Just Another Normal Day (or so I Thought!)

First, I am not a Doctor or nurse. Anything that I write about is something that I personally experienced or found helpful (or not so helpful ) to me. Nor am I a writer. This is my story in my own voice. Okay let’s get started,

Wednesday, February 18, 2014

Today started out as any other normal day. God, how many bad novels start this way? Anyway it was not just a normal day because I am having my yearly mammogram this morning. Now I don’t know any woman who enjoys getting a mammogram but for a breast cancer survivor it is a whole different experience. There is a knot in your stomach that begins about a week before your appointment and builds until by the time that you get to the office, you feel physically ill! No one would know this by looking at me. On the outside I look calm and in control but I am shaking inside. I talk to myself driving to my appointment. I keep saying to myself over and over that everything will fine. They won’t find anything on the the film this year. “Everything will be fine” has become my mantra through the years.

Before I continue, let me back up and start at the beginning.

My journey with breast cancer began 25 years earlier at the age of thirty- four. As I was getting out of the shower one morning, I noticed a lump on the outside edge of my left breast. I knew that my mother’s eldest sister had breast cancer in her thirties, so I didn’t hesitate. I threw on my bathrobe and headed straight to the phone to contact my Gynecologist’s office. I was in his office the next day. He first tried to aspirate the lump with a needle to see if it was a cyst or a blocked milk duct, since my youngest son was only a year old. He felt it wasn’t anything to worry about but he recommended that I finish out my menstrual cycle and return to have it checked. When I went back in 2 weeks, the lump had not diminished in size. My Doctor looked me in the eye and “Joanne, the only way to truly know what it is or isn’t is to do a biopsy,” and just like that he had me in a surgeon’s office that very afternoon. I will be forever grateful that my doctor took this seriously and acted quickly. We have all heard the horror stories of health professionals continuing to watch the same lump for months and sometimes years often leading to dire consequences for the women involved.

The following Monday I was scheduled for a biopsy. Everything looked fine, I was told and breathing a sigh of relief, I went home. The next day, however, I received a call from my surgeon. He told me that the pathologist had just called him and informed him that although the lump that was removed was just fatty tissue, cancer had been detected in tissue under my lump. The margins were not clear so I would have to go back to have more surgery and this time they would remove the lymph nodes on that side to see if the cancer had spread to elsewhere in my body. CANCER!!! My legs went out from underneath me. CANCER! ME! How could this be happening? I am only 34 years old. I’m healthy. I have 2 babies (a three and 1 year old) to take care of. I suddenly realized that my doctor was still on the phone and speaking, and I heard him say that he had set aside some time for me to come back for the second surgery on Friday, March 17th. St Patrick’s Day! Now in my hometown this day and following weekend are huge. My oldest son once described it as Christmas, New Years and July 4th all rolled into one weekend! So before I could stop myself, I explained to my doctor that I couldn’t possibly have surgery on Friday because it was St Patrick’s Day. Well, there was dead silence on the other end of the phone and of course as soon as those words left my lips, I knew how foolish I sounded. I only tell you this story, because every cancer patient will tell you that your brain completely shuts down when you hear the “C” word for the first time. You will find yourself saying and doing some pretty crazy things. It’s all normal. Well, of course I was going to have the surgery on Friday. So back to the Hospital I go. More tissue was removed until the margins were clear and and I also had a lymph node dissection. Nowadays, they would remove 3 nodes. The sentinel node (the node closest to the tumor and 2 others) but 25 years ago they removed all my nodes (22). I remember my surgeon explaining that he had “grabbed a whole handful.” The worst part of the surgery for me was the node dissection. The searing pain from that woke me up from anesthesia after surgery. Then I was violently ill from the anesthesia and vomiting and then I was given morphine which made me even sicker! I think that I threw up for the next 2 hours before they figured out the morphine connection. It was awful!!! So you can imagine 24 years later when I am diagnosed again the complete dread I felt at the thought of having surgery again. Fortunately things had changed dramatically by then. So I went home with a drain on my left side (which I soon nicknamed my Christmas ornament) and they told me that I would get my results in 4-6 weeks. Can you imagine? That was an eternity! I asked God to keep me alive at least long enough to see my two beautiful boys grow up. They needed me, and my husband, Jack, needed his wife.

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