At age 54, I had known such good health that my entire medical history could fit on one page. School was going to start in a week and I was High School Science Department Chair. Teachers needed to be trained, labs prepared, schedules set… so much to do! After all, I felt no one else could do my job.
It was annoying to have to take time to go to the doctor for a simple thing like a swollen gland under my armpit, but that day my life changed.
I had received my mammograms every year and had one just months prior to that day. There’s no history of breast cancer in my family. You can imagine how shocked I was to be told that I had cancer and that all seven biopsies were positive. “Well, that’s OK,” I told the doctor, “I’m a big girl. Just give me a mastectomy. I don’t have time to have cancer.”
I’ll never forget her answer. She said my cancer had no margins. My cancer was like taking a can of paint and throwing it all over the room… the walls, the furniture, the people… then asking someone to just cut out the paint. She was going to give me some valium, schedule a port implant, and turn me over to a medical oncologist. “WHAT?” I was so angry.
I had no idea what a port was! I had worked 30 years in Physics and Chemistry and had graduate degrees in science and I knew nothing about cancer drugs. I didn’t know that mammograms didn’t catch all breast cancers. I felt stupid and helpless. This doctor was the top breast surgeon in the city, so why couldn’t she just solve the problem? How dare she think I needed valium! Thoughts ran through my head so fast I couldn’t think.
I remember the next few months were like slow motion. But like all mothers, when a crisis happens we seem to go into overdrive and just do what needs to be done. I kept a journal for the first time in my life. I gathered family and friends to help me research my options. I had coworkers cover for me. I started to analyze my recent health.
How did I miss signs of cancer? How could I solve this problem?
The most important thing I have to share is this:
When I met with the medical oncologists, yes plural, because one should always get several medical opinions, I discussed any changes in health, even little things like a slight change in body odor. I talked freely and listened well. I eventually chose the oncologist who was willing to be the most aggressive with the chemo drugs. My husband jumped in on one of the conversations with that oncologist and mentioned how I complained of back pain lately. The doctor was listening and suggested we do a PET scan and MRI of my spine.
I researched the difference between CT, Bone, PET, and MRI scans. I had to keep records and get more scans than I could count, all while getting a port implant and starting chemotherapy. It took over my life. I kept records of the bloodwork , the conversations, the drugs, everything I did and felt.
The cancer had spread to every one of my vertebra! I had to realize that I was Stage IV, with dozens of lesions and a prognosis of about 2 years.
I quickly changed my objectives. I decided my job wasn’t that important. I had a different job now. I set a couple short term goals, see my daughter get married, enjoy sitting on the porch, get a mastectomy. I never felt sorry for myself. I accepted that we all have issues in our life and was thankful each day that I wasn’t a young wounded soldier or a single mother caring for a sick child. I always felt lucky that I lived 54 years. I made it fun to be bald. I read novels and built my playlists of music. I enjoyed each moment.
It’s now 12 years later. I’m paddling on a dragon boat team! I can still remember when I couldn’t walk to the mailbox, or pour milk on my cereal, or open a car door from the pain in my back. It was 2 years before I could pull a t-shirt over my head. I also remember times when I would be in the reception room waiting for my radiation and would overhear patients calling in to cancel their treatments because they had a hair appointment or golf day. That wasn’t me. I took my new, unwanted job seriously.
So yes, I am a stage IV cancer survivor still seeing doctors, getting scans, and taking medicine. I have a port in my chest instead of a breast, but I’m living a wonderful life and hopefully by telling this story I can help another person to realize that cancer is just another bump in the road. You can get through it. Educate yourself and share what you learn. If one person reads this and finds out that something as little as a lump under your armpit or pain in your spine needs to be addressed, then my story is worth telling.