I was 41 and had no fear of mammograms. Why would I? We had no family history of breast cancer so when I postponed my appointment for two months later, I didn’t think twice about it.
Then the phone call came. A repeat mammogram? What are calcifications and why do you need another look? I Googled. I panicked. I was a glass half empty kind of girl and I automatically felt doomed.
Three days later after a biopsy (where you must keep perfectly still with your neck turned to one side for 45 minutes and your boob smashed into a vice) I was told I had DCIS. Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. This meant that I had a non-invasive cancer that was confined to the ducts in my breast. It had not spread (that they could see) and it is classified as stage 0. Surely Stage 0 has got to be good, right? Why is there even a Stage for 0 if it’s not really cancer?
Well, it’s pre-cancerous. It can turn into cancer. There are many different thoughts on DCIS but at the time, I had little choice. I had to have a mastectomy. My DCIS was so widespread throughout the breast (and as it turned out, a high grade) that it was my best choice. So off came the boob.
I may sound nonchalant about it, but I assure you, I wasn’t. I was terrified. However, if it was between my boob and my life, clearly my life won. I wasn’t about to sit around and see if the DCIS was going to spread someday, so that was that.
The morning of the procedure, I was up pacing the house at 4 a.m.—with my mastectomy in a few hours, sleep was something far from my mind. I cried hysterically as I said goodbye to my younger son who kept asking me when I would be home (he was turning 4 years old the following day and to miss his birthday was adding to my emotions). At the hospital, I had a panic attack when they were putting my IV in and the room started to turn black. I remember nurses shouting my name around me and I was sure I was going to pass out. The next thing I remember was waking up, four hours later, asking if my lymph node was positive. They had told me they always check the sentinel lymph node to see if the cancer had spread. If it was negative, I was in the clear. Thankfully, it was.
I was sore and swollen and drugged up on morphine for the next 24 hours while I stayed in the hospital. My new boob was a EEE (so it seemed) and I was fearful it would not get down to my normal size B. I had a drain in me that my husband had to assist with for the next week, and any kind of normalcy was hard for the first week. But slowly, I got back into daily living and the bed rest that seemed like it would be wonderful (being a mother of two young boys at the time) soon made me antsy. I wanted my life back, and it was during the recovery phase that I realized how lucky I was.
I joined a sisterhood I never intended to join. I felt very sorry for myself and hated that I needed to have a mastectomy. I hated that I needed to be put on Tamoxifen for five years to help my chances of it reoccurring go down. Hot flashes and migraines were now a part of my life. I developed ovarian cysts from the meds and I still have yearly breast MRI’s now, due to having dense breasts (correction: dense breast). The breast MRI, by the way, was definitely invented by a man because no woman would choose to have her breasts in a vice while lying on your stomach with your arms out over your head. For 45 minutes. While they take pictures. A woman surely would have developed a more comfortable machine. But I digress.
Losing a breast is not a walk in the park. I had a few surgeries ahead of me (to equal out the remaining breast I needed a “lift”) and I also developed “frozen shoulder” from having my arm immobile post-surgery. It was also hard to look at myself in the mirror. You wonder if people can tell. You wonder how your husband is viewing you, and you wonder if you are still “you.”
Yes, all of the above really sucks.
But I have my life.
I have known four women in the past two years who died from breast cancer. Four women, all under the age of 50. They were strong and fought and did all they could of course—but cancer overtook them. So it’s not just the fact that you need to “fight” and “be strong.” It’s not just about having loving and supportive friends and family by your side (which I and these four women did). Sometimes you just can’t beat it. This disease is bad. We need more detection, more awareness, more treatment. We need more.
I am lucky. I live my life with my husband and kids and I get to experience day to day living, just without a boob. And that’s OK with me.