Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Breast Cancer Scare

This past month has truly been one of the longest in my life. And how ironic that for the most part, it spanned the entire month of October - Breast Cancer Awareness Month?

I just had my very own brush with breast cancer. Recently I'd returned from a trip to Sedona, Arizona during the wee hours of September 25th . My friends and I had almost missed several flights - sometimes through no fault of our own - but the thing that worried me most on the trip back was the possibility of missing my doctor's appointment the next morning. Well actually the same morning. I was scheduled for a complete physical, and of course I'd written down everything that was important for me to remember to tell my doctor. #1 being the lump I'd found behind my left nipple.

Being that I'm a nurse, I knew that I had a few things going for me. First of all was my age. I'm a young, healthy woman with no family history of breast cancer. Secondly, I'd found this thing early through breast self exam. Surely those things had to be worth something...right? No! Not at all.

Being that I'm a nurse, I also knew that none of these things meant a hill of beans. Not really. I've seen women much younger than me die from breast cancer. And I've seen quite a few exception patients who were the first in the family to be diagnosed with some horrid disease or condition, who would later become someone else's family history case. Man, this was truly a scary time for me.

So anyway, the morning after getting back from Arizona, I was in my doctor's office bright and early. After the very thorough interview, I pulled out my list of concerns. I told her about the "blockage" I'd found. She did all the usual checks and screenings (pelvic exam, pap smear, breast exam, blood work, blah, blah, blah - yada, yada, yada). She then called in another doctor to examine the breast in question. The one in which the nipple was bigger than the other, and had the sometimes bloody discharge. I know, gross right?

Needless to say, I left her office with an appointment with Radiology for a mammogram, and an appointment for the cancer clinic to see the oncology doctor -all scheduled for the very next week. Wow, they moved fast. I didn't know if this was cause for alarm or if they were just very efficient. All I knew was that I was scared out of my mind.

That next week I went for my mammogram, which led to an ultrasound, to only be told what I already knew. There was something in one of the ducts of my left breast. The scary thing was that they couldn't tell me what it was. I'd found a couple lumps in my breast in the past, and actually scheduled to see an oncologist myself. And although no doctor will actually diagnose until after the pathology report, I still left the office with an unofficial diagnosis of fibroadenoma, which is a benign breast lump that is easily treated by excision of the lump in a procedure known simply as a breast biopsy. The term biopsy alone is pretty scary, and most people automatically equate the word with cancer, but basically all they do is remove the "friendly" cyst or tumor and send it to pathology to confirm that it is, in fact, what they already suspected - a fibroadenoma.

And likewise, when the doctor suspects cancer, they can usually tell you this as well, or either they'll say something like, "Let's run some tests first." The radiologist plainly told me that there was something in the duct in my left breast, but that they couldn't see it well. She told me about a procedure called a galactogram, where they would insert a very narrow needle into my nipple and shoot some dye into it so they could see things more clearly.
Ooh yea! Sounds like fun, huh?

After the galactogram, with and without ultrasound, there was another mammogram. Then another galactogram (they didn't get enough of the dye into the duct the first time and needed to do it again). Then another mammogram. Finally the procedure was complete, and they informed me that I had something in one of the ducts of my left breast.

Oh yeah? You think? Okay, now tell me something I didn't already know.

Next it was back to the cancer clinic for my "cancer" doctor to tell me, "We see something in one of the ducts in your left breast." He said that I had a lot of things working in my favor, like my age and having no family history of breast cancer. Sound familiar?

Can you see how working in the health care field can actually get in the way of being optimistic sometimes? I'd spent all this time for them to tell me all these things I already knew - not once, but over and over again. I know I sound ungrateful. I really wasn't. I was just so worn out, frustrated, and scared. And I wasn't getting any unofficial good news. But at least I was pleasant the whole time.

Then he told me that that the duct should come out, and that there could be a "little" cancer in there, but that they wouldn't know until after surgery and the pathology report came back.
Yep, I knew that too.

So we scheduled surgery. It was going to be a two-parter. First another galactogram and then the actual surgery.

Trying to hold it together for my 3 year old son was probably the hardest. I wanted to prepare him for my surgery, but couldn't for the life of me figure out how I would prepare him if the news came back bad. I didn't know how to tell him that everything was going to be alright and risk the possibility of this being a lie. And so I just smiled and told him that mommy had a little problem, but that the doctor was going to fix it. And that it wouldn't hurt mommy, because mommy would be asleep. And then after a few days, mommy would be good as new.

Next came the pressure from the few friends that I did tell. Some were genuinely supportive, but others did that off-handed, rehearsed, and over-used, cliched bull crap that you get whenever something really horrible happens and they don't know what to say..."oh, you're going to be okay," or " It's probably nothing." The worst one I got was, "Well do you think it's serious?"

Just what I needed. Someone trying to minimize my emotions.

Okay, well anyway, this is not the time to dwell, right? Because my story does end wonderfully. I had another two procedures, very similar to the galactogram/mammogram. Well, it was actually the same procedure, except this time they used a blue dye so the surgeon would know exactly which duct to remove. I had the surgery and everything went perfectly. On October 26th, I went back to the cancer center for my follow-up and pathology report. All was clear. There was no sign of cancer, and I was absolutely thrilled. I felt like I'd been given a new lease on life and another chance to take better care of my body.

