I still feel a disconnect when I think about breast cancer, even though I see the scars from my double mastectomy on my naked body each day. When I discuss my experience, it often feels like I am referring to someone else, even though I know this is my story. Perhaps this feeling of disconnect is a protective layer that my mind has put into place so that talking about the trauma that happened to my body, doesn’t hurt quite so bad.
At a routine exam in August of 2017, my primary care physician felt a small lump on the lower inner part of my left breast. She kindly said that it was probably nothing, but to be safe, especially since I am adopted and my biological history is unknown to me, she referred me for a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound. I was 47 years old, married, and a mother of a 17 year old daughter and a 15 year old son, both of whom I was certainly not ready to leave. I had been diligent with my yearly mammogram exams beginning at age 40. My last exam prior to my visit with my primary care physician had been just 8 months prior.
I would soon learn that the diagnostic process for cancer takes much longer than I had expected. The waiting between each and every step along the way is almost inhumane.
A few weeks later, my appointments for the diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound occurred. They were scheduled for the same day, and I recall not knowing how to feel as I sat in the waiting room, wearing a hospital bracelet, listening for my name to be called. I remember telling myself that many women go through these cautionary diagnostic procedures and more often than not, the suspicion lump turns out to be nothing more than dense breast tissue. Statistics were on my side. One in six women receive a diagnosis of breast cancer during their lifetime. According to the current statistics listed on the Susan G. Komen® website, the median age of diagnosis of breast cancer for women in the U.S. is 62, again I had statistics on my side.
The diagnostic mammogram was lengthy. It was far more detailed, with many more x-ray images taken than during a typical mammogram visit. The x-ray technician was kind, apologizing several times for the discomfort and pain that the procedure entails. After the mammogram images were taken, I moved to another part of the hospital to wait to be called in for the ultrasound procedure. The ultrasound was performed slowly and every once in a while, I tried to glance at the ultrasound screen, not knowing what I was looking for but just wishing that nothing scary showed…whatever that would have looked like. At the conclusion of the procedure, I was told that my doctor would call me in a few days with my results.
Again, I waited.
About 3 days later, I learned that the mammogram was normal, but the ultrasound was suspect and a biopsy should be considered. My primary care physician encouraged me to proceed with a core needle biopsy, which is minimally invasive and should leave little scaring. I agreed with her. Again, I did not know how to feel. I had not received a bad ultrasound, but not a good one either. Maybe it meant nothing. By this point in time, a month had passed since my initial visit to my primary care physician’s office where the suspicious lump was found. A month. No one other than my husband knew what I was experiencing. We were not going to tell the kids that I was undergoing diagnostic procedures for breast cancer. I did not tell my friends. Thoughts of cancer consumed my mind while I proceeded through life and interacted with people, willing myself to appear light and carefree.
Another couple of weeks would pass before my appointment for the core needle biopsy occurred. I learned during the biopsy that because I had breast implants which were close to the suspect area, it made obtaining a decent sample very difficult. A few days after the procedure, I learned that the cells obtained were benign, but there was concern that the sample was not valid given the difficulty in obtaining a descent sample size. The reported finding suggested that I return in another six months to undergo a follow-up ultrasound. My primary care physician read the report, contacted me, and gave me the option of waiting six months as the report suggested or to proceed out of caution with an actual surgical biopsy. The surgical biopsy, while not a lumpectomy, would proceed in much of the same way, taking out a slice of tissue which could leave scaring and an indent but could possible also remove the entire suspect area whether benign or malignant. I agreed to surgery. I wanted to stop thinking about cancer and I desperately wished to put this process to bed.
Weeks passed as I waited for surgery which was scheduled for October 3rd, 2017. I was given local anesthesia and said my prayers. I expected another long wait before hearing the results, but I received a call the next afternoon on October 4th, just one day after surgery. It was late in the afternoon and the call made me physically crumple to the floor as I spoke to the doctor.
Cancer. The biopsied tissue margins were not clean. All the doctor could tell me is that we do not have the entire picture, but we know that further diagnostic procedures and treatment lay ahead of me.
I will never forget that evening, when my husband and I asked the kids to join us for a family meeting. They knew something was up. We had stopped having regular family meetings years prior, the kids were in high school now and were busy with their own lives. My husband and I sat on the couch in our family room, my son sat across from my husband and I, on the floor petting are large black English Labrador, not making eye contact with either of us as I spoke. My daughter sat on a bench type of seat perpendicular to the couch where my husband and I were seated. My daughter watched us intently, then announcing her observation, “dad is crying.” I told them that I had received a diagnosis of breast cancer, but it was caught early and everything would be all right.” At that point, it was too early to know the full diagnosis, prognosis, or treatment plan, but saying, “everything will be all right” is something that we tend to say to make others feel better when we ourselves may not know what lays ahead. My son said that he knew. He knew something was up because due to my many medical appointments in prior weeks, there were an unusual number of times that my husband left work early to pick up my son from school rather than me. Kids are perceptive.
On January 11, 2018, my husband drove me to the hospital. I cried quietly on the drive. My body had started mourning. I had just turned 48 a month prior. I underwent a double mastectomy.
I would not complete surgeries related to this cancer which took both of my breasts until July of 2019. The reconstruction surgeries were physically difficult. Emotionally, it was also a difficult time. Cancer is a very lonely diagnosis and process to go through. It is something that is experienced by many, but so personal and individual in the way in which we each process what is happening to our bodies. There is no right way and there is no wrong way to experience cancer.
When I received my diagnosis, my first thought was “What am I supposed to learn from this?” I recognized that I did not have a choice about my physical body, other than to do the best I could with nutrition, physical exercise and stress management; however, I did have a choice with my mental reaction. I chose to see this diagnosis as a message from the universe and I realized that I was supposed to learn from this. I simply knew there had to be a purpose for my experience.
While, I now jokingly ask the universe to send me a book or a podcast rather than teachings through experiential learning, I am thankful for the gifts that cancer brought me. It brought me an awareness of my blessings, it allowed me to see clearly what I value as important, and it made me see how incredibly fragile and special each moment of my life’s journey is.
Roadblocks, obstacles, challenges, heartbreak…these often very painful experiences are all means to direct us to a new path on our imperfectly perfect life journey.
I would love to connect with you, to be your life coach as we clear the debris to allow you to move forward to live your best possible life.