Six days ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Dun dun dunnnnn.
How did this happen? Beats me. All I know was that I discovered a lump, waited a month to see if it went away, and then showed it to my primary care doctor. She sent me for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound.
*NOTE* I’m 46 years old and I’ve never had a mammogram. A few years ago—maybe even before I turned 40—a study came out saying that the benefits of regular mammograms before age 50 didn’t outweigh the extra costs, anxiety, and false positives. There are other schools of thought that disagree. Because this one helped me avoid the tit-press, it is the one I chose to believe. Me, to my doctor: “I thought I didn’t have to have them until I’m 50. Doctor: *eyeroll* (She’s cool, and I’m paraphrasing). The lady who actually operated the tit-press rolled her eyes the same way.
So, there was the lump on the mammogram, all nice and bright. It existed. An ultrasound revealed that it was solid. If it had been fluid-filled it would probably be a cyst and therefore no big deal. But although 80% of these solid boob blobs also turn out to be no big deal, you gotta stick a needle in them to be sure.
Me, to radiologist (who looks like a movie star, btw): “Can you stick a needle it in right now?”
Radiologist: Naw, I think we’ll set up an appointment.
So, because I’m a regular taker of ibuprofen and aspirin for headaches and whatever else hurts (but not my boob, which had no pain until I found the lump and then “felt” (I say, because I’m pretty sure it was psychological) like a spikey burr of potential death) which are blood thinners, I had to wait five days until the blood thinners GTFO’d.
*NOTE* Intra-parenthetical parentheses, Christa? Really? Shut up. I have cancer.
The biopsy was scheduled for Monday, March 9. I spent most of the days in between the two appointments lurking in the forums at breastcancer.org and consulting Dr. Google. That, and playing iPhone games and watching TV. Nothing else got done. Nothing. The kid would have starved to death if my husband hadn’t been doing everything. At this point, my older daughter becomes suspicious. I’m waiting for phone calls and casually mentioning doctor’s appointments, two things she knows I hate. So, I admit (with the preamble “Don’t freak out…”), that I found a lump yadda yadda and we we’re checking it out and no big deal.
During the biopsy, there are times that I am just chilling in the room, lying on my side, staring down the blob on the ultrasound. I’m memorizing it. Because I’ve been told I will not have the results of this biopsy until Thursday. If I’d had my phone with me, I’d have captured it for future perusal, but all my stuff was in a locker in the dressing room thing. I looked deep into its tumory soul and I did not like what I saw there. It looked like a soft-serve turd, complete with a fuck-you swirl like Bob’s Big Boy hair. In the lines and shadows I thought I saw an evil little face. I drew it for my older daughter like this:
Dr. Movie Star came in, gave me a shot to numb up my boob and then stuck a little hollow needle in the tumor three times—each time withdrawing a tiny chunk with a ka-chunk sound like a stapler. They bandage me up and send me home where I convalesce on the sofa with more binge-viewing. My plan is to wait out the results this way: distracting myself with other people’s drama.
After a lazy day on the sofa, I’m awake until 3am, doing research on my phone next to my snoring husband. I Google stuff like “characteristics of benign tumors,” and “ultrasound differences between benign and malignant tumors” and I come up with some good stuff:
- My tumor is rounded not spiky. (Cancer is spiky as fuck)
- My tumor is wide, not tall. (Benign tumors grow with the grain of the breast, cancer goes wherever the fuck it wants)
- My tumor has clear borders. (Cancerous growths often appear fuzzy or blurred at the edges—it doesn’t want to be contained)
- My little soft-serve turd tumor is probably benign! Hooray!
The next morning, I tell my husband and older daughter of my medical research, and how I feel quite relieved. My daughter goes to her dad’s and I tell her I will text her when I hear back from the doctor on Thursday. “Don’t worry,” I tell her. “It’s going to be fine.”
Around five o’clock that evening I see a missed call. It’s a private number. I listen to the voicemail and it’s Dr. Movie Star. He wants me to call him. I’m heading for the privacy of the bedroom and searching frantically for something to write with so I can jot down the number and call him back. The phone rings again. Dr. Movie Star really wants to talk to me.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this…”
It’s cancer. Here are the notes I took during this call.
My husband comes into the room and I give him the thumbs-down.
Now, a week before this, I wouldn’t even have known to ask about hormone receptors or HER2 status, but now I know that the particulars of the cancerous fuckwad will tell me how aggressive it is and how we will fight it. But Dr. Movie Star reveals that the full pathology report hasn’t come back, just the headline “Yup, It’s Cancer.” He’s already called my primary care doc and the breast surgeons that he thinks are the best.
He apologizes again. “I really thought it would be benign,” he says and I say “I know, it was curvy instead of spiky!” He sounds genuinely bummed and surprised and I find myself saying “Don’t be sad. Thank goodness you decided to stick a needle in it.”
*Note* Comforting other people about my cancer diagnosis has already become a familiar thing.
I walk out to the living room with my piece of paper. I give my husband the details. I don’t cry. I have to tell my daughter and I don’t want to. She’s going to freak out. I don’t want to put this burden on her. I make jokes, downplay. This, too, will become a familiar flavor.
I send her a message and, hilariously, “ductal” auto-corrects to “ducktail.”
She’s only been gone a couple hours, but she comes back. “I want to be with you,” she says. Which, if you have teenagers you will know is a rare and marvelous thing. Like a unicorn. She comes home and sits next to me on the sofa, holding my hand.
