That Fateful Friday Morning
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Breast Cancer Experience
Note: the written story is a shortened version of the audio version.
I skipped my mammogram in 2018 because, after all, I was 75 years old and you know what they say—you probably don’t have to worry about breast cancer by then. Most people who get a serious disease like that will probably die with it rather than of it. But in 2019 my physician said I should probably get one because “you can still get breast cancer.” So I obediently scheduled one.
It was a regular mammogram, just like all the others I had had over the years, except this one came back with a “suspicious” spot on it. Several years earlier, I had had another one with a suspicious area, I had a second mammogram, and it turned out to be a papilloma which was easily removed by surgery. So I thought that’s what this probably was. I even called the surgeon, Dr. Perry, and asked about that surgery, to make sure what it was and which side it was on. So when they said I should have another mammogram, I did. This also came back “suspicious” and warranted a biopsy. So I dutifully scheduled that.
I had no symptoms, no lump, no pain, none of the things that would make me think I had a problem, so I wasn’t too worried about the biopsy. I had never had a biopsy before so it was an interesting experience. The radiologist inserted a large needle and told me it would “shoot” in and “grab” a sample of tissue. She did this several times to get an accurate reading, and I went on my way. I did have a nice bruise at the site! They said they would call me. In fact, the very nice woman at the front desk told me she would be the one to call me and tried to put me at ease.
We were on our way to the temple that fateful Friday morning when my phone rang. I answered it, and it was NOT the woman who said she would call me but someone else in the office. She wasted no time in pleasantries but got right to the lousy news of the diagnosis: it was cancer. That was certainly not what I wanted to hear. I wrote a note in “my chart” to my physician, told her the results, and asked for her advice and opinion on how to proceed. I was pleasantly surprised that she called me personally that afternoon and we had about a 20 minute conversation. I think that is the sign of a good doctor, one who really cares about her patients.
This was a busy time in my life. Not only had I just gotten the cancer diagnosis, but I was also having surgery on my colon to remove what they thought was a polyp. The general surgeon and the breast surgeon conferred and decided the colon surgery should be first because there would be no time nor opportunity to do that surgery while I was having chemotherapy and radiation.
I emailed the kids and mentioned we had some “health issues,” and I laughingly asked Ken how long he thought it would be before one of them called and who would be the first! It was Brad, within the hour.
The appointment with Dr. Perry was rather cut and dried. She said it was HER2+, very common and treatable, it originates in the milk ducts and was most likely still contained there. But of course the tumor (about 1 ½ cm) needed to be removed in a lumpectomy before it spread. She threw out all these names and procedures, and I felt like I was drinking from a fire hose! She gave me a brochure full of terms and diagnoses and treatments…and I didn’t understand a bit of it! I would have surgery, and then I would have some radiation and also some chemo. I have always said I didn’t want to do chemo, but apparently this shouldn’t be too bad. She said I wouldn’t lose my hair. (She lied.) It is mixed with another drug and isn’t as harsh. (That wasn’t my experience.) But it sounded like it was the best way to go. I asked what would happen if I did nothing, and she said it would spread internally, then leak out externally, it’s ugly, painful, and I’d die. It didn’t sound like a good option!
I had the colon surgery and if it were just that, I could deal with it. I was tender and sore, but I would heal, and it would soon be all over. But I had this other sword hanging over my head…the colon surgery was over…but I had breast cancer. I had to have a lumpectomy, which probably wouldn’t be a big deal since it’s only day surgery…but I had breast cancer. I just got weepy at times. How much should I fight? How will this play out? Will they get it all? Will it reoccur? How long will it take? Will I be sick? Will I have to take a leave of absence from the temple? And for how long?
The lumpectomy surgery went well. Dr. Perry felt she had gotten everything. But when the full pathology report came back, the pathologist thought the margins were not clear so I had to have another surgery two weeks later.
