressing room to put on my clothing, I felt numbness and joy simultaneously.  Putting on my bra filled with one prosthesis, I looked down at my remaining breast and thought, “good girl, you get to stay”.

After I called and texted family members and some friends, I began making the rounds at the hospital to share my good news as I waited for my afternoon appointment with my Oncologist!   I told the receptionist who knew me from my frequent hospital visits, my chemo nurses who were thrilled to see me, unknown doctors in the elevator,  cafeteria workers, janitors and medical students.  It was clear they felt my joy by their enthusiastic responses!

I then made my way to the Hospital Chapel.  A Catholic Mass was being celebrated.  As I sat down, the tears began to flow once more.  Gratitude was pouring out of my heart as I thanked God for the events of the day.   I thanked Him for giving me the courage I needed during the past year, for leading me to my amazing medical team, and for the wisdom to start a Blog.  And most especially, I thanked Him for my family and friends who loved me and supported me through it all.

Thanks be to God for all of you — friends, family and blog readers!  I could not have gotten through it this year without you!

Herceptin — Heart Damage, Heart Attacks and Breast Cancer

Trastuzumab (Herceptin) is a miracle drug but is well known to cause significant heart damage.  A new study was released recently that states heart damage is more significant than was thought previously.

http://www.cancernetwork.com/breast-cancer/content/article/10165/2100302

Unfortunately, I am someone who has suffered severe heart damage as a result of Herceptin.   I was only able to take it 3 months along with Taxol, then my Echocardiogram showed a significant drop.  My Ejection Fraction (EF) of my heart dropped from 65 which was great and I had a healthy heart to 39 during Herceptin and has not improved at all since ending chemo and Herceptin 4 months ago.   My Oncologist sent me to a Cardiologist immediately as he said my EF was “scarey low”.

My Cardiologist put me on two heart medicines for 2 months and did another Echo plus a Nuclear Stress Test.  The Echo did not improve and my cardiologist and the experts reading the Nuclear Stress Test said they think I suffered a silent heart attack.

Dr. Bach, my cardiologist asked me if I had any symptoms.  I had such a rough time through Chemo that heart attack symptoms would have not been noticeable to me.  I do remember my left arm going numb and shoulder pain.  Of course I thought it was related to chemo.

I promised my wonderful Cardiologist that I would call him if I had any heart attack or other heart symptoms.   I then promised I would throw out the Dollar Store aspirin that expired in 2002 that I kept next to my bed and replace it with fresh Bayer.  He laughed and thought that was a good idea.  The Bayer is now in my purse and next to my bed!

So how do I feel about all of this?  I am not sure. If the study about Herceptin and the risks of severe heart damage had come out several months earlier, would I have taken it?   If you suffered heart damage from Herceptin, please contact me at b4Denise@hotmail.com

Coming Back to Life After Breast Cancer

If you are newly diagnosed or going through surgery or cancer treatment,  I write this to give you encouragement.  If you are post-treatment, I write to have you nod your head and say, “Oh yes, I understand!”  And if you are not or have not been a Breast Cancer patient, perhaps I can inspire you to see every day happenings as amazing occurrences!

Each day I notice new things.  Most of these new things used to be old things that I took for granted.  Now, when I am able to do them again, my heart sings with gratitude.  The feelings are wonderful and marvelous!  Here are some of my favorites!

1)  Going to the library and checking out a novel.  Always a voracious reader, during breast cancer treatment I could only read things pertaining to breast cancer.  Novels no longer interested me, nor did any other kind of non-fiction reading. Partially, it was because my concentration levels were so low due to Chemo Brain.   What a magical day when I could read the first chapter of a novel, then on the same day, read a chapter in a travel book!

2)  Digging out a plant in my garden.  All during Chemo and Radiation, I did not have strength enough to do this.  Now I can go out, put the shovel in my hand, and transplant a flower!  Even having to wear a compression sleeve for Lymphedema, doesn’t dampen my joy!  And I planted pansies in September because I was not able to plant petunias in May!

