Friday, September 7, 2012

5 Years Ago Today -- The Call That Changed My Life

Celebrating my 47th birthday with my family, 5 years ago,
and 2 days before starting chemo.
Today marks the 5 year anniversary of the day that my life changed with the news that I had breast cancer and I can't help but think about what that day was like and how my life has changed since then.

I'd had regular annual mammograms since I was in my 30's because I had fibrocystic breasts. This is not an uncommon condition and in fact 50% of all women have this at some time. But because of this, I was not alarmed to find lumps occasionally. I'd had my annual mammogram about a month earlier and the tech spotted some calcifications in my left breast. He told me it was probably nothing, but if I was his mother or sister he would advise getting it checked out just to be sure. Looking back now, I wonder if he was just trying to save me from being frightened.

I had a needle biopsy done a couple weeks later. I'd had cysts aspirated before so thought this would be similar. Unfortunately, I was surprised that it was actually quite painful. I was sore for several days afterward.

Then....we waited anxiously for the results. It was about 7:30 on a Friday evening and I had just returned from a walk with my friend Lynn when the phone rang.  We had given up on hearing any news over the weekend and were surprised to get a call from my doctor so late. He explained to me that the biopsies had tested positive for an aggressive form of breast cancer in my breast and in lymph nodes under my arm. He told me about what the next steps would be, who I needed to call, and how my treatment would be determined.

He stressed to me a couple times that it was aggressive. At that point I really didn't understand what that meant. In my mind, I thought it meant this is serious, don't delay treatment, but I didn't think breast cancer was life threatening. The worst that could happen would be that I would need a mastectomy, right?

That Sunday morning when I left for church, I drove to the end of my street and discovered a huge flock of women in pink tee-shirts walking down the street. It was a breast cancer walk, Avon I think. What a coincidence, huh? The pink women lined my route all the way from the end of my street to my church, a couple miles away, where they walked right by the front door. I wondered if I would be finished with my treatments and walking with them in a year. I felt like the newest member of a loving, supportive sisterhood -- yet, one I really didn't want to join.

In the next two weeks I saw the oncologist and surgeon, then got a second opinion which reassured us we were on the right track. One thing I learned from the doctor who gave me the 2nd opinion, was that based on the growth rate of my main tumor, they estimated that the cancer had been there for 3 to 4 years. It had gone undetected in previous mammograms due to the cysts. That was upsetting and I always warn other women of that possibility. Then, just 2 days after my 47th birthday, I began chemo and my journey began.

I remember how bizarre and surreal it felt after getting that fateful phone call.  I would wake up in the middle of the night and think -- wow, I have CANCER in my body, and yet I don't feel sick, I don't feel any different than I did yesterday.

Celebrating with my family, 5 years later!
When I look up statistics on breast cancer, they seem to calculate it based on how many survive to 5 years after diagnosis and beyond. Happy anniversary, cancer! I guess that means that as of tomorrow, I am beating the odds!

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