I figured since October is breast cancer awareness month, it would be fitting to share my breast cancer story in the hopes that it will touch someone, instill hope and maybe even save a life. I have heard women say that they put off getting a mammogram out of fear of what it might reveal. I simply cannot imagine choosing to be in the dark regarding my health. However, I do understand why some women look the other way or pretend there is nothing wrong. Being a working mom or a stay-at-home mom with a family to take care of while trying to balance it all can sometimes take it’s toll and we often let these things take precedence over our health. I totally get it.
I’m one of those people who goes in for a routine physical every year. Before my diagnosis I never had a mammogram because there was no need. I wasn’t old enough, there was no history of breast cancer in my family and I was never symptomatic. I figured my annual physical was enough and I’d just wait for my doctor to tell me when it was time for my first screening. I was never one to do self breast exams at home. The only exam I’d get was during my physical and everything ALWAYS checked out fine. Once my doctor even told me I was “medically boring”. Although my family history included diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease my labs always came back normal. I did have one uncle on my father’s side that had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and is still pretty stable to this day. I knew of no one on my mother’s side of the family with cancer. So of course the thought of having cancer never really entered my mind. Years ago I once worked as a receptionist at the breast center at a local hospital when I was in my early 20’s. So I certainly new the importance of reporting any breast changes to my doctor right away.
Married to a good man with two beautiful kids, all was good and I remember feeling content and at peace with where I was in my life at age 36. There was even a time when I felt things were going too good. It was as if I had a premonition that something bad was about to happen. But even when bad things happen, I believe they happen for a reason and that God allows us to go through trials. Whether it’s a financial struggle, an addiction, or illness, once thing is for certain, it is never God’s plan for us to face these trials alone. He speaks to us when we drop to our knees, or when we take our bible and it falls open to just the right verse.
I wasn’t too worried when I first felt a lump in my left breast that April in 2005. I was taking a shower one morning and for some unknown reason out of the blue I decided to do a quick self exam. It was such a random thing and I probably hadn’t done one in years but that morning I suddenly felt the urge to. And there it was, a good size firm feeling lump right at two o’clock. Maybe there was a touch of concern but it wasn’t anything that I was going to lose sleep over. I ignored the lump for about a month and in a sense I almost forgot about it until one day while sitting alone in my office I took my right hand and slipped it inside my bra and noticed it was still there. As much as I wanted to wish it away and forget about it, I couldn’t. My mind went to a dark place and I knew it would be irresponsible of me if I continued to ignore it. I called my gyn and made an appointment and was seen the next day. During the exam I didn’t have to tell her where the lump was. She found it right away. When I asked her what it was she had a look of concern and surprise on her face…”hmm… you’re going to need a mammogram”. I was no longer her “boring” patient.
Looking back I really was very fortunate because I didn’t have to wait long to get an appointment. I was seen the very next day for a mammogram. I was told that it usually takes several days for an appointment but there was a cancellation so I was able to get in right away. The mammogram did reveal a large lump and within that hour the radiologist performed an ultrasound-guided core-biopsy to remove some tissue. Afterwards they bandaged me up nicely and the tech handed me a pamphlet with information on breast cancer. She assured me that it wasn’t to say I had cancer but that it was more of a informational pamphlet they give all their patients who undergo a biopsy like the one I just had. I felt my heart sink and though she was doing her job I couldn’t help but feel a little angry and offended. I was told that I would be called with the results. I kept busy that weekend and tried not to think about those results but occasionally my mind would go to dark places. My husband was the optimist and wasn’t worried at all and really expected a good outcome. He reminded me that God was in control and that all would be fine.
