Posts Tagged ‘breast cancer’

I wish my son was here for me to tell. He would get a kick out of my first tattoo even though it is really not impressive. I have four tiny dots (about the size of a . ) on my torso tattooed with India ink. They are there so when I go in for radiation treatment, the radiologist will know where to point the lasers.

Backing up. I do have to have five days of radiation even though I am technically “cured” of breast cancer. The radiation is to ensure that no stray cancer cells were left behind (“leave no cell behind!”) and reduce my chances of ever having a tumor again. I’m cool with that. I am thrilled that I won’t have to endure chemotherapy. Radiation is just a road bump.

Last week, I met with the radiology oncologist who explained everything to me and gave me my options (I had three). Given the small size of the cancer, I chose the least invasive radiation plan which is streaming the radiation only on the site where the cancer was. No whole breast radiation, and not three weeks of it. I consented to the tattoos.

Today, I went in for a “sim” test on the CT Scan (Sim=simulation). They need to figure out the best position for the cancer patient to be in to maximize the radiation and to protect the heart and lungs. Radiation is good for you, but it is also very bad for you. Fortunately, my cancer was on the left side and that already helps protect the heart. I imagined this process would take some time as the tech figured out the best position for me to lie in and I also expected that position to be a bit uncomfortable. It was neither.

The first position worked, and it was not an uncomfortable one. I may get a bit of a neck cramp at the end of the first radiation treatment. I think the process took ten minutes, including the placement of the tattoos. Those dots will never be as fancy as my son’s tattoos or those of my beloved daughter-in-love, but at least I can brag that I have them. Can’t show you them (probably can’t even find them), but… I have them.

This short process was followed up by a consult with one of the radiology nurses who schooled me in how this is all going to work: side effects (minimal), checking in, consult with the radiology oncologist part way through, skin care, where to go, and so on.

It got dicey then. I had to fill out this form dealing with my emotions and mental outlook (I swear it is really good!) and under one heading was the question: “Are you dealing with the loss of a loved one?”

UM. YES. And then I had to tell my story to an incredibly empathetic radiology nurse who kept asking sympathetic questions and crying. To say it ripped my heart to shreds is to put it very mildly. I kept trying to tell her that going through cancer was nothing… but hitting that wall of loss still echoes in my heart. She hugged me when I left the office, but I sat in the car afterward and tried to collect myself. I came home and just sat in the garden, trying not to feel anything.

I really don’t want anyone’s sympathy. But- BOOM! – a stranger asks and then loses it over the tragedy of MY life. I don’t want to minimize my hurt by saying, “Others have it much harder” BUT … my life isn’t tragic. There have been tragedies and I may never fully recover from them. I will say my son’s name every day (and my sister’s, and my mother’s, and my father’s, but especially my son’s name). I am not who I was 2.5 years ago. The world shifted.

Even so, I wanted to write about my cancer journey with humor and funny anecdotes. It isn’t the end of the world. Even if it was a more severe cancer, it wouldn’t be the end of the world for me. This is just an obstacle in the road.

After all this is over, maybe I will get a real tattoo. Something that speaks of joy and living life to the fullest in honor of my son.

I thought the worst of today would be figuring out my position on a hard table with half my clothes off in a room of strangers, but that’s pretty darn minor. The hardest was trying not to lose it in front of an Empath who truly understood my pain. The hardest was reliving those frantic hours between December 10 and December 12, 2020. But I got my first tattoo.

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This is not That. Whatever your experience with breast cancer (or any other deadly cancer) this is not that.

I have been trying to make fun of this entire experience, but I’m coming up short when people give me That Look that says they feel terribly sorry that I am even going through this. Please, please, please, don’t look at me like that. In the memory of all the friends we have lost to cancer, don’t look at me like that. I don’t have the kind of cancer that is going to kill me in five years or less.

I started writing about it because this is novel to me, having a firm diagnosis on something. The irony of making the appointment and having the procedure done is not lost on me: I abhor mammograms. I don’t particularly believe in them. And after decades of having something “off” in my body but no one can figure out what it is, suddenly I have something “off” and everyone freaks out. (Maybe not everyone.) There was the mystery of the bleeding kidney (unsolved) and the mystery of the sudden blood clot in my left leg (also unsolved). Tests, C-T scans, biopsies, stress tests, and so on – all with no results.

