I’ve always been very good at getting my annual mammograms. When I was 19, I had a benign tumor removed from my left breast, and my maternal grandmother had breast cancer, so I was diligent about testing. In June of 2015, I had my yearly “squash and squish” and waited anxiously for the “all clear” notification. This time, it didn’t come.
The day after my mammogram, the hospital called and requested that I come in to be tested again. Of course, they couldn’t say why, but emphasized that time was of the essence so I went in the next day. Then, I got the dreaded call from my primary care physician that “something” had been found and he referred me to a breast surgeon.
The “something” they found turned out to be microcalcifications. There still was no reason for major concern as breast calcifications are very small calcium deposits that develop in breast tissue, which are very common and are usually benign. However, sometimes they are an early indicator of breast cancer. In my case, a biopsy was recommended and unfortunately, it came back as “pre-cancerous.” However, the diagnosis was still basically Stage 0 – easily treatable.
After two breast MRIs and several more biopsies and tests, the decision was to have a lumpectomy (even though there wasn’t a “lump”), with a biopsy of the sentinel (closest) lymph node. Big surprise…the lymph node came back positive, so all of the lymph nodes were removed. Eight of twelve showed cancer, so, POOF!, I went from a diagnosis of Stage 0 to Stage 3 cancer.
At this point, I realized that I truly did have breast cancer and would have to undergo more surgery, and probably chemotherapy and radiation. Before then, everything was going to a piece of cake that I’d breeze through.
FINALLY, I made an appointment with an oncologist. This was months after the initial “easy-peasy” diagnosis. I selected someone who a good friend referred me to and although she’s a bit flighty, I absolutely love her. More importantly, I trust her 100%.
Her recommendation was a very aggressive regime of chemotherapy, especially as those tiny little microcalcifications could be moving throughout my body. She wanted to start that immediately. After that, I’d have a mastectomy, followed by radiation.
So, off to the infusion room I went. The first “dose” was actually eight different drugs and took about eight hours to administer. The first time, they go slowly to make sure it can be tolerated. More than anything, I was bored!
Halloween was a couple of days later, and I was feeling no after affects from chemo. I handed out candy and had a good time. However, several days later, I felt like a truck had hit me. I chalked it up to “normal” chemo reaction. The next day, though, it was clear something was very seriously wrong and my husband called an ambulance. I chatted with the fireman who had to get me down a flight of stairs, complained to the ambulance folks that I thought I deserved to go “lights and sirens” – then WHAM, the bottom came crashing out of my world. The chemo had eaten a hole in my colon and I rapidly developed sepsis. In addition, my white blood count was basically 0, which meant my body couldn’t fight off a normal infection, let alone sepsis.
At one point, I heard the surgeon and oncologist arguing about what to do next and the consensus was basically that I was going to die. The “catastrophic” complication that I developed happens less than 1% of the time, and is almost always fatal.
Well, long story short, obviously I survived! I was in ICU twice and spent over seven weeks in the hospital and in a rehab facility. Eventually, I did have a double mastectomy. There were no indicators it had spread to my other breast, but I didn’t want to be lopsided…or spend the rest of my life worrying about it. Of course, I developed a complication from that surgery!
We also decided to try chemo again – in a much-reduced dosage and a different protocol. But, the same complication happened again. This time, though, I recognized the symptoms early and got to the hospital before becoming critical. I will probably never risk having chemo again and hopefully will never need it.
I did have 30 rounds of radiation – which I sailed through! I decided against reconstructive surgery, as I felt I’d been through enough and I have “faux girls” that live in a box that I wear for special occasions!
Altogether, I’ve had NINE surgeries and more tests and scans than I can count – all for a cancer diagnosis that was supposed to be very easy to treat. Along the way I developed a suspicious place on one of my ribs, so the diagnosis was changed to Stage 4. Three different times, my husband was told I was in critical condition and might not make it. Over a six-month span, I spent over two months in the hospital. I’m also HER2-positive, which is a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, which promotes the growth of cancer cells.
All things considered, I now only take two drugs for my breast cancer – which I “fondly” named Arty, since the doctors kept saying I had “artifacts.” One is Letrozole (a tiny little pill) and Herceptin, which is given via IV every 21 days for HER2-positive patients. I did have genetic testing and am BRCA negative, as well as negative for all other cancer indicators.
My MANY scars are a badge of honor and show that I’m a survivor. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. I’ve also developed and deepened friendships with many, many people and I firmly believe that part of why I survived is their constant support.
In my mind, I have a very firm image of myself at age 97 and I know I’ll make that goal! Arty be damned!!
Guest Author Deb Krier for: Tina Torres, CEO, The Gratitude Specialist