Tuesday, May 31, 2005 the doctor who had done the biopsy called me at work to tell my that my test was positive for breast cancer. After the call, I was in a state of shock then it hit me. I called my husband at work and literally broke down and could barely put two words together. When I told him the news there was a brief silence and then “oh honey….I’ll meet you at the house”. Afterwards I told a co-worker who pulled me into the tightest hug. I could literally feel her heart break with mine. As I left the office I remember walking through the parking lot crying and thinking that I needed to get home so that I could at least have my meltdown in private. I was so unprepared and unequipped to handle a situation of this magnitude. Not knowing much about cancer I felt like I was just handed a death sentence and became overwhelmed with fear of how it would affect my kids and if I’d even be around to see them graduate. That day was filled with a range of emotions. I went from feeling afraid to feeling angry and annoyed. I was angry because of the fact that I was a mother with two kids to raise and a husband I planned to grow old with and cancer was threatening to take all those dreams away. I was annoyed because of the financial burden the treatment was going to bring. Sure I had health insurance but with all the tests and doctors appointments, not to mention the treatment I was going to face, I knew I was in for a major out of pocket expense.
In the days that followed I had several tests done, blood work, a CT scan, PET scan, another core biopsy to check out another area that was questionable. All tests were negative except for my blood work which showed my tumor markers were high. That was no surprise because I already knew I had a cancerous tumor so naturally my markers would be high. I soon met with a surgeon who recommended a sentinel node biopsy to determine what stage I was in and if the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. The results were good. No cancer in the nodes and I was placed at a stage 1 which is considered early. But because of the size of the tumor, the grade, and the type of tumor (triple negative), it fell in the “aggressive” category which meant I likely needed chemo. After meeting with my oncologist, he confirmed what I had been dreading since the day I got the call. I needed chemo and there was no way around it.
I hated the thought of losing my hair. Two weeks after my first chemo my hair started to come off easily. Just a slight tug and I had a handful of hair. I had it cut short in preparation for this but no amount of preparation can ease the upset of losing your hair. I think I was more annoyed than anything. Just plain ticked at the whole cancer thing and not at all a happy camper. Luckily I had good friends who gave me the prettiest scarves and I was able to get a couple of wigs for free from the American Cancer Society and one really nice wig that was custom made for me at a salon that was recommended by my doctor and my insurance paid for it which was nice. As the hair started to come off I decided to speed things up and just shave it all off. I really saw no point in watching my hair fall out. It was like slowly peeling away a bandaid from a cut. Sometimes it’s just better to pull it off quickly and be done with it.
Wearing a wig wasn’t as easy as I thought. The wigs looked nice especially the one that was custom made. But they were so uncomfortable. I just wasn’t big on wigs! The scarves were light and airy and much more comfortable to wear. The only downside of wearing a head scarve was that it screamed “cancer” to everyone. As if going bald and losing my brows and lashes wasn’t bad enough, imagine the slap in the face when my fingernails stopped growing and became discolored as if someone took a hammer to them leaving them all black and blue. I thought I at least had my nails to show that I had some semblance of femininity left. Just another thing I had to kiss goodbye for the time being. Another lovely side effect from the chemo was the changes in my taste buds. I once thought the milk had gone sour before it’s expiration date. Other foods had a metallic taste and didn’t really taste like food at all. All I kept hearing was how important it was to eat well during treatment but it’s hard to eat well when you can’t even taste the food. I could name a few other discomforts but in all honestly, every side effect I experienced was just plain annoying more than anything. I wasn’t in a great deal of pain except for some bone pain that would hit a day or two after a chemo treatment then subsided after a couple of days. But at the end of the day, life continued on. I worked full-time throughout my treatment and only took a few hours off or a few days here and there to rest or for doctor appointments. Having chemo on a Friday helped so I would have the weekend to recoup and regain my energy and be ready for work by Monday. My brother often drove me to chemo and we’d later stop and have lunch. We were always close but this experience brought us even closer and I came to really treasure our time together and the discussions we would have as he sat beside me in the chemo room. My husband and family helped out a lot too and I was grateful of the fact that I was still able to cook, shop for groceries, drive, and take my kids to school. I even cleaned out our garage all by myself once and danced at a friend’s birthday party. But I’d be lying if I said there were no feelings of depression or fear. These emotions would come in waves and were difficult to get past. I found that keeping busy and surrounding myself with family and friends was key. A friend got me into scrapbooking so I spent a lot of time working on my daughter’s album which brought me great satisfaction.
