You are going to love today’s post from Becca Smith. Totally cool and calm with a hint of bad ass. I can’t add anything more to her awesomeness. Read for yourself.
Tell us about your diagnosis.
I felt a lump, but didn’t take action right away.
I had a history of lumpy breasts, was only 36 and had a clean baseline mammogram the year before (which I asked for because my two maternal aunts were diagnosed with hormone receptor positive breast cancer, post menopausal).
In the spirit of checking the box, I saw my OB/GYN, but she was more concerned. Another mammo and ultrasound later, there it was – the suspicious lump.
But here’s the kicker; because my OB/GYN wanted it biopsied right away, I was sent to the first available surgeon, which in this case was a general surgeon, not a breast specialist. The surgeon performed a fine needle aspiration and told me she wasn’t sure what to think because it didn’t draw out clear liquid and implode like a cyst does.
I was prepped for cancer. So imagine my surprise when it came back negative? Yanked back from the brink like a boomerang.
A week later, my mother – who had been in a Tamoxifen chemo-prevention clinical trial due to our family history – was diagnosed with Stage 2 hormone receptor positive breast cancer. She had a clean mammogram just 6 months before.
I felt like she took a cosmic bullet for me. I nursed her thru the process, teaching her everything I learned from Breastcancer.org about pathology reports, the trade-offs between mastectomy and lumpectomy, to have chemo or not to have chemo. I became her advocate and household breast expert.
Which in turn, saved my life.
After my mom’s treatment was over, I thought “why not get that crummy lump removed”, again in the spirit of checking the box.
I went back to the same general surgeon who afterwards said “It looks totally benign. I’m on vacation for the next two weeks, so call for results, but doubt there’s anything to worry about”.
A week later I called to get my results. It was a Friday afternoon in early August and was anxious to get to my weekend. I was stuffing a spinach salad into my mouth when the covering doctor got on the phone.
“I’m afraid there’s a malignancy,” he said.
My chewing slowed to a stop.
Mind blowing. All that time helping your mom through her treatment, your own cancer went undiagnosed. What was your reaction?
I told him he was wrong, that he doesn’t have the right test results, the right girl. A fair response considering “nothing to worry about” was reinforced by the other doctor up until this point.
I insisted he fax the path report to me because I didn’t believe him, but in the meantime played along.
“Ok, so lets say these are my results, what stage am I?”
“The good news is, we caught it early, you’re stage 1 as far as we can tell now”.
“So what you’re saying is, if I”m going to get breast cancer, this is the kind to get?” I asked in a leading tone of voice that begged for good news while still trying to process what was happening .
“Well…no cancer is ever good,” he said. I could hear the conflict in his voice; his desire to reassure me versus the reality of my pathology report.
In the meantime, the pathology fax came in and I knew why the doctor was being wishy washy.
I hung up. I called my husband and told him we had work to do this weekend. Next, I marched into my boss’s office and told them that I’ll need some time off, cause I got this breast cancer thing to deal with, but I’ll be OK, it’s fine.
Then, I left the office, jumped into a taxi and called my mom. I told her I was I was pretty sure I was going to die. Tears and snot flowed out of my face like Niagra Falls.
I am floored by the triple neg diagnosis considering your strong family history of hormone positive breast cancer. Tell us about your treatment.
After interviewing 4 different breast and plastic surgeons, I finally found my match in Dr. Eleni Tsoumis and Dr. Gregory LaTrenta. (Or rather, two surgeons who were available at the same time in late August).
It was a full on double mastectomy for me. No questions asked. I had a 2 year old to raise. I opted to see reconstruction as the sliver lining in this and briefed my plastic surgeon that I wanted an upgrade. Pregnancy had done a number on my boobs and body so I got a bi-lateral TRAM.
God damn it, I was going to find the positive in this, so I shut my eyes and told myself this was a mommy makeover.
My oncologist, Dr. Linda Vahdat, specializes in young women with triple negative disease. She gave me the odds with and without chemo, and I’m not crazy. I just had my tits sliced off in the name of survival, of course I’m getting chemo! Bring on the asymmetric warfare on all fronts.
My chemical cocktail was Adriamycin, Cytoxan, and dose dense Taxol. Aloxi and Emend helped ease my CINV (chemotherapy – induced nausea & vomiting), and I injected myself with Neulasta to keep my white blood counts healthy during treatment. I also got acupuncture with Dr. Dawn Fan which I highly recommend as a compliment.
