So, almost eight years after the appearance of a rather alarming discharge from my right nipple, I thought it might be helpful if I summarized the scary, but ultimately healing, roller coaster journey which is early breast cancer.
If you have come to this site, no doubt you are a woman, like myself, who either had some kind of alarming lump or pain or symptom in her breast area, or was stunned to find her mammogram was considered “suspicious.” I am quite sure you went through a similar avalanche of emotions, appointments, and decisions–all moving at a pace which felt way too fast for your shell-shocked self.
The purpose of this site is to share with you some of the information I learned, some of the experiences and insights I gained during the course of my diagnosis and healing, and, most importantly, to give support to my fellow sisters. Even when a diagnosis is for early stage cancer, it is not an easy road to navigate.
So, my task is to share with you my process in chronological order. And whenever appropriate, I will offer links to either blog posts I have written on the subject or other sites and sources which may be helpful regarding each particular event or issue. I pray this will be helpful to you. I’ve noticed it’s always easier when we don’t feel alone.
- Left job. I gave notice at my hospice job after a series of accidents and illnesses caused me to finally, finally listen to the niggling intuition that I was supposed to leave my job (even though it paid decently and was meaningful work.) This event will have (good) ramifications later on. Stay tuned.
- Discovered nipple discharge. Within the week, during a lovely interlude with my lover, we noticed a discharge from my right nipple that looked rather like dark blood.
- Ignored the scary discharge. Pretended it didn’t happen. Stuffed it into a little storage place in the back corners of my mind.
- Found the courage to investigate the discharge further. Squeezed my nipple relentlessly to see if it was still happening. It was.
- As soon as office hours began the next morning, called my primary doctor. (As grace would have it, after being amazingly healthy for all my life, I had finally found a doctor only a few weeks prior, for the first time since I was a kid.)
- The doctor’s office called back to schedule an appointment with me that very day. This was alarming to me. How often does one get an appointment with a very popular and busy doctor that very day? I had driven into work and had just gotten settled in the office when I received the call. I tearfully told my supervisor what was going on and she gave me a hug and I left the office to drive to my doctor’s office, well over an hour away from my workplace.
- Mammogram scheduled. (I had had the misfortune of rediscovering my concerning symptom right before the Memorial Day weekend. I had to wait until Tuesday before I could get the mammogram.)
- After I came out from getting my breasts squashed in every way possible, I sat in the dressing room to wait until the radiologist could examine the x-rays. A technician came in and said the doctor requested she get a few more x-rays done. After they were done and the doctor had reviewed them, he came in to tell me I had “microcalcifications” in the right breast. Of course I had never heard that word. He explained it to me, but even though I’m an educated person with a master’s degree, it was all over my head. I didn’t really know what he was trying to say and I was a bit too nervous to ask any articulate questions. They came much later, when I was home alone.
- Went to get an ultra-sound in my left breast. Apparently in addition to the microcalcifications in the breast where the discharge had been, they found a nodule underneath the nipple in my left breast. The doctor found this concerning.
- Returned to primary doctor to show him the results of the mammogram and ultrasound. He recommended a “breast specialist.”
- Saw the breast specialist. He examined me, talked to me, and asked that I make another appointment.
- Returned to the breast specialist. More talking. No action. WTH? I couldn’t figure out his purpose! I had assumed I was going to get a biopsy! (Getting ready to go that morning I was tripping, stubbing my toes, and generally, just an overall mess. I finally realized I needed to sit down and breathe. Once I did that, the tears came. I had been so busy working on getting a business started, I hadn’t stopped to deal with my feelings and the ramifications of… everything.)
- Returned again to the breast specialist. Again, no procedures happened but this time he told me “what we were going to do.” I was extremely turned off by his attitude and by the seemingly unnecessary appointments. But my anger didn’t well up till after I got home.
- Called my friend Julia, the first friend I’d known to have breast cancer. She had excellent advice for me. She said, “Most cancers are slow-growing. Give yourself time to do your research, check out your options, and make a decision about your treatment that feels right.” Giving myself permission to not rush was so critical for me. I needed to feel good about my decisions. And I didn’t want anyone telling me what they “should” be.
- Went on a short retreat. Realized I needed to get away for a couple days to just think. Went to the shore with a book and my journal. While I was there, I remembered I’d had a dream about getting cancer! After that realization, I had dinner and packed up to come home. I wanted to review my dream journals.
- Reviewed all my dreams from the previous year or two. I realized that quite a few pointed to the possibility of me having cancer.
- Made the big decision to change doctors. I realized that the breast specialist I’d gone to (three times!) felt too arrogant. I spoke with a few friends and two of them recommended this one particular woman. I discovered this woman was not a consultant or a “specialist” as I’d expected but a surgeon! And a well-known and respected one at that!
