If I recall correctly, this is the date I was diagnosed with breast cancer 12 years ago. But I’m not sure, really, because I have “chemo brain.”
All things considered, forgetfulness is a small price to pay for a healthy life, so I can’t complain.
What I can do, however, is spread the word: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and as I am acutely aware of breast cancer and its costs, it’s my personal mission to spread the dual message of self-examination and regularly scheduled mammograms.
I found my lump myself. It was a quirk because I really didn’t make a habit of self-exams. But I had just completed a newspaper article on the month’s observance and had interviewed a woman who was going skydiving to celebrate her survivorship. (She was in her 60s. I was 53.) She had found her cancerous lump while fitting a dress sleeve into a garment she was sewing.
I thought, “Huh,” and looked for lumps under my arms soon after. I found a little one.
My gynecologist — he of the cold, cold hands — didn’t think the lump was anything; breasts, by definition, are lumpy. But he wrote a referral for a mammogram. It would have been a year till I had one otherwise because I was on a once-every-two-years schedule and had had one a few months earlier.
When I reported to the hospital for a mammogram and sonogram, even the radiologist had a difficult time finding the lump. Her scanner wouldn’t pick it up because it was so small. It also was “spiculated,” which meant, she said, it had a small central mass with stalks shooting out of it — like cauliflower. (I have not eaten cauliflower since. Thank goodness she didn’t make a broccoli comparison. Broccoli is a dietary staple for me.)
Long story short, I got a biopsy by means of a very, very long needle. The slice-and-dice of the extracted cells confirmed the suspicion of cancer.
I found a surgeon who had won a Silver Star for operating under fire in Vietnam, so I figured he was unshakable. He scheduled my lumpectomy.
And then my mother died the day before I was to have the lump excised. She was 81. I had been counting on her assistance, but she died after laughing at a joke so hard she breathed in her chewing gum. She suffocated and was dead within hours. (I haven’t had chewing gum since, either.)
I had the surgery as scheduled — luckily, in a different hospital. It left me with a smiley scar on the affected breast.
I began chemotherapy shortly thereafter — and had another surgery, to install a chemo port.
Every other Monday, my husband and I would visit the oncology clinic for my treatment. He would feed me pretzels — one of the few things I could taste — and make sure I had a warm blanket to snuggle under. By Thursday of each week, the sleepiness and nausea had passed enough for me to go back to work, so I did.
After a couple of months of this, I also underwent radiation so we could, as my oncologist said of the cancer, “tee it up and knock the snot out of it.” I rang the little bell signaling my last radiation treatment on Aug. 9, the birthday of two of my children and about 10 months after my diagnosis.
Through all those months, I bloated as the result of chemo. I thought I looked like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters” or, maybe, his diminutive brother, the Michelin Man.
I had my hair shaved off after so much fell out each night it made the bed all fuzzy, so we had to vacuum it. After the hair loss, I wore a little cap to keep my head warm, looping bright scarves around it for a little panache.
At the newspaper where I worked, I had my picture taken with a handful of bald men who proffered advice on living without hair. In the photo, I stand with my arms outstretched and my mouth wide in a smile. (I heard later that one husband whose wife was facing the loss of her hair put the article silently on the bathroom counter for his wife to find. I don’t know whether it cheered her or not.)
So that is my rather wordy message: Perform self-examinations. Schedule your mammogram. Even if cancer doesn’t run in your family. (It didn’t run in mine till five cousins were diagnosed within years of one another with breast and ovarian cancers.) Even if you nurse(d) your children and have eaten healthfully your whole life. (Ditto to both of those.)
You can “beat” breast cancer. (I hate fight analogies.) But you have a much better chance of that if you know your body and find the cancer early.
That’s how survival can begin.
Christine Carroll is a reporter for the Richmond County Daily Journal. Contact her at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]