My cancer story truly began in 1989, the year my sister Carol died from metastatic breast cancer at the age of 39. The combination of her age and metastasis (when cancer moves to another part of the body) should have been a BIG wake-up call for me.
But at the time, instead of realizing the possibility that I, too, could get breast cancer and developing a plan to help me manage that possibility, I chose the much more comforting response: Denial and Magical Thinking.
Denial because I remember thinking that cancer wouldn’t strike twice among siblings in the same family. I felt I had dodged the bullet that Carol took for me and my two surviving sisters. Magical Thinking because I was ten years younger than Carol, and like many people in their 20s, I was invincible. I was healthy and thin. I would eat less meat and dairy, more fruits and vegetables (organic of course).
I discovered the downside of denial and the limits of magical thinking.
Breast cancer diagnosis 1
In the spring of 2000 and at the same age (39) that my sister was when she died, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Another bullet to my family, especially my mother. I had a modified radical mastectomy, which detected some early and limited lymph node involvement, followed by chemotherapy. I received mixed opinions on radiation, so I opted against it. Because my cancer was hormone-receptor-positive, I could take Tamoxifen. With surgery, chemo, and adjuvant drug therapy, radiation seemed like overkill. Tamoxifen was prescribed for five years, and then I was moved to Arimidex, but I stopped that treatment, mainly because of its side-effects. Yet honestly, magical thinking again influenced my decision. I was done with breast cancer and I vowed that breast cancer would be done with me.
Breast cancer diagnosis 2
Seven years later, in the summer of 2007, I learned that breast cancer, in fact, was not done with me when I found a small lump in my mastectomy incision. Doctors concluded that some microscopic cells had remained after the mastectomy and chemo but were kept in check by the Tamoxifen. That radiation option I declined in 2000 was now a must-do, so I did. Radiate me now—radiate me later, the way I looked at it, things could have gone either way. Turns out, there is a difference between now and later.
The radiation side story
In 2009, I experienced another setback. The radiation caused encapsulation (surrounding scar tissue) of my implant. I consulted a reputable plastic surgeon who said surgery on radiated tissue could be a challenge. She said she wouldn’t even consider it until at least a year had passed; I waited longer. She replaced the implant and felt the procedure went well and that my skin was fine, which it was, for several weeks, until the morning I awoke with a red stain on my white t-shirt. The surgical wound had split open, otherwise known as dehiscence. I felt no pain. My insides weren’t poking out. My boyfriend at the time drove me to the nearest ER as I tried to hold the incision together. I expected to be pumped full of antibiotics and stitched back together again.
Antibiotics, yes; stitching, no. The incision would need to heal on its own. I was devastated. Disfigured and devastated. The healing process started, and slowly but surely the opening came together. And then, walking to my car with snow and ice on the ground in a high alpine environment, I slipped. I was able to catch myself, but the action caused another little split. I was to face a fresh new hell—healing aided by a wound vac, a device that decreases air pressure on a wound to help it heal more quickly.
When I finally was able to have reconstructive surgery—emphasis on construction—it required fresh new tissue, which was donated by my latissimus dorsi muscle, tunneled from my upper back to my chest.
Breast cancer diagnosis 3
After all I went through with the wound dehiscence, the first half of the 2010s, I felt great. That lasted until 2016, when I developed a persistent cough, leading to the discovery of fluid in my right lung, which was drained and biopsied, revealing cancer cells. A subsequent scan revealed a bit of cancer in my right lung and a bit in my lower spine. It was not lung cancer or bone cancer but breast cancer cells that had moved into those areas, selfish and land-grabbing little takers that they are.
As ominous as all this sounds, my situation is not dire. When I learned about the metastasis, I asked the oncologist if I should go home and get my affairs in order. He all but rolled his eyes, assuring me I had many more years ahead of me. He said I am in the category of cancer as a chronic illness, and to keep contributing to my 401(k).
20 years a breast cancer survivor
A cancer diagnosis is fear-inducing, and the idea of cancer recurrence is terrifying. It’s not something anyone wants to think about, so my advice is: Don’t. Certainly don’t obsess or worry, yet consider my story a cautionary tale. If signs pop-up or symptoms don’t go away, call your doctor. Early detection makes a huge difference. For those of you with cancer of any kind, remain vigilant after treatment. Be aware, protect your health, be careful about magical thinking, and most importantly, live.