The saga continued. First, it’s bad luck that I got cancer, not hereditary, just bad luck. Then it’s bad luck that I had to have the second surgery—the margins weren’t big enough (whatever that means)—and it doesn’t happen often, once in a blue moon, but lucky me, I got it. Then to top it off, I found out that Texas Oncology in Flower Mound doesn’t take the sub-group of our insurance. However we learned that the group in Grapevine did so that is where I would go.
I Googled the survival rate for 76 year old women with breast cancer and found that the rate is in the 90s for 5 year survival and in the 80s for 10 years. But there was also something about 99% for early detection and treatment, if the cancer in confined to the breast and had not spread to the lymph nodes, which was my case. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the same articles again! I hoped it was true. I just waited and waited and waited…until my appointment. I was overwhelmed and terrified!
Sharel went with us to the oncologist. It was good to have another set of ears to hear. The doctor talked about the probable course of treatment. I would have Taxol, the chemo, every week for 12 weeks, and also Herceptin (an antibody that targets specifically the cancer better than the chemo) every 3 weeks for 3-9 months after the chemo is finished. A month after the last chemo, I would begin radiation.
In June, Chemo-day finally arrived. I was glad the waiting would be over, but I was still apprehensive, overwhelmed, and terrified. It actually turned out to be quite easy. Of course it was only the first treatment and they would probably accumulate and get harder. Everyone was so nice! They made sure I understood everything, that I was comfortable and knew to say something if I felt anything unusual, they had snacks and drinks, and it wasn’t too bad. Of course then it was like waiting for the other shoe to drop for the side effects. When would they hit? That night? The next day? Just when? And what would they be? I noticed major insomnia! I was tired, my whole body tingled, I had a little bit of diarrhea, I just felt bad. Every day seemed to be a new adventure in side effects.
The third week was a surprise. I didn’t have treatment because my white blood count was so low that I had no way to fight infection. They said to take the week off and hopefully my blood would build itself up by the next week. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to handle this after all and I’d have to stop ☺ I felt like the governor had called and commuted my sentence! I thought I would feel good all week! But it was an absolutely terrible week. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that bad. It was like the Lost Weekend. I had zero energy, ended up running a fever and had to have an antibiotic called in. Seriously—these people were trying to kill me! I felt like Lehonti, to whom Amalickiah administered poison by degrees until he died!
The doctor ordered a reduction of 25% in the Taxol so hopefully I would be able to tolerate it better. Some people just can’t handle the usual dose and I guess I’m one of them. He said he didn’t think he had ever seen anyone go down so dramatically and so quickly into the treatment. I said I was glad I had made his journal! (He didn’t think that was particularly funny, but he didn’t get my sense of humor.)
Radiation wasn’t difficult. Going every single day was tedious, but at least I didn’t have the bad sunburn that a couple of other women had, nor the itching and burning they had, or other side effects. Just a little pink and some slight itching, but that was all.
When this all began, I had texted the kids, Diane, Ken’s siblings, Jean, and Nicole, but no one else yet. When I texted Jean, she came over with a cozy blanket and two half-gallons of Blue Bell ice cream! She knows what I like! I was overwhelmed at the goodness of people when they learned about my diagnosis. Some brought flowers and chocolate. I got sweet texts from several sisters. One sent a quote from the “Come, Follow Me” manual. She paraphrased it and I like her version better than the actual quote. She said “The atonement can heal the fears of our hearts and heal the anxieties of our minds.”
Tanya came over and we talked for about 1 ½ hours! She was so sweet to come and was so positive that it lifted my spirits! After I told her about Sharon’s battle with cancer, and we talked about her mother’s, we agreed that we both had witnessed difficult, negative outcomes. But Tanya is a cancer survivor, and she just radiated positive thoughts and it really helped. I still didn’t know any answers about what’s in the future, treatment-wise, but I felt uplifted by her positive attitude!
We went to Silver Sneakers to exercise when I felt good enough and so many people expressed their love and concern. They told me they were praying for me and gave me hugs. So many people brought us dinner and other goodies—my ministering sisters, friends, ward members, neighbors, and even someone I didn’t know very well. I am constantly amazed at the goodness of people. They have done the housework I didn’t have the strength to do, brought flowers, “chocolate of the week,” a quilt, books, and so many other acts of kindness.
