You hear about people being diagnosed with cancer all the time but you NEVER think it can happen to you. I was 41 years old; healthy and happy and living life. You hear the words "you have cancer" and it's surreal!
The doctor immediately develops a plan of attack, asking questions about chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and reconstruction. Meanwhile, you're still processing the diagnosis. You don't feel sick. You don't look sick. But you're about to start the fight of your life.
The Fight of Your Life
When you're diagnosed with cancer, you immediately must get into "fight" mode. Your doctor and health care experts will help you devise the battle plan. For me, it was simple. First it was surgery, followed by chemotherapy and then radiation. Over the next few weeks, I'll highlight some of the reasons I chose this course of action.
As soon as I was diagnosed, I just wanted the cancer GONE! I was ready to get into the operating room and get the tumor OUT. My doctor scheduled my surgery within a few weeks of my diagnosis. It was the first part of December and I wanted to be finished so I wouldn't miss out on the holiday fun. The surgery went great. I chose to have a partial mastectomy - a reduction and lift. The reconstructive surgeon was able to come right in after the tumor was removed and shape the remaining tissue. It was beautiful. The lymph nodes were clear and the tumor small. However, we would have to wait to see if the doctor had gotten clear margins.
When a cancer is removed, doctors must also take out some of the surrounding good tissue to make sure the cancer hasn't spread. It would be a few days before we found out if everything was clear. The results came back and the doctor said they wanted to go back in to "shave" a little more tissue in hopes of getting the clear margins. So a week later, I was back in the O.R. undergoing the exact same surgery as I had before. My doctor told me if the margins did not come back clear this time, I would have to have a complete mastectomy. I didn't like to hear that but remained confident that it would all go well. The second time around, she got what she needed and I was relieved!
I healed beautifully and enjoyed Christmas that year more thankful than ever before! That was four years ago. There's not a day goes by, I don't thank God for healing and health!
Years ago when I was a medical reporter, I did many stories on breast cancer. A lot of patients would say "if the cancer doesn't get you, the chemo will." Chemotherapy is a powerful tool to fight the disease but it can also be hard on your body. For me, the doctors recommended I undergo four rounds, just as preventive medicine. Not the news I wanted to hear.
My oncologist (chemo doctor) explained to me how chemo works and it made sense. After the surgery, the doctors believed they'd removed the tumor and as many of the cancer cells as possible. But if one cell happens to break away from the original site, it could travel anywhere in the body and start multiplying all over again. The chemicals race through the blood stream, seeking out those cells that seem to reproduce at rapid rates. The chemo kills those cells and hopefully the prospects of future problems. But it also kills good cells along the way. For example, your hair cells quickly multiply just like cancer cells. Chemo can't tell the difference between the two, so it kills both. By the second week after chemo, your hair starts to fall out.
Up until now, you can hide the scars, cover the changes. But when you lose your hair, it's the first time you LOOK sick. I went ahead and had my husband shave my head. There's not a lot you can control during this whole process, but I wanted to choose WHEN my hair was going. It was sad, but very empowering. I made the decision to shave my head; I was in charge at least for that moment.
The chemotherapy treatment took about three hours every third Friday. I would leave work and go straight to the treatment room where I'd be hooked up to I.V.s. Afterwards, I'd be sent on my way. Over time, I got very tired but I never was sick and I never missed a day of work. I know that's not the case for everyone, but for me, I didn't want this to slow me down. I rested when I felt fatigued, went to bed early when I could and stayed out of big groups. The chemo weakens your immune system, making you my susceptible to illness. Using a little common sense went a long way.
I don't think I was ever happier to "finish" something than I was when I completed all the treatments. Within a few weeks, I was starting to feel like my old self again. My "chemo brain" as it's called, would make me forgetful but now - four years later - I'm not sure how much was the medicine and how much is just part of getting older!
I've heard of some people opting not to go through chemo. They don't want to lose their hair. They don't want to deal with fatigue and they don't want to have to go through the ordeal. But in the end, I feel I've given myself the best chance of survival. By being aggressive early, I'll never wonder... what if.
The Waiting Game
Following surgery to remove the cancerous tumor, my doctor recommended four rounds of chemotherapy. That was a treatment I had every third Friday for four months. As soon as my chemo was finished, I began 33 days of radiation. The idea is, if a cancer is going to return, it most likely would return at the original site. So if you blast the area with radiation, you'll kill any lingering cancer cells and reduce the chance of coming back.
The hardest part of radiation is the fact that you have to go in every day for treatment. Monday through Friday I would finish work and head to the hospital. I'd go to the radiation department where you wait. Most days it wasn't that long, but some days if they were behind, it might be awhile. I'd go in and sit. As I looked around, there would be other patients waiting as well. Some of these people were using radiation as a way to reduce the size of their tumors. For me, it was all about preventing the cancer from returning.
Radiation treatment has several side effects. For me, I felt very fortunate because it didn't cause me too much pain. Over time, I did become tired but I also wake up at 2:30 a.m. for the morning shift so I never was sure how much was the treatment and how much was the schedule. Some patients also experience skin sensitivity, especially for fair-skinned people. But I sailed right through. What a blessing!
I've shared my story about my treatment options and why I decided to do what I did. I'd love to hear from you. If you or someone you know has had breast cancer, we'd love for you to write a brief synopsis of what you went through and what helped you survive!
Thank you for your thoughts and prayers.
‘Til next time...
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