Still Here, Still Kicking

A year ago, I nonchalantly went in for my annual mammogram. A year ago, I learned I had breast cancer. A year ago, I learned how scary those two words are.

Today, following surgery and radiation therapy (and unbelievably wonderful support from all of you), I’m celebrating 11 months of being cancer free. Caught early, I was one of the lucky ones. I’m perfectly fine today. Perfect, really. Because I got my regular mammogram and had access to excellent health care.

Yeah, maybe I’m not quite as gorgeous as I was before, but such a small price to pay for being able to watch our children flourish and our grandchildren grow up.

So just a short blog to say thank you to all of you for your kindness and support – and to remind my girlfriends: Don’t forget to get your mammogram!

thank you

XOXO to all of you.

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Bounce Back in My Step

OK, let’s be honest. November sucked. Totally. First, the diagnosis of breast cancer. Second, a slow drip over the last six months had, unbeknown to us, created the equivalent of Lake Erie in our living room ceiling. This revealed itself to us the Sunday after my diagnosis when filthy water started pouring onto our white sofa.

What next, locusts?

Locusts

But what the heck. It’s December, and while I’m not exactly out ringing sleigh bells of joy, we’re definitely getting back on track.

We’ve dealt decisively with the cancer. I had a lumpectomy and lymph node biopsy on November 30, and while the tumor was malignant, my lymph nodes were clear. I’ve met with the radiation oncologist and the regular oncologist to discuss the treatment plan, and had genetic counseling to see if I have the bad BRCA gene. What I’ve heard and learned has been incredibly encouraging.

Let’s start with the best news: I no longer have breast cancer. That was fixed with the surgery. That put a BIG grin on my face. Second, the focus going forward is to prevent a recurrence (recurrences are bad). Third, my insistance on annual mammograms saved me a whole of pain and trouble, because my cancer was caught very early with this routine exam. Finally, bad news and good news. Breast cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers, with one in eight women getting this disease. That’s bad. But because it’s so prevalent, there’s a ton of research and progress in treatment, and that’s good.

So cancer has moved from being the boogie man in the closet to being something I can rationally handle. And rationality is my mantra. With that in mind, here’s what the future holds for me:

  • Radiation treatment. I’m hoping to get that started as soon as possible, maybe even before the end of the ¬†year. It requires going to the radiation center five days a week for five weeks. Not painful, just a time eater. In the third week, my radiation oncologist told me side effects might start, including a sunburn-type burn on my radiated breast and the need for some tasty naps. I can live with that. Catch this – women who had a lumpectomy and no other follow-on treatment have a 40 percent recurrence rate. Women who added radiation to their plan have a 10 percent recurrence rate. Wow. Worth a sunburn and the nuisance of dedicating five weeks to daily treatments.
  • Anti-hormone treatment. My tumor was estrogen-receptive. That means estrogen fed it. So even though I’m post-menopausal and most of my estrogen is long-gone, I need to banish the rest of it. So after radiation treatment, I start taking Arimidex, the drug of choice for women like me. Side effects – those damn, damn hot flashes may come back. (Poor Scott – I had hot flashes for 15 years, and they were so bad that I wouldn’t allow him to heat the house in the winter. Looks like he’s going to have to go back to wearing a snowmobile suit during the winter months!) But worth it. Cuts recurrence rates by 50 percent. I’ll be taking Arimidex for at least 10 years.

That’s it. No chemo, thank God. No need for further genetic screening – it appears very unlikely I have or may have passed on the BRCA gene.

So aside from the fact that my life has become centered around going to the doctor constantly, I’m back on track.

And the house? Well, I suspect our home insurance will be cancelled after they pay out over $50,000 for the damages that small leak caused. Mold, lead, our master bathroom demolished, our living room ceiling taken out – ah yes…the pleasures of home ownership. But at least we have agreed on a settlement and now we can start the process of putting the house back together.

If I had a choice of catching one disaster early, I would want to catch the cancer early. The drip that caused the flood? A major pain and stressful. But not life-threatening.

I’m one lucky woman. Stage 1 breast cancer. Excellent health care. A warm and wonderful husband. A loving family. And an incredible outpouring of support from all of you. Yep, I dare say that the bounce is definitely back in my step.

The Certainty of Uncertainty

This week I became part of a club no one particularly wants to join – women with breast cancer. Here’s how it came to be…

I had just returned happy and energized from three days of communication training in DC when I got the news – my annual routine mammogram was abnormal and I needed to come in for more tests. It was hard not to freak out – my mom had her first bout of breast cancer when she was not that much older than I am today. Still, these type of follow-up appointments are very common, and usually all is well.

So with rational thoughts and a pretty high level of calmness, given the circumstances, I went in for the second mammogram and the ultrasound. I spoke with the radiologist afterward, and he pointed out a small shadow that looked suspicious. Small is almost an overstatement – I’m talking about a tiny little dark area with some bright white dots. But it was enough that he wanted me to have a needle biopsy. I walked out of his office with a next-day appointment for a needle biopsy and a week-later appointment with the surgeon, just in case.

Do the very words “needle biopsy” make you feel slightly sweaty and nauseous? Yeah, me, too. And no, they don’t give you