Indeed, the MRI I recently had reported NO anomalies. The cancer in my left breast is undetectable by MRI, only by mammogram. The irony.

I am basically healthy, aside from year-long “seasonal” allergies and the Covid weight gain of 25#.

Reading the test results and discovering that a carcinoma was growing inside my body was more of a surprise and an immediate feeling of, “OH. BOTHER” than it was terrifying. I mean, seriously, OH. BOTHER.

I won’t lie: the novelty has lost some of its shine as I have gone to appointments and had procedures done. The oncology staff puts on a great show of cheerfulness but underneath their smiles runs a current of “I’m so sorry you are having to go through this” sympathy. My pharmacist looked at the prescriptions I had to fill for my post-operative care and suddenly turned empathetic and sad. “When is the surgery?”

This is not Stage 4. This is not metastatic. This is not Stage 3 or even Stage 2.  This is the simplest form of Stage 1 breast cancer. There is nothing in my history to suggest otherwise and nothing in my blood work to indicate otherwise. They aren’t even talking about chemotherapy (thank the good Lord!).

This is more of a “Whew! Dodged that old bullet, didn’t I?” cancer. More of a “When can we get done with surgery and recovery so I can go back to gardening because this is the month of May” kind of cancer. This is an Oh. Bother. Cancer.

We have a Game Plan. By “we” I mean this sudden influx of extremely compassionate staff and oncologists who are now in charge of my upcoming and ongoing care.

May 10 – ultrasound with contrast to see which lymph node the milk ducts feed into. This is “new”: they used to remove all the lymph nodes in the affected armpit but they discovered milk ducts (where breast cancer usually starts) only feed into one lymph node.

May 11 – lumpectomy to remove a carcinoma that is scarcely 3/8” (0.8cm). See attached photo. I get to go home the same day.

I will be under long term care as any cancer survivor will attest to. This is something I did not know I would have to go through. It’s more of an “Oh, Bother.” Five years of hormone blocking therapy. Yay. What little estrogen my post-menopausal body still produces will be entirely cut off.

Under good news: there will most likely be no radiation treatment and definitely no chemotherapy unless this go completely sideways on Thursday and the tumor is larger than they could see in the mammogram (highly unlikely since the MRI couldn’t see it at all).

Under bad news: no estrogen for five years. More hot flashes (not a bad thing in my world of being constantly cold). Most likely a full beard within a week of therapy (I already have to deal with whiskers every four or five days, so – yay). Twice a year visits to an oncologist to track my progress. Twice a year mammograms (!!) for the foreseeable future.* No magical weight loss due to chemo or radiation (DARN!).

*This, boys and girls, is why we go to have a mammogram done once a year or so – to avoid the bi-yearly squash by highly trained sadists.

To summarize: I am not scared, worried, fearful, or otherwise emotionally attached to the upcoming surgery and procedures. I just want it over. And I don’t want your sympathy. (I’m merely writing about it for the laughs.)

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My little Breast Cancer saga continued this morning: I had an MRI scheduled at 9:30 in the morning at a nearby hospital. Not my local hospital because they don’t have an MRI machine, but a sister hospital within a 20-minute drive. We arrived early, of course, because it was a Sunday morning and there was no traffic.  We wasted ten minutes sitting in the car and trying to count how many Eastern Fox squirrels were in the adjacent trees and shrubbery. I quit counting at ten. That’s a lot of squirrels in a small area.

Checked in at 9:25 and sat down to wait for the tech. Oh, I had about three minutes’ worth of additional paperwork to fill out: “Where does it hurt?” It doesn’t. “Place an ‘x’ on the body part to be scanned” (That was easy). And so on.

Another patient wandered in for an ultrasound. His nurse came and picked him up after about fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, the clock ticked. Trust me, this was the WORST part of the morning: waiting for a full 45 minutes before my tech showed up to usher me back to the machinery. Tick…tick…tick…

The tech was very out-going and so made up for the long wait. The second worst part of the morning (actually, pretty low on the scale of worst to best) was the insertion of the IV.