But after having this experience, I also wanted to share some things with my sisters out there. Black, white, yellow, red, we are all sisters and all the same. And I know this site is for "everything besides health," as I mentioned in the header, but I feel pretty strongly about this message.

We have to take care of our bodies. That means routine check-ups and self examination, as well as eating right, exercising, and giving up bad, unhealthy habits. We need to know our bodies as well as we know the backs of our hands. I know that we can't see everything as easily as we can see our hands, but that's what mirrors are for.

Get naked and get to know yourself. You know when I initially went to the doctor, she couldn't feel this "thing" that I was telling her about. No one could. Not the Radiologist, not the x-ray techs, and not even the Oncologist, which I've decided is actually very good thing. You should want to find things before they become so obvious that your can't miss them. Early is always better than later!

Find some privacy and good light, grab a mirror, and go exploring. Look at your breast from every angle, hands up, hands down, hands out to your sides. Put the mirror on the floor and then kneel over and notice how your breasts look. Next, lie on the floor on you back and hold the mirror above you. Notice how they look from that angle as well.

These are your breasts, the only ones that come with the original package. Don't be afraid of them. Don't be afraid to touch them and squeeze them. You automatically touch them when you shower and dress, but you need to touch them in such a way that you learn everything about them, every lump, every bump, every mole, every everything! Then you should take your time and feel each breast in it's entirety, applying gentle, even pressure in some kind of consistent, orderly fashion to assess for the presence of lumps and abnormalities. Take note of how your breast tissue feels. Also feel for anything unusual in and around your underarms and sides. (NOTE: See link at the end of this post to get video demonstration/instruction on how to do a breast self exam.) Once you're finished with the breasts themselves, move on to the the nipples.

Roll your nipples between your fingers and gently squeeze them. Actually pull out on them and feel those tracts that lead to your milk ducts. Notice how it feels to you and what happens when you do. Report any discharge to your doctor. This was actually how I found my abnormality. And the truth is, had I not breast fed my son and gotten use to manipulating my nipples in this way in order to bring the "let down" for expressing milk, this never would have been a part of my breast self-exam.

Okay, so you've got this breast self-exam thing mastered and you're doing it once a month, around the same time every month, right? Well now it's time, if you haven't already, to talk to your doctor about a mammogram. I started having mammograms pretty early, but that was because of my history of having had fibroadenomas in the past. But your doctor will tell you when you should start having them and how often. The good news is mammograms, although not 100% reliable, can find cancer that is too small to feel on self exam; mammograms are covered by most health insurances, sometimes 100% if done as a preventive care, wellness check; mammograms are not as painful as you may think, but cancer is; mammograms save lives. Most breast cancers, if caught early enough, are very treatable and have excellent survival rates.

Although I'm merely a breast cancer-scare survivor, I have met some wonderfully courageous breast cancer survivors. My pink ribbon goes up to them all.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and although I'm posting on the very last day, I'm hoping to still help spread the word and be a blessing to someone.

Peace, Love, Light & Good Health,

And check out the "Susan G. Komen for the Cure"
Site where you can:
Learn the latest on diagnosis
and screening and more.

Breast cancer, breast health

About Breast Cancer includes information
and tools for patients, survivors and
Breast self-exam tools
(To view the online BSE tool you need Macromedia Flash installed on your computer. Macromedia Flash is available for download free.)

Think you're alone? Visit the Susan G. Komen message boards.

Need to talk? Call the Helpline.

1 comment:

Renee Henderson said...

Hey Girl,

First of all, THANK YOU for sharing your story.

I had a scare two years ago with my first mammogram. Before I got back home, they left a message for me to come back for additional films & an ultrasound. It was only the lymph nodes under my arm but it was enough to scare the hell outa me. Especially since my Aunt (my mom's sister) just had a double mastectomy. I also recently found out that my Grandmother (my mom's mother) had breast cancer. I still feel tenderness under my arm and I take Vitamin E every day which helps a lot.

I know the feeling of telling your friends & family and how they can actually make you feel worse! Sometimes, I want to keep things to myself because I know that I can sometimes calm down on my own. But, I know that we all need the support from the people who love us.

That experience, along with family history, made me more aware of the possibility of breast cancer and my breast health. I did the entire 5 mile breast cancer walk on October 20 here in Nashville, TN. Several of my friends, workmates and their friends was about 40 of us and we had a blast! I've made it a personal goal to walk every year for breast cancer. There were over 10K people walking that day and it was such a beautiful experience. That was my first time doing anything like that and I don't know how I was able to keep up but we did the entire walk in 1 hr 45 min. I couldn't move on Sunday but it was worth every step. I pushed myself that day and I keep on pushing forward.

Despite all of the things that have happened to me in the past three years...Sheri moved out, I had a mammography scare, I had a biopsy of my uterus, I found out that my loving husband was a low down dirty bastard, etc., etc....I've learned that I am a strong, determined black (ok...yella) woman. Three months prior to separating from my husband, I had already made up my mind to be healthier. I started taking care of me and I feel soooo good! Women need to take care of themselves first. If we don't, who will?

Keep me posted on your journey and I will keep you updated as well.

Love ya...Renee