My kids were young at the time and just busy being kids which was how I preferred it. My youngest didn’t really understand much of what was going on and that was fine with me. At 3 all she needed to worry about was being a kid and making friends in preschool. But my 8 year old knew I was sick and would write me the sweetest notes. I recall a time when she found me in my room crying and gave me the greatest comfort anyone could possible give. She hugged me and then told me about a dream she had recently…”Mommy, don’t cry, I saw Jesus in my dream and He told me you are already healed, so don’t cry, okay mommy? everything will be ok because you are healed!” In my moments of weakness I had forgotten the importance of having faith and trust in the Lord but was blessed to have my daughter there to remind me.
After my 2nd or 3 round of chemo I had another mammogram so my oncologist could see what the tumor was doing. He had the x-ray up on the screen in the exam room and pointed to the area of where the tumor had once been. He looked at me and said “Ingrid the tumor is gone, this is phenomenal”. I was very happy but also I was very cautious. I didn’t want to get my hopes up but at the same time I was elated. Later I explored my options. Having a mastectomy was definitely on the table but after talking with my surgeon and oncologist as well as other women who had breast cancer, I felt informed and confident enough to decide that preserving my breast would be the best option for me. My doctors were definitely on board with me and very supportive and comfortable with the choice I made.
I noticed before my 8th and final round of chemo, my hair started to come in. It came back thick and curly. I called it my $50,000 perm…lol! Sometimes you just have to laugh at stuff, ya know. Things started moving along nicely. After a month post-chemo I had a lumpectomy to remove the tissue bed of where the tumor had once been. Results came back negative with clear margins and what the doctor called a “complete pathological response”. The last and final step to my journey was to complete 6 weeks of radiation. By November of that year I was DONE!
While the summer of 2005 was a time of worry, fear and a lot of uncertainties, it was also a time of learning to be patient, to be strong, to grow in faith and to learn to give things up to God. Looking back on my experience I am in awe at how God worked through many people who touched my life in a very profound way. From the sweet nurse who kissed my forhead and whispered “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) in my ear just as I was waking up in the recovery room after one of my surgeries, to the lovely woman from Tennessee I met online who while also facing breast cancer, became my friend as we opened up to each other through emails. I am still friends with her to this day…. I love you Penny!. The Lord knows our needs and like any loving parent, He delivers at just the right time. I’ve made friends along my journey and became a Breast Friend mentor for women who are newly diagnosed and I help by just listening, being a support and guide for them as they start their breast cancer journey. Through my mentoring I’ve met many wonderful people. One in particular was a woman who was once the housekeeper for a well known celebrity. We became good friends and communicated often. Unfortunately she passed away last year leaving a husband and two daughters. She was a wonderful sweet lady who I think of often.
Cancer affects everyone not just the person who has it but their families, friends, co-workers. It doesn’t care that you’re a mom, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a niece, an aunt, or a friend. It doesn’t care that you are young, old, fat or skinny. Doesn’t care whether you are white, black, hispanic or asian and it most certainly doesn’t care whether or not you have a family history of cancer. It can affect anyone at any time. About 2 years after my diagnosis my mother was later diagnosed with early breast cancer. She had a mastectomy and is cancer free now. A few years later my cousin was diagnosed and later passed away.
I’m 45 now and next month will mark 9 years of being cancer free. I see my oncologist and surgeon every year and have a mammogram annually and an MRI every other year. If there is anything I would want readers to take away from my story its that cancer does not discriminate. It is important to do monthly breast exams. Know your body, and report anything abnormal to your doctor and don’t wait (I waited a month before doing anything. If I had waited longer my story might have ended differently). Ask your doctor when you should start getting screened and follow through on your mammograms every year. Know your family history and don’t assume that no family history of cancer means that you are in the clear. You are not! Eat healthy and load up on cancer fighting foods like spinach, carrots, and broccoli to name a few and EXERCISE. Obesity is associated with increased risks of breast cancer not to mention other health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and other cancers.
After my treatment ended and life was slowly getting back to a new normal, I turned to my husband and said “wow I can’t believe it’s over”. His response was a very cool..”See, I told you everything would be okay”. Cancer can take a toll on a family and believe me, we had our challenges as a couple but came out stronger than ever.
Thank you for reading and I hope if you are facing cancer or just starting your journey, that you find some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. I’ll leave you with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt – “A woman is like a tea bag- you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water”. So very true!