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The Story Continues

Now here's the rest of my story.

My husband Gene was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2003, and he died 18 months later. My attention was then directed to my parents, who were 83 years old. Two years later, Dad died with a brain aneurysm. Then my time was spent caring for my 85-year-old mother and concentrate on my two businesses. In November, 2008, I decided to make an appointment for a mammogram and discovered it had been two years since my last one.

I went to a major imaging center in Dallas for my mammogram. I had to return soon after, because they found something "suspicious"-not because I was so photogenic! Then, they called me to discuss doing a needle biopsy. At this point I still was not convinced there was anything wrong, just calcifications; no big deal.

The prep work prior to the needle biopsy was so painful because the tumor was located right behind a most sensitive area. I have never been mashed, pulled, twisted and squeezed so much in my life! Finally I told the nurse, "If you can't get it right, let's just take the tit off." When she finally got me in the right position, the doctor came in. He told me the needle was "probably going to sting a bit." My response to him was, "Doctor.this tit is so traumatized it is not going to feel a thing but let's make sure we have an understanding. You had better get all you want and all you need because you are NOT coming back for seconds." He understood what I was saying and then I proposed that after the biopsy was done, I wanted him to get on the table and let me do a biopsy of his testicles. He laughed and said, "If a man had to go through this, we would have a different procedure." No joke!

My oncologist reviewed the findings and gave me the diagnosis that I had cancer but it was the best kind to have - DCIS (ductile carcinoma in situ). This is a very early form of breast cancer confined to the milk ducts. If you are going to get breast cancer, this is the "best" to have because it is noninvasive and not life-threatening. Whew.that was close! We worked on a game plan because my insurance was changing at the first of the year, which meant I had to find a surgeon who was on my new healthcare program. My oncologist helped me put together a list of names that would make up a great medical team.

When I visited with the surgeon after the first of 2009, we decided on a treatment plan: have a lumpectomy followed by internal radiation using a catheter as the delivery device, twice a day for five days. I was lucky not to have to go through chemotherapy. After the lumpectomy, the surgeon called to tell me the results of the pathology report. I went blank because no one had mentioned the word "pathology," and I knew I was in trouble. He finished talking and then asked me what I wanted him to do. I replied, "What is my game plan" and his response was for me to come see him the next day.

Ironically when Gene was diagnosed with cancer, I was all over the doctors with questions, questions, questions, but when I was diagnosed, I went totally blank. It took me 24 hours to get my wits about me so I could write down my questions I would ask the surgeon. When I arrived at his office that afternoon, the surgeon was very informative and answered all my questions. Later that week, he inserted the first catheter into the lumpectomy area, only to discover my skin was too thin and he had to replace it with another type of catheter. I was scared for fear I was not going to be able to do the fast-track radiation program and would have to embrace the six-week schedule. This was not going to work for me because I had to run a business and take care of my now 89-year-old mom.

After the second catheter was inserted, CAT scans were scheduled prior to radiation every time I went for a treatment. The radiation treatments went like clock work.twice a day for five days. During the first CAT scan, I had four men looking over me while I was on the table-the physicist, the radiation oncologist, the technician and the account manager from the device manufacturer-making sure everything was precise. I looked up and said to them, "This is the first time I have ever had four men look at this tit at the same time!" Everyone scattered and it was such a funny sight (I do believe in the healing power of laughter). By the end of the week, I had all my treatments and felt compelled to celebrate because everything was back to normal. WRONG!

Approximately 10 weeks after radiation, I developed an infection at the incision and my fatigue was overwhelming. Antibiotics did not cure the infection. That's when it became obvious that I was in trouble again. My options were to continue as we had been or have a mastectomy. That seemed rather radical to me to go from infection to breast removal. I thought a mastectomy was scheduled when someone had cancer, not an infection! My surgeon let me know I was only the second of his patients to ever develop an infection after radiation, and I would become his first to ever have a mastectomy due to such an infection.

After nine weeks of no success with antibiotics, I returned to my surgeon and said something had to go: either the left breast or my left hip. The radiation infection was aggravating the bursitis in my left hip and my energy level was ground zero. The surgeon said he would take care of the breast removal. I thought about my options overnight and realized I had to get the breast removed, because the infection might never heal and it was zapping my energy.

On July 27th, 2009, I was admitted to the hospital and was in surgery for about 40 minutes. My lymph nodes and muscles all remained intact; only the breast itself was removed. When I awoke in the recovery room, I asked the nurse, "What in the world do I have around me?" She informed me it was a bra and I said, "What size.a small?" She announced it was a medium and I told her my face was going to turn blue if I didn't get into a larger size. With that accomplished, I could really breathe again.

My hospital stay was only two nights but there were a few things I wished I'd known before being checked into the hospital:

  • I wish someone had told me to bring a button-up oversize shirt or a mastectomy camisole to wear home.
  • Prepare to clip the drainage tube to a skirt hanger when getting into the shower.
  • If there is swelling underneath the arm, use a cold pack to relieve the discomfort.
  • Don't be alarmed if your energy level drops; this is normal but it will return.
These are a few things I learned the hard way.

After a week, I returned to the surgeon to remove the drainage tube. When I walked out of his office, I felt the weight of the world had been lifted and went straight to the local boutique shop to be fitted with a soft leisure bra with a puff. Falsies have come along way, baby!

Dealing with my own cancer has been a humbling experience. At this point, I don't regret not having reconstructive surgery. That can always come later. Having my cancer experience has given me a glimpse into Gene's struggle as a cancer patient, although I have to admit, mine has had a much better outcome. I have been given the opportunity to develop insights and knowledge that come firsthand as both a caregiver and a patient. And, I am making it my life's goal to share what I've learned to help make the journey easier for others on both sides of the cancer diagnosis.

Visit the Our Story page to read the first part of the story in case you have missed it.

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