3)  Going back to the doctor as a Cancer Survivor.  When I had my one month checkup with the Radiation Oncologist, the entire Radiation Department was thrilled to see me.  I was just as delighted to see them. There were hugs for everyone!   I realized how great I was now feeling and began to imagine my visits there in 6 months, 2 years, and 5 years!   What an amazing visualization!  My Radiation Technician said he so enjoys seeing his former patients as when he started his job 17 years ago, most everyone died.  Now, so many cancer patients survive, it is a real joy for him to see them and realize he contributed to their being alive!

4)  Singing a song.  I could not sing while I was going through cancer treatment.  I could not even turn on the radio nor could I listen to talk radio..  I caught myself jamming to some 1980s song driving down the street, singing along and moving my body!   It felt marvelous even though I was slighly off key!  I did not care!

5)  Using hair gel.  WOW, this really was the most exciting thing.   Since my favorite new hobby is rubbing my hands through my one inch post-chemo hair, last night I decided I could use a little hair gel and see what happens.  So I found this stuff in my hair care drawer, probably really old, called “Spike It”.  What fun it was to be able to put it in my hair and have my hair stick out all over my head!   What joy!  I know the words, “Bad hair day” will never come out of my mouth again!

6)  Preparing for winter now in the Midwest, I never thought being able to caulk around my garage door could bring such delight.  It needed to be done last year.  I was not able to do it then or do it this summer!  Today I did it with ease!

7)  Getting an exercise machine.  My friends were selling a Gazelle for $20.00 at their garage sale!  Sold – and they even delivered it.  I guarantee I won’t hang clothes on it as I am so thrilled to have the energy to maneuver it!

8)  And the biggest thing is learning new ways of doing things.  I got stuck in ruts always doing things the same way.  Now I am realizing what bothers me and what I don’t want to waste my time doing or finding new ways to do things.  Clarity comes quickly now!  For example, folding wash cloths.   I’ve probably spent weeks folding wash cloths in my lifetime.  I gave up folding during chemo as I didn’t have enough energy.  I put them in a basket unfolded, and it worked like a charm!  Why go back to folding?  Unnecessary!

Thanks for listening to my enthusiasm!  I hope it is contagious!

Life, Emotions and Reality after Breast Cancer

I have read the two most difficult days during Breast Cancer are the day of diagnosis and the day treatment ends.  I’ve received many emails from women who have now completed Cancer Treatment, but they were not prepared for the myriad of emotions they are now experiencing. For some they are just finished with treatment, and others are as far as 5 years out.   Several have asked me to write about it.

A post on a women’s breast cancer discussion website caught my eye this morning.  It was for Stage III Breast Cancer patients and was entitled, “I Feel Like I am Living to Prepare to Die.”   Immediately, many Breast Cancer Survivors chimed in saying they knew exactly what the poster meant and understood.  The reason so many of us understand that statement is this:

When you are diagnosed with cancer that requires long-term treatment, it is like you go away to a desert island.  Your medical team is there and some treasured family and friends who have chosen to be there with you.  There are no palm trees or tropical drinks on this island.  It is like no where you have ever been.   Everything else ceases to be important, and your focus is on one thing which is GET RID OF ALL CANCER.  This island becomes your home as terrifying and horrible as it is.  It is a land of great suffering, emotional torment, as well as tremendous loneliness and isolation.  But you are being healed as you go through the process, or so you hope.

One day a rescue boat arrives and the boat captain points your way and tells you it is time to leave this island. He delivers you back to where you came from, but you get there and everything is different.  Your physical home looks the same, but everything surrounding it has changed.   It now feels alien to you.

In a flash, you remember those Lifetime movies you watched and condemned where the Amnesia Person tried to put his life back together and the Kidnapping Victim felt a connection to her kidnappers. What you didn’t understand while you were watching those movies, suddenly makes more sense.

Many days you are euphoric that you have escaped the island and survived.  You feel simultaneously chosen and sad because many do not make it off the island. The following day you feel subdued because nothing is the same as it was.  It is difficult to find your way.

Then there is that pesky boat captain.  He is always appearing telling you that it is time to go back for a visit to the island. Your emotions see saw because when you return to the island, the medical team is constantly looking for what they said has been removed from your body.  They feel, examine, scan, tell you “let’s keep an eye on that one” and send you off the island for a few more weeks or months until the boat captain appears on the horizon once again.