My emotions were on such a roller coaster: mad, sad, OK, depressed, anxious, wanting to get things going. I tried not to fall apart, but I don’t think I was very successful. People kept telling me I could do this, I could do hard things, and “you’ve got this!” Oh, how I hate that phrase! I DIDN’T have this! I had a minor melt-down at church one Sunday. I just couldn’t control my emotions. I had picked up a couple of extra Kleenex before the meeting started, just in case, and of course I used them. Ken went to get me some more but then he disappeared for a few minutes, and it’s a good thing he didn’t come right back because I was going to have him take me home. I just didn’t want to make any more of a spectacle of myself! I know the Bishop noticed my emotional state from the stand. He came and sat next to us at the Break-the-Fast dinner and asked how I was doing. He could tell I was struggling! I managed to make it through without totally losing it. There were still not a lot of people who knew about my diagnosis because it wasn’t something you just stand up and announce!
I was just so overwhelmed with it all! I would think I had a handle on my emotions and then I’d burst into tears again! But slowly I felt a little better about the situation, more settled. I kind of knew what would be happening. I knew I had an oncologist and what he planned to do. That had stressed me out, and then waiting for the appointment was torture, and waiting for the first chemo appointment seemed like an eternity also! I was not excited about the possible side effects. I didn’t know which I would have—nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, hair loss, brittle nails, neuropathy. The last two I already had so how would I know?
I was so tired of feeling tired all the time and just generally lousy. It was extremely discouraging. I felt like I wasn’t making any progress, because if I didn’t have a treatment, nothing happened. But at least I wasn’t feeling sick, nauseated, or any of those effects. I was soooo done with this chemo thing! Just stop it and go on from here. Finally in August, the BEST! NEWS! EVER! The doctor decided to discontinue the chemo. So NO MO’ CHEMO!!!!! Apparently my body is ultra-sensitive to the chemo and it just didn’t do well.
Then I became discouraged because I didn’t feel good, and I was sick and tired of being sick and tired! I was hoping because I hadn’t had any chemo treatments for a couple of months that I’d feel better, but so far it wasn’t happening. And then were there residual side effects? What is the purpose of arresting the breast cancer so I don’t die of it, only to die because the chemo ruined my heart? Or the radiation damaged my lungs? What about the effects on the rest of my body? I was just so discouraged about the whole thing.
There were some humorous times through all this. The first week I wore my wig to church, one of the men asked Ken if I was Yvonne’s sister! Maybe I should get another wig that is grayer? My ministering sister brought over some goodies one day and I almost cracked up laughing at her youngest little girl. When I answered the door, I wasn’t wearing my wig or even a hat, just au natural with the almost-bald head…and her eyes got really big and she just looked at me like she was trying to figure out who I was and what was wrong! It was all I could do not to laugh out loud!
In December 2019, I told Dr. Ravi that I. WAS. DONE! I had given it the ol’ college try, if it comes back, I’ll just deal with it, but I didn’t want to continue anything. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for him to agree.
If I had known then what I know now, I would not have done this whole chemo thing. I would have taken the 75% chance of it not returning and run with it. Then I’d still feel good and could be working at the temple and being productive instead of sitting around the house, vegging and losing a year of my life. So if it does come back, I am NOT doing more chemo because of course it’s too hard on me. I will just pull out the bucket list and get started!
Most of life’s experiences have a lesson, so what have I learned through this experience? I have learned people are so good and kind. They served me with whatever I needed, without judgment or the possibility of repayment, but cheerfully and lovingly. I never asked “why me?” I just accepted it as bad luck and a part of being mortal. I learned to appreciate the Savior’s atonement for me, that He has already experienced my pain and sorrows and suffered them so I could take advantage of that. My testimony of His divine gift to me increased.
I would never choose willingly to go through this trial, but I think I am better for the experience.
To Be Filled Out