Wait. I forgot to mention that our eighty-pound beast of a dog jumped on the bed at 6:30AM, firmly landing on my outstretched leg. He heaved himself up onto the bed and subsequently stepped on that same spot before I could withdraw my leg. I have the bruises to prove it. Darn dog!

That was more painful than the IV.

Technology has come a long way since the last time I had an MRI. Back then, the machine was a long tube and my biggest fear was that they would stick me inside that tunnel and forget about me (or the power would go out and they wouldn’t be able to get me back out). Fortunately, I was only having my left knew scanned and got to sit outside the tunnel with just my legs inserted. (I had a torn meniscus at the time.)

Now the machine looks like an oversized CT Scan machine. Open on both ends and not nearly large enough to swallow a human being whole, much less strand them due to forgetfulness or a power outage. WHEW. I declined any sedative at that point: it couldn’t possibly cause me to have a claustrophobic anxiety attack.

Rather, the positioning of the body was the most distasteful part. On my stomach, breasts positioned just so, and hard plastic digging into my sternum with my ribs crushed below. I was certain I would bruise after 25 minutes of that torture, but – alas – it wasn’t that much torture and I endured. And I didn’t bruise. Only where the dog walked on me earlier in the morning.

The tech gave me headphones with music cranked up at front row concert, like at least 85 decibels (probably not that much, but it was pretty loud). I soon learned why the music was so loud: the MRI machine is LOUDER.

Bang! Clang! Alarm! Beep! Boop! Whistle! Vibrate (that actually felt kind of nice). I decided the best way to pass time was to count how many songs played. If a song is three minutes long (standard radio play time back in the day) that it would take 8 songs for 25 minutes to pass. Apparently, songs can run longer in this day and age because I only reached 5 and a half songs before it was over.

When I had ten minutes to go, the tech came on the little radio and told me he was sending the contrast into my system. I half expected to feel something, although he had earlier assured me that the contrast he uses is not the same contrast they use for kidney function: the stuff that makes you feel like you just wet your panties. His contrast, according to his words, is “more Vanilla than that”.

Despite the warning from my drinking friend last Saturday, waiting for the contrast was not horrid. I felt nothing. I heard a lot: whirring, gears grinding, some more beeps and boops and whistles. Some day they will invent an MRI machine that is as silent as a CT-scan machine. Won’t that be amazing?

We left the hospital at 11:00AM and headed to the local food cart pod for breakfast, then across the street for a couple beers with dear friends. By 2:30PM, I realized that all the noise of the day – the MRI, the crowded brew pub, and the loud 80’s MTV music playlist – had worn my sensitivities to too much noise down to a frazzled level of “I just need to go home and be quiet”. Kind of like the night my brother dragged me to some nightmare Casino/kids play area in Reno with greasy cheese pizza and his grandchildren running amok (not ill-behaved, mind you, just bouncing off the walls in the kids playing area with thirty thousand other children) and I crawled into bed later with my Introvert HSP ears ringing.

In summary, the breast cancer screening by MRI is uncomfortable and noisy, but the biggest pain of the day was when Ruger stepped on me and woke me from a dead sleep with a stabbing pain in my lower right leg. And left me with bruises. And the worst part was the 45 minute waiting in a hospital lounge where there was only one other patient, and he only waited fifteen minutes.

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My last post was about breast cancer biopsy (the bruising is completely gone now). I told my brother that I wasn’t surprised by the outcome because doctors have “tells” in their speech and mannerisms. I am, however, disappointed in that I am now a statistic. A lucky one, at that.

Had I not been referred for a bone density scan, I would not have called the radiology lab at the local hospital. Had I not called, I could easily have ignored the referral for a mammogram. I still could have ignored that referral but I decided to just go with it despite my previous painful experiences. I still don’t know what the bone density scan showed, but I sure as heck know what the mammogram revealed and the subsequent needle-poking of the biopsy proved.

Emotions tend to run high at the mere hint of the word, “cancer”. I’ve had several basal cell carcinomas removed from my face and a couple pre-cancerous lesions. Nobody freaks about that although those areas were much larger than the carcinoma discovered in my left breast. It’s so tiny, it can’t be felt by a routine self-exam. It’s considered an “invasive carcinoma” which merely means that it has invaded my breast tissue.