- Had an appointment with my new doctor. I ended up being seen by her associate, who was very nice but still not exactly what I was hoping for. Before I left the office, I screwed up the courage to ask if I could see the surgeon herself. Permission was granted!
- Made an appointment with the surgeon. She was excellent. She was warm, she explained things thoroughly, she was very respectful of my choices, and she even had had Reiki training! She advised that I get a biopsy on each breast.
- Was given paperwork to fill out regarding getting a social work advocate and funding for my care.
- Waited to hear back from the social worker.
- Waited some more.
- After several weeks had passed, me being on pins and needles the whole time knowing that I needed not one, but two biopsies, and not having any insurance nor funds to pay for my care, plus not having heard back from the office or the social worker, I finally wrote a letter to the office explaining how long I’d been kept waiting and how anxious I was to proceed.
- As a result of that letter, the surgeon interceded and expedited the paperwork. It turned out that because I had no insurance and was out of work (see #1), I was eligible for full coverage for the cost of my care! If you have no insurance, please see the following: https://www.breastcancer.org/tips/paying/no_insurance
- Stereotactic biopsy scheduled for right breast. I pretty much had to do my own research because I didn’t get enough information to suit me. Here is one site: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/314149.php The site said there would be little to no pain. For whatever reason, for me, it was the most painful thing I’d ever experienced. And, as I was told it was extremely important not to move, I was afraid to even speak up and inform them of the pain.
- Another long wait to get the results of the biopsy and find out if the cells were cancerous or not. It turns out they were. I was diagnosed with DCIS–ductal carcinoma in situ. This is definitely one of the more easily treated breast cancers, so I was lucky.
- Research and decision-making time. Now that I finally had a diagnosis, it was time to dive into the research. The standard medical recommendations for DCIS were: a lumpectomy, radiation therapy, and, depending on whether or not the cancer was hormone receptor positive, drugs.
- After a lot of research and consulting my own gut feelings, I decided upon the following: A lumpectomy, definitely, but no drugs, no radiation therapy, no mastectomy. I did not like the potential side effects of the drugs and radiation therapy. And I knew a mastectomy was overkill. Because I had early stage cancer, I elected to have only a lumpectomy plus make significant changes in my diet and lifestyle. I believed this would be sufficient.
- Lumpectomy plus biopsy on the nodule in the left breast. The lumpectomy was to remove cancerous cells from the area of micro-calcifications in the right breast, but I also had that nodule in my left breast, and no one knew yet whether or not that was cancerous. They would have to remove the nodule in order to determine this.
- Waiting for results. Again. So much of breast cancer, or any cancer, is waiting for results. It is always a rather nerve-wracking time.
- No cancer in the left and clear margins in the right! I was given the best possible news. My left breast was free of cancer and the surgeon had, apparently, blessedly, removed all cancerous cells in the right.
- Follow-up with surgeon. I really did choose a good surgeon. Not only is she excellent at surgery, she is excellent at communicating with and relating to her patients. She explained what had been found during surgery, using clear words and diagrams that she sketched on the spot. She also explained about hormone receptors. She then advised me to take Vitamin D and to consider radiation therapy and aromacin (the drug for hormone receptor positive cancers), but thankfully, she didn’t pressure me. Before I left the pleasant consulting room, she gave me a little bag with gifts (a book she had authored and a heart-shaped crystal) and a hug.
- Natural treatment. I had discovered, through research, which foods were considered cancer-fighting foods (there are many!) and which supplements could assist in fighting cancer and improving my health. I began to eat a 90% vegetarian diet and I cut back greatly on sugar consumption. (At the time, my biggest vice and bad habit, health-wise, was an addiction to Pepsi. I had also been eating too much bacon.) I started taking Vitamin D and some other supplements.
- Fundraiser. At this time in my life, my income was very low. Buying healthy food and supplements was expensive. Fortunately, my good friend Jackie Tice, a talented singer-songwriter (and winner of numerous awards), generously offered to sing at a benefit concert. Then my dear friend Betsy offered to prepare delicious snacks. I was blessed to have many friends and acquaintances show up to generously donate to the cause. Friends are among the biggest blessings in the entire world.
- Update–eight years later. Although more frequent mammograms are recommended, I have only had two follow-up mammos. (The radiation inherent in mammograms is actually a contributing risk factor for cancer. How crazy is that?!) My diet is not pure or consistent, but it is certainly better than it once was. I have significantly reduced stress in my life. I am doing what I enjoy doing, following my passions and my purpose as best as I can. My health is very good. At 61 years old, I take no medications and very seldom ever have the need to go to a doctor. I consider myself cancer-free. I am happy and blessed.