So how did this unexpected, unwelcome journey begin? I was running consistently, feeling good, eating right, doing everything you’re supposed to do. I’m not overweight, I don’t smoke, and I have a couple of drinks per week max. So what the hell am I doing with breast cancer?
I cut myself shaving under my arm in the shower one morning and thought nothing of it, except “ouch”! About a week later I noticed a swollen nodule in my left armpit where the cut had been. I though “Oh great. Now it’s infected.” Since I was going to the doctor anyway, I had her take a feel. It was a little smaller than a golf ball but very moveable, which is usually a good sign. She felt pretty good about it but referred me to my OB/GYN to be sure. So, off to another doctor’s office I went. She also had a feel and said that it was probably nothing ominous, but I needed a mammogram (loud, dramatic music plays here!) because “she doesn’t mess around with boob stuff”. I love this woman and value her opinion tremendously, but I had never had any urge whatsoever to send a concentrated dose of radiation to a small, delicate area. I firmly believe that repeated mammograms play a role in the breast cancer epidemic. So…here I was faced with a terrible dilemma. I went back and forth for a few days, called around to see if their were any safer alternatives, and finally broke down and scheduled the mammo.
While all of this was going on I was living in the sweet embrace of denial. Helloooo..people with cancer don’t run 13 miles for fun! I felt fine. My endurance and speed weren’t quite where I thought they should be after 3 years of running, but I chalked it up to being 46, working, training, running a home and still having a preschooler to care for. I get kind of tired just typing all that. But I had a quiet, lurking fear in the recesses of my mind. Truth be told, my woman’s intuition had been gnawing at me for a couple of years. I had felt an irregular mass of fibrous tissue in my left breast that just seemed off. I’d had it checked out before and been told that it was normal, but it looked a little worrisome as it greeted me each day in the bathroom mirror. The skin around the area had also started to pucker in or dimple. Now ladies, any time you see your breast skin pulling in or “dimpling”, run, don’t walk to your boob doctor, as this is a hallmark sign of breast cancer.
I probably noticed this for a year before I finally shelled out the money for a thermogram, which I still believe to be a safer method of detecting early breast changes than yearly mammograms. There’s a lot of info on the Internet about thermography if you’re interested. I must disclose that my thermogram was done one year before my diagnosis. While it didn’t detect cancer, it did show abnormalities in the same breast with fibrocystic changes that should be monitored. I believe that if I had done a baseline thermogram at 40 and then gone yearly, any changes that occurred over those few years would have sent up more red flags. And, right before my first scan I started taking bio identical estrogen and progesterone. Keeping in mind that 95% of my cancer cells have receptors for both (ER+PR+), that was probably the worst thing I could have done other than maybe acquiring a heroin habit. So it’s quite possible that the abnormal changes on my thermogram became full-blown cancer within that year of feeding my cells the hormonal equivalent of “cancer chow”.
So Tuesday, March 19, 2013, I walked across the street form the hospital where I was working, down the long sidewalk to the radiation building. I was thinking that this was a huge overreaction on my doctor’s part and that I would be back to work in an hour. Wrong! I walked in and waited for my turn under the cold steel boobie masher. I remember staring at the hospital-gowned elderly lady who was waiting with me. Did she already know her fate and was she scared? Or was she like me, thinking this was crazy and wishing she were anywhere else? The mammography tech called my name.
We walked together to the room down the hall with the mammogram machine. She was quiet, but pleasant. Always being the comedian, I made some remark about how awkward her job must have been when she first started feeling boobs all day. She laughed nervously, not really wanting to discuss it anymore. Oh well, my smartass humor doesn’t always find an appreciative audience. So, we just got straight on to the smashing. It wasn’t bad, really. I’ve heard horror stories from other people about the pain. I guess there are perks to having an underwhelming chest! When she was done, she said that she would show my films to the radiologist (cha ching). She turned to me casually at the door and said “Now don’t worry if I come back and tell you he wants an ultrasound. That’s pretty common if he can’t see everything well on the mammogram”. She then put me in a room by myself to wait again. There was nothing unusual about the room, a chair, a table with 2 year-old magazines, a fake plant. The one thing that sticks in my mind is the clock. It was one of those huge round antique-looking clocks with roman numerals and metal hands. And it was the loudest freaking clock I’ve ever heard in my life. After a few minutes, I started to feel like I was in the middle of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart”.
Thankfully, she returned. “He wants to get an ultrasound.” Surprise, surprise. They wanted to charge me more money. Down the hallway to a different technician and a different machine. This one was a little more warm and fuzzy. I liked her. She started the ultrasound, gliding back and forth over my left boob. She stopped and told me that she needed to show the doctor the pictures to make sure she got everything. When she returned, she moved over to the left armpit and now I was a little concerned. After a minute of this, she once again excused herself to go show the doctor. It was getting a little weird now. I heard footsteps coming down the hall. It was the technician, followed now by the radiologist. My heart sank. The jig was up. No more denial, no more marathon. I felt the tears welling up behind my eyes. God I hate to cry in front of people! He didn’t have to say a word, but after poking around a little with the wand, he began. “We have a number of abnormalities on your scan. There’s a 2cm tumor in the left breast along with several areas of calcification, which is suggestive of cancer activity. The lymph node under the left arm is what you’ve been feeling. It’s 3 times the size it should be and there appear to be other enlarged nodes as well. We’ll need to biopsy the tumor and the node tomorrow .” And then the afterthought. “I’m sorry.”
To be continued…