The word “metastatic” was not written in the report nor has it been mentioned by anyone. So, calm down everyone: it’s tiny. It most likely has not moved into the lymph nodes. All my markers are good. I’m not freaked out.

I’m irritated at the timing, worried about how friends and family have reacted, and not real thrilled with all the upcoming tests and surgery and follow-up, especially (irritation) during the height of garden season. my list of questions for the oncologist had more to do with the timeline of care and recovery than “Am I going to die? Will it recur? How scary is this?!” I still have no definitive answers on the timeline, but there is an outline of a game plan, and it does NOT involve chemotherapy, mastectomy, or even a whole lot of radiation.

The number of friends, family, and acquaintances I know who have already been down this road have been diagnosed with Stage 3 or 4 cancers, some metastatic and some highly aggressive. the living ones (sadly, I have lost friends, acquaintances, and family to this scourge) have either told their stories publicly or I have known them well enough to have watched them endure the weeks and months and even years of recovery. We all know those stories. I think that is where the fear comes in.

The doctors I have spoken to have gone out of their way to be kind and considerate. My own PCP (Julia) left a voice message that if I “needed to talk…” she would be there. The oncologists office was cheerful and upbeat in a true effort to make the whole process less frightening for cancer patients. Everywhere I have turned so far, it seems like I am being handled with kid gloves, as if my emotions are going to just spiral out of control.

I was referred to CompassOncology which has several offices in the Portland Metro area, the closest of which is 20 miles away, right off of I-5, and very reminiscent of my commute for at least 10 years. My oncologist is a Dr. D who is tiny, funny, sincere, and caring. She’s also very thorough. And she’s on vacation all this coming week.

Which is OK because I have to have an MRI a week from today. A mammogram only catches 50% of cancers. An MRI catches 97%. They want to know if the mammogram caught the entire picture of what is happening in my body and only the MRI can do that. My husband and support person whispered, “If that’s the case, why don’t they just do a routine MRI for breast cancer?” (Answer: insurance companies don’t want to have to write off that expense.) He also offered to take me to breakfast after the MRI even though I might be a bit loopy (I’m claustrophobic and will need a little sedative to get into that tube face down for 20 minutes).

Check that: MRI on April 30.

I also need to see a hematologist. This is because I had a DVT (blood clot) in my left leg a year ago and there was no obvious reason. No surgery, no bumps to the leg, nothing out of the normal and my blood pressure and heart beat all tested out relatively normal. this came as no surprise to me: Julia had mentioned it last year saying that we could rule out a clotting disorder if I saw a hematologist. We need to rule out a clotting disorder before I go into surgery.

The fun part about this upcoming appointment is that it is at 4PM. I’ll be driving home in high traffic. It’s OK, I’ve done this commute before, too many times to count. I told my husband he is not allowed to come with because I don’t want him to be in the car with me when traffic comes to a dead stop. And starts again. And stops again. he’s not good company in heavy traffic.

I do know the surgery will most likely be a simple lumpectomy and that one lymph node under my left arm will be removed for testing. I was advised Saturday by a cancer survivor that the injection of dye into the breast is the worst of it that no one tells you about. So yay for implanting that bit of knowledge into my nervous system.

Telling friends and family has been … interesting. A lot of “I’m so sorry you are going through this” comments and virtual hugs. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I am going to be okay. Two friends broke down and cried. But I still made summer plans with one of them. My family… Well, my brother made jokes (I love that guy). I know they are all there for me, if I need them. But I am still making summer plans with some of them. I’ve heard privately from other dear friends, encouraging me. All the same people who reached out when our son died.

This has been a lot more serious than I intended it to be. I was planning on making jokes all the way through. I’m not far enough into the process to make this journey humorous, but – trust me – I will find a way.

The photos I am using were sent to me by a very dear friend shortly after my last post. She said they were the first images she saw after she read (and deciphered) my last post. They are of the Oregon Coast. They are proof that I am blessed. Very blessed.

Please do not feel sorry for me. This is just a little stumbling block. I’m in good spirits. I’m hopeful. I am grounded.

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