So, a few weeks ago, as I was taking a walk along the lake while JD was in school, I absentmindedly answered a call on my cell phone and everything changed in an instant. Sounds trite, but that’s what it felt like. On the morning of March 15th, I got out of the car one person and thirty minutes later, I got back in as someone with cancer.
Yep, I got the call no one wants to get. I knew instantly when I heard my doctor’s voice on the other end of the line, and knowing that he was on vacation that week, I knew this couldn’t be good news. It wasn’t. The biopsy performed three days earlier had come back positive. I had breast cancer.
This was the first of a series of phone calls I would take in the next two weeks, each progressively grimmer as I got one piece of news after another, results that were simultaneously shocking and yet not. After all, I come from a family with a three-generation history of breast cancer so a tiny bit of me has always felt it was just a matter of time.
Now, before I go any further, let me stop my tale to say I’m going to be fine. Just fine. The cancer has been caught early, very early and it doesn’t appear to be a particularly aggressive variety. I feel fine now and had no indication that anything was wrong. I went in for a routine annual mammogram (the shiny new digital variety) and after a follow-up mammogram to examine a suspicious area, a stereotactic biopsy was ordered which resulted in the diagnosis.
I won’t go through a blow-by-blow account of the past few weeks but will cut to this point in time and briefly how I got to the decision I have made regarding my treatment. Directly after the diagnosis, one of the first tests ordered was the BRCA genetic test. (Mutations in the genes BRCA1 and 2 indicate an increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer.)
I also had an MRI of both breasts. The genetic test came back positive for the BRCA2 mutation, which I was disappointed but not surprised to learn. The MRI, however, threw me for an unexpected loop when it showed something in the other breast and another (uncomfortable) biopsy was ordered. This I did not see coming. Coupled with a pair of tests focusing on the ovaries, I was more than a bit unsettled to say the least until those results were known. (Very thankfully, the ovarian tests came back negative.)
I learned to hate and dread Mondays, as each of the last three Mondays in March brought disappointing news from my doctor. This past Monday, I learned that the biopsy on the left breast shows pre-cancerous cells present, an even earlier incarnation, but cancer none-the-less. Based on that fact, coupled with the positive result on my gene test, the surgeon (as well as my primary physician) recommended that I have a double mastectomy with reconstructive surgery.
This was something I’d initially thought I’d be able to avoid, so this latest news hit hard and Monday night, as the reality sunk in, I began for the first time to feel truly overwhelmed. Curious as I was to know what all was involved in the surgery and what the recovery time was like, I made the classic mistake of turning to the internet. I knew it was a stupid thing to do, but I did it anyway and succeeded in thoroughly freaking myself out when I stumbled upon a message board that scared the shit out of me. Dumb dumb dumb.
For the first time in two weeks, I broke down and just lost it. So, in a way, going down the internet house of horrors served as a great release. I had a first-class, A-1 cry and the next morning, I woke up feeling battered, but better.
Progressively, as the week has gone on, I’ve felt stronger, calmer, and more confident as I came to my decision to have the more radical surgery. Though the cancer in me is slow growing, these past few weeks have been difficult and the thought of dealing with it now, only to potentially face a recurrence years down the road, seems too great a risk for me.
I feel very lucky that my cancer was caught so early, before it even had a chance to develop into a lump that I could feel. My doctor is optimistic that at this early stage, the cancer hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes, which would preclude me from having to go through chemotherapy. No small thing, that. Not only will the bilateral mastectomy take care of my current cancer, it will drop my risk from a 60% (though at this point really 100%) chance to virtually nil. Given my personal history, my sister’s recent bout with breast cancer, and the three relations on my father’s side of the family who have all battled breast cancer, that risk is just not something I’m comfortable living with.
Last night I talked to two generous women who spoke with me about their experiences going through this surgery. (One of them was a woman my age who also carries the gene mutation and it was particularly encouraging to talk with her about all aspects of her decisions, and life afterward.) After my evening spent on the phone with them, the last bit of apprehension and fear of the unknown surrounding recovery and life after surgery was gone.
All this week, I’d been coming to this decision, and now that I’ve made it, I feel a great sense of peace and calm. I know these next few months will be hard, an experience unlike any I’ve ever had to endure. I’ve never had major surgery nor personally faced a life-threatening situation and I’m actually curious to know how I will handle it. My father died of a brain tumor in 1994, and up until the end he was fighting and holding on. He lasted months longer than the doctors gave him (it was a very aggressive tumor) and all along he faced it with a humor and spirit that inspires me to this day. I often wondered how I would react under similar circumstances.
I now have an opportunity to find out. My situation is nowhere near as dire as Dad’s was as I’m fully confident I will make a complete recovery, 100% cancer (and risk) free. When I go into surgery on April 22 (after my vacation, thank God) I will take with me the courage, unfailing good humor, encouragement, and strength of family and good friends who have already rallied in force.
As things progress, I will continue to regularly update the blog as well as Tweet thoughts and experiences along the way. Updating you will serve as an outlet for me. Months and years from now, I will be able to look back on these pages to see how far I’ve come and witness that I made it through. Just fine.