No radiation for me, although I saw a rads oncologist at Sloane just to make sure it wasn’t needed. And no hormones given my delightful triple neg diagnosis.
The following year, I removed my ovaries just as a precaution.
Like I said, I was taking no prisoners in this war.
Ah, Adriamycin. The red devil. That was my chemo-trio, too. How did you fare?
Oddly enough the treatment wasn’t so bad, although the 4 weeks post op were horrible due to the bi-lateral TRAM. I was curled up like a potato chip for a month and could barely move to do simple things like go to the bathroom.
And those drains, oy vey.
Chemo sucks, but my body tolerated it well and I had great treatments for side effects. Even going bald was OK, because it met my bad ass attitude at the time. I was a scarf girl. Wigs made me look like a stripper.
But what I don’t hear people talk about enough are the following years after the dust settles. Those first three years were the hardest, and each year out brings out a different facet of the recovery process.
Initially, I was very uncomfortable with my new physical self; I had hair like Greg Brady and my boobs were way too small. I had abdominal issues due to the TRAM that required intensive physical therapy.
The reality of having foobs, sunk in. Sex with my new body was awful. My boobs were like sexual Disneyland and I missed them. I don’t care what they say about the brain being the biggest sex organ, do you know how much porn I had to watch to get in the mood? And this was before Tumblr.
Then there was being in premature menopause coupled with some of the cognitive effects of chemo. Ah, the gift that keeps on giving. To me, this was the hardest physical obstacle. Not only am I dry as a desert in all the wrong places, I have the sex drive of a 10 year old. My skin looks pretty good, but my hair – my hair is thinning on top and my pretty waistline thickened into nice brick shape. You might say, I still have my wits about me, but no, those are going too. I have the worst short term memory in the world, I’m like Dori from Finding Nemo.
But the worst was the anxiety I felt inside. Every time I had a pain, my mind jumped to cancer, and wondered when the other shoe was going to drop. It was crippling. I was grateful to be alive, but had tremendous survival guilt and always worried I wasn’t grateful enough.
I feel I’ve been given a gift and worry every day I’m squandering it. Right or wrong, I worry the universe will pay me back if I don’t live up to being a survivor.
Flash forward to today. I’m doing OK and it helps to be 8 years out of triple negative. I’ve passed some major survival thresholds. Time does heal, and frankly, I’ve adapted to my new post menopausal body and foobs.
It’s just when it happens all at once, it’s hard to process.
Has having breast cancer moved you forward somehow in your life?
It hasn’t and I cringe every time someone suggests there’s a silver lining to breast cancer (or any cancer). I wince when people tell me how brave I was. Isn’t bravery when you willingly put yourself into harm’s way?
I didn’t chose breast cancer. All I did was do whatever it took to get the job done so I could raise my son. That’s it.
I would like to tell you that each day I wake up glorious in the knowledge that life is a gift and waft thru the day smelling the roses. One part Ghandi, one part Joan of Arc.
Not even close.
I still fall prey to putting more meaning than I should into the rat race. I’m not a fitness junkie, love a good glass of wine, sometimes gossip and complain loudly when Starbucks makes my latte with 2% instead of skim. I get sucked into the Real Housewives drama like it’s important. I bitch about middle age.
I am not a better person, I’m a different person who’s gone thru something hard.
The headline thought for me is that famous Eleanor Roosevelt saying,
“A woman is like black tea; she never knows what she’s made of until she’s in hot water.”
I know what I’m made of. My strengths, blind spots and vulnerabilities are well illuminated. I know what spooks me. When I’m kidding myself and need to take action or ask for help.
And I’m humbled. By my good fortune to have caught this deadly disease early and to have access to the best medical care in the world. I’m humbled by doctors and technology. I’m humbled to have had cancer happen to me and not my son (knock wood).
I have a good grasp on the person that emerged from the cancer war, although it took me a long time to figure out who she was.
I love your attitude so much and I am especially struck by “I am not a better person, I’m a different person who’s gone thru something hard.” Fist bump. I can’t imagine you foresee any future roadblocks, do you?
Nope. Recurrence aside, something bad happening to my son or financial ruin, the worst is behind me (again knock wood).
Anything else you want to include?
I think more dialogue around the initial 5 years following treatment would be helpful. To me this was a support dead zone. Probably the toughest time as women shift from the fight mode to the survivor mode. It’s very different and can vary from woman to woman. I would almost say there’s a bit of PTSD involved.
Becca Smith writes about beauty, anti-aging and medical beauty at narcissista.me.