I’m truly grateful to have Jessie guest posting today. Hers is a story of a continuing and recent journey through breast cancer so her perspective and information is invaluable. Don’t forget I have a giveaway going on HERE for one of her Spots water color and sterling necklaces in honor of her and breast cancer awareness. Thank you Jessie for your openness and snarky honesty. 😉 You are a warrior!
I admit that I’m a fairly snarky and cynical person, so one of the worst things for me about joining the ‘pink sisterhood,’ was, well….the infantile flavor of it. The teddy bears and the cutesy mementos are pretty insulting to a gal like me, and they really fall short of the dignity of the women who’ve survived or died of the disease. Breast cancer kills women. It kills lots of women. The surgeries are mutilating, the treatments are toxic and debilitating, and the current screening methods are barbaric and inadequate. Adult patients facing mortality, mutilation, baldness, huge medical bills, infertility, and countless lasting side effects, don’t need to be comforted by pink teddy bears. If ever there were a moment in one’s life when she needed to be treated like a capable adult and heralded as a warrior, this would be it. That was the revelation that inspired by line of warrior/goddess pendants.
Please don’t get me wrong. I believe that every single private citizen who wears a pink ribbon or does one of those 3-day-walks has the best and most sincere intentions. Just please don’t kid yourselves into thinking that buying that pink-topped Yoplait or pink-ribboned bucket of fried chicken is going to help anybody do anything but sell more yogurt or chicken. What you need to do is check yourself thoroughly and regularly, get plenty of exercise, and educate yourself on this and other women’s health concerns.
My boob story starts in the late afternoon on the Friday before last Labor Day weekend. I was about to get in the shower, peeling off sweaty workout clothes, when I first saw tumor # 1 in the mirror. It actually cast a tiny shadow, poking out of my upper-outer left breast. It looked and felt like someone had sewn a little jellybean right under my skin. I knew that the fact that it was hard (firm) and painless to squeeze were bad signs. Painful, tender cysts are almost always benign, fyi. Thankfully, I also knew enough about breast cancer not to panic…that it wasn’t an emergency. I took my shower, got dressed, called and made an appointment with my ob/gyn, and went out to dinner with my family. Four days later, my doctor ordered a mammogram with ultrasound.
Useful fact #1 – nothing showed up on the mammogram. Ever. I had hundreds of images taken over the next two months, and only tiny microcalcifications were noted as possible areas of concern. Young (premenopausal) women tend to have dense breast tissue, and mammograms don’t work so well with dense tissue. If I hadn’t had a visible, palpable tumor poking out of my body, they would have likely sent me right home.
This superficial tumor was as clear as day on the ultrasound, and a core needle biopsy one week later confirmed that it was invasive ductal carcinoma (most breast cancers, like 80%, are this variety), grade 1, ER+, HER -, with tubular features. Bad news in that I was doomed to a future of pink ribbon sentimentality. Good news in that one tiny, non-aggressive tumor would be relatively easy to deal with.
Useful fact #2 – breast cancer is very uncommon in women under forty, but it tends to be diagnosed at later stages and be more aggressive. The prognosis is almost always worse in younger women. It’s more likely to be genetic, though only one in eight breast cancer patients has a known family history of breast cancer. In my case, there are no 1st-degree relatives with a history.
Useful fact #3 – most tumors have been growing for six to eight years before they can be felt or seen (macroscopically).
Useful fact #4 – breast tissue covers a pretty large area, way up to your collar bone, over to your sternum, and the entire area under your armpit. My superficial tumor was outside of the area I would have actively checked.
I met with the surgeon shortly after my initial diagnosis. At that point, it looked like I’d have a very small lumpectomy (to just remove the tumor), six weeks of whole-breast radiation therapy (typical for a lumpectomy), and then a pill every day for five years called tamoxifen…which prevents estrogen from binding to the cancer cells.
At that consultation, the surgeon recommended I have a breast MRI (before moving ahead with surgery) which is a very sensitive test, just to make sure nothing was being missed in all that dense tissue. Breast MRIs are fairly controversial because they lead to many false positives and extra biopsies…and they’re crazy expensive. In my case, it’s a good thing I had it, because it revealed a second tumor, deep against my chest wall, which never would have shown up otherwise. I also had a spot of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is the same type of cancer that just hadn’t yet escaped the milk duct.
Three more biopsy procedures later, it was clear I required a full (unilateral) mastectomy. I elected to have immediate reconstruction, lined up a plastic surgeon, and got a surgery date on the calendar. The surgery itself was a piece of cake for me…no joke. My super-famous, extremely experienced surgeons did an amazing job. I woke two hours later, stood up, walked to the bathroom, watched TV, sent some emails, ate a grilled-cheese sandwich, watched the sun rise over Lake Michigan…and a few hours later, I went home. That was August 29th. I had a couple of annoying surgical drains that came out a week later, but I pretty much felt like myself right away. I never had real pain. My arm and shoulder were a bit tight, but now they’re almost back to 100%.
When they do implant reconstruction on a breast cancer patient, they first place a tissue expander beneath the muscle, which gets filled with saline in multiple infusions over time. I’m not a big gal, so I’m already almost there after three small infusions. When the muscle and skin are adequately stretched, there’s an exchange surgery where they swap out the tissue expander for a permanent implant. At the same time, I’ll have a ‘symmetry’ procedure on the other breast, which is a little worse for wear after 38 years of running around, pregnancy, nursing, etc… I must say, the shiny new rack is a silver lining for me.
Right now, I’m waiting on results of my Oncotype Dx, which quantifies a patient’s potential benefit from chemotherapy. My lymph nodes were negative and my tumors were low-grade and estrogen-receptor positive, so it’s likely that hormone therapy will be all I require.
So…that’s the clinical side of my story. I could rail on and on about the social and political issues surrounding breast cancer…about my distaste for corporate exploitation of a deadly disease, and the factors that prevent real progress in prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Today, however, I’m just thankful…for my amazing family, my husband who manages just fine with two young kids on his own whenever necessary, my mother who dropped everything to come help out. I’m so thankful for my strong, healthy body…my education…my excellent health insurance. I’m so, so thankful that I live in this fantastic city with top-notch research hospitals, excellent surgeons and oncologists…and an enviable circle of friends. The outpouring of support from my customers on Etsy has also been totally overwhelming.
I’m so thankful to Cristi for this opportunity to tell my story, and make myself available as a resource to anyone facing breast cancer.