You make every attempt to go back to the way life was, but that doesn’t seem to work any more.  Social events now become unfamiliar as some people avoid you because of their uncomfortable feelings.  The confidence you once had has waned as you deal with the reality of  missing or replaced breasts, your hair and lack thereof,  and the lingering side effects from life on the island.  Sometimes you feel like a stranger living in your changed body.

But the good news is, you start to find a new way.  You wake up and thank God for another day of life which you took for granted before the Big C.   You have these rebirth moments when you remember the best parts of your old life as you ponder the dreams of your new life.  And you try to merge those thoughts together.  It feels like you are standing on a bridge looking back at the old while looking ahead pondering the possibilities of the new.

And from a practical standpoint, I do try to keep my closets cleaner, just in case!   I don’t procrastinate on doing things like I used to, and instinctively, I know what is important and what isn’t.   Those are great gifts!   I will let you know more about what I learn as time goes by!

Breast Pain Can Be Cancer

BREAST PAIN can be cancer.  A bee sting or stinging feeling in the breast can be cancer.  It may not be.  But it can be.  Every day on my blog, many women find this blog post by Google searching “if breast pain can be cancer” or a “bee sting-like feel in the breast” can be cancer.  It can.  PLEASE read my story.

I try to never live in the land of regret.  But sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep.  Memories of the severe breast pain I had over a year before my diagnosis of Stage 3 Breast Cancer haunt me.  The pain would  sometimes prevent me from falling asleep.  Many nights I got up and googled, “Does Breast Cancer hurt?”  or “Is Breast Pain Symptom of Cancer?”   Every answer I saw from supposedly reputable sources like breast cancer centers and hospitals said pain is not a symptom of breast cancer.  The information I found said it is from perimenopause, menopause, caffeine, cystic breasts, and on and on. My pain would often feel like a bee sting or red hot poker in the middle of my breast.

I did not listen to my intuition and my body.  Life got busy, the pain somewhat subsided, I believed what I read, and I let the mammogram reminder get lost in my pile of paperwork.   Twelve months later, I felt the lump in the same area where I had the breast pain.  The minute I felt it I knew it was breast cancer as tears and terror hit me simultaneously.  And so it began.  Had it been caught a year earlier, I may have been able to save my breast.  I am responsible for that critical error.

I am trying to get the word out – YES, BREAST PAIN CAN BE CANCER!   A recent thread on the discussion boards of a huge website of women with breast cancer asked women if they had breast pain before diagnosis:  http://community.breastcancer.org/forum/83/topic/784732?page=1 .  Over 50 percent said they had and most said they were angry that they had always been told breast pain is not cancer.  Many women described the pain like one or more bee stings that would hit them in the breast in the precise spot where later the tumor was found.

If you were led to this Blog post because you have breast pain, RUN don’t walk to a mammogram. That being said, if the mammogram doesn’t show anything and the breast pain or other symptoms persist, insist upon an Ultrasound and MRI of the breast.  I know it is absolutely terrifying to even read this.  Too many women I’ve met or spoken with had current mammograms and their advanced cancers did not show up.  If you do not have confidence in where you have gone for treatment or consultation, drive to the nearest major breast cancer center.   Over 80% of women who have symptoms do NOT have breast cancer. But if you are one of the 20%, time is of the essence.

Some other symptoms many other women have had include dimpling breast skin, inverted nipples, strange-smelling body odor, itchy breast(s), an unusual rash, and unexplained fatigue.

Listen to your instincts, listen to what your body is saying to you, and keep at it.   I wish I had.

Followup February, 2015:   Every day, numerous women land on this blog post by Google searching bee sting in breast, stinging pain in breast, breast pain, etc.  Many have written to thank me.  A few have been diagnosed with cancer.  Most have not.  Some had other medical issues.  But they have all been thankful they did not ignore the pain. PLEASE seek medical attention!

May, 2015 – My only sibling, my sister, was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in April, 2015.  About a month before diagnosis, she started to have severe pain – on and off – in her breast that contained the cancer.