*NOTE* Here is where I get clever. I know she’s interested in healthcare professions and she’s not…super motivated yet. I ask her to be my cancer buddy, my assistant, my amanuensis. She’ll go to appointments with me and be an extra set of ears. Take notes. Help me keep track of my stuff. This way she knows what’s going on first hand AND y’know if it stimulates her interest in the field, then bonus.
I call my dad. This is difficult. A year ago he had a quadruple heart bypass and still isn’t 100%. I tell him “Uhhhh I guess I have a little bit of breast cancer.” Talking to your father about your boob is weird. He agrees with me that I should wait until my mom gets home from Hawaii before I tell her. Because why ruin her vacation, right?
That night, lying in bed in the darkness I have an odd sense of relief. I’ve been afraid of getting cancer my whole life. I always suspected that this would happen, and it’s as if that other shoe has finally dropped. Part of me has been dreading this for so long that for ten or twelve hours I am almost at peace.
Wednesday I text my son (who is 23) an invitation to come over for dinner. I have to tell him, and I figure in person will be better. He doesn’t want to come over. I text that I need to tell him something. Should I just go ahead and do it in text? He replies “sure.” I am stymied. I don’t know how to begin. It was easier with my daughter because I’d laid the groundwork of what was going on.
I turn to my husband and daughter. “What do I say?”
My husband says, “Put ‘I have breast cancer.’”
Simple, right? But four words that change a person’s world. He’s my baby boy and I don’t want to cause him pain and worry. I type the words into my iPhone and I can feel the reality settling in. I. Have. Cancer.
Naw. Not possible. Someone’s going to call me and say there was a mix-up. My little soft-serve tumor-turd wouldn’t do me like that. He’s curvy and swirly! Someone mixed up the pathology reports. Everything will be put right tomorrow at the consultation with the breast surgeon. He’ll come in with a file chuckling and shaking his head, “Mrs. Charter, there’s been a mistake…”
My husband and daughter accompany me to the breast surgeon. He’s the first person to look me in the eye and talk about my cancer. He’s the second doctor to tell me that because I have big boobs I’m a good candidate for lumpectomy. (They take out the tumor and some stuff around the edges instead of removing the whole boob.)
We take a look at my pathology report. Turdy the tumor is estrogen positive. Okay, that means we can fight his ass with hormone therapy. If we cut off his supply of estrogen (through drugs or sometimes removing the ovaries) we may be able to starve him out.
The report on HERS2 antibody is inconclusive. They have to run another test. If it’s positive it means my cancer is more aggressive, BUT it will give us another weapon to fight him – antibodies. So, more waiting.
Ki-67. This, I hadn’t read anything about. Basically, it determines what percentage of the cells in your tumor are actively dividing (to make copies of themselves). It’s normally about 7 or 10 percent. A high rate would be over 20%. Turdy is at 50%. He’s growing like a motherfucker.
My surgeon, who is basically the hot-shit surgeon that other surgeons send their wives and daughters to, tells me that what we’re probably going to do with Turdy is throw everything we’ve got at him. I have found it useful to think of this in Star Wars terms.
- Destroy the Death Star. That’s Turdy, and cutting him out of my boob. Lumpectomy.
- Go after the tie-fighters and any spacecraft that might have made a run for it. This is radiation.
- Scour the galaxy for any Imperial drones or outposts. This will be the chemo.
Another thing we’re waiting on is the genetic testing to find out if I’ve got the breast cancer gene. Because if I do, there’s a big chance that it will recur and that’s when we start talking about lopping off everything.
So. Status report. I have stage IIa breast cancer. Invasive ductal carcinoma in my right boob. The tumor is 2.6 cm. As of this moment there is no indication that it has spread anywhere else, and that is a good thing. If this cancer stays in my boob, it cannot kill me. If it gets out? If the Empire makes its way into my bones or lungs or brain? Then I freak out.
But for now, I am thinking of this as a problem that is fixable. If I lose a boob (or two) and my hair…well then, whatever. Better to be bald and flat-chested than six feet under, right? I have an appointment with the oncologist this week, and a breast MRI (to see if any of my lymph nodes light up under radioactive dye. And yeah, I already asked if I could get superpowers from this.), and then appointments with more people and more doctors. Basically, we’re assembling the cancer avengers and we’re going to knock this fucker out.
This is really long, sorry. Here are some questions you may have:
Why are you even blogging about this? It’s TMI.
Because writing is how I process things. I’ve blogged about every other damn thing, so why not this? Plus, as soon as I became aware that I needed a biopsy I searched for a breast cancer blog so I could learn something via human experience versus a bunch of numbers. If you’re creeped out, go ahead and unsubscribe. No hard feelings.
Is this a cancer blog now?
No. I am not my cancer and I have a million and one things I’m interested in besides this. My intent is to keep blogging about writing and stuff with some cancer sprinkled in as needed. (As needed by me. Your mileage may vary.) Honestly though, I’m not making promises because I don’t know how I’m going to feel.
You’ve scared me. What if I have breast cancer too?
Then finding it early is your best weapon. Get a baseline mammogram as soon as you turn 40. If your mom, sister, or aunts have had breast cancer (or you know you have the breast cancer gene) you need to start getting mammograms earlier. Like ten years before the age your relative was when diagnosed.
Are you going to die?
Yes. We all are. My intention is to live into my nineties like both of my grandmothers. If that isn’t in the cards than I will fight like hell to get as many years as I can. My youngest child is only 5 and still needs a lot of mothering.
What do you need? What can I do?
Um, nothing right now, thanks for asking. I don’t feel sick yet. If we know each other and you’ve been through this yourself, I’d love to hear from you. As a new pledge in this shitty sorority I could use a big sis.