5 things I learned after my breast cancer diagnosis
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2017, I was so stunned initially that I felt paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do, where to go or who to call first.
Thankfully, the momentary sensation of panic passed, and since then, I’ve learned a few things.
Here are five of them.
1. Choose the breast cancer experts
I didn’t have any breast cancer symptoms prior to being diagnosed. I only learned that I had cancer during my very first mammogram. I’d gotten the scan to set a baseline for future mammograms, so the news that I actually had breast cancer seemed pretty unreal.
My gynecologist referred me to a local surgeon. She said we’d caught the cancer early, so it was considered stage 0. That meant the abnormal cells were still confined to my milk ducts and had not spread beyond them.
It turned out that my cancer was more advanced, but I didn’t learn that until I went to MD Anderson. A family friend insisted I go there before starting treatment, so I made an appointment. And as soon as I walked in the doors, I knew I’d made the right decision.
At MD Anderson, Dr. Isabelle Bedrosian redid all of my scans and found a suspicious lymph node in my left armpit. She also found two separate growths in my left breast. The tumors couldn’t be felt by hand because of calcium deposits in the surrounding tissues. But the fact that my cancer had already spread outside of my breast meant it was beyond stage 0. I actually had stage IIA breast cancer — infiltrating ductal carcinoma.
2. Bring support to your appointments
Having a big group of physicians touching and looking at your breasts can be pretty overwhelming. That was particularly true during my initial consultation at MD Anderson.
Fortunately, my doctors — oncologist Dr. Meghan Karuturi, breast surgeon Dr. Isabelle Bedrosian, plastic surgeon Dr. Jesse Selber and radiation oncologist Dr. Michael Stauder — were all very gentle and empathetic. And after the initial consultation was over, I actually appreciated being able to see them all at once, instead of having to go through separate exams with each doctor. That would have been exhausting.
Having my husband with me that day also helped. Just knowing a family member was there in the room eased my mind tremendously. That’s why I made a habit of bringing someone to all of my other appointments.
I received my first chemotherapy treatment on Cinco de Mayo (May 5), so we called it “Cinco de Chemo,” and I had someone take a picture of me with maracas. On National Junk Food Day (July 21), I gorged on two of my favorite candies. And on National Banana Split Day, my in-laws, husband and I went out to a local ice cream parlor.
Chemotherapy can be exhausting, but assigning themes to each infusion helped me stay positive and gave me something to look forward to.
4. Consider clinical trials for your cancer treatment
In addition to chemotherapy and surgery, I also needed radiation therapy. My oncologist suggested I join a clinical trial under Karen Hoffman, M.D., which would compress the usual schedule of 20 minutes a day for six weeks into 30 minutes a day for four weeks. The goal was to explore how the difference in timing affected lymphedema, which is the build-up of fluid in tissue after radiation therapy or the removal of nearby lymph nodes.
I liked knowing that my participation in the clinical trial might help other patients down the line. But I also liked the fact that my treatment would be finished two weeks sooner than I’d originally expected. Thankfully, I didn’t end up experiencing lymphedema, despite having 29 lymph nodes removed. But I’m glad to know that my data will be used to help other women.
5. You’ll need help
One of the hardest parts of my recovery was caring for the drains left behind after surgery. I had a skin-sparing bilateral mastectomy on March 21, 2017, and I couldn’t lift my arms afterward, so I needed someone else to tend to the drains. I wasn’t able to shower or wash my hair by myself either, and I had trouble getting dressed for about two weeks.
Fortunately, I have an amazing support system. My husband, parents and in-laws all pitched in. My mom helped me shower and get dressed, and the others helped empty my drains. I bought scrubs that buttoned up in the front and lived in those for weeks. I also wore a lot of button-down shirts.
It took a few months, but eventually, I regained the full use of my arms. I’ve been cancer-free since Nov. 28, 2018, and I can wear whatever I like now. But every time I pull a shirt over my head, I think about the times when I couldn’t lift my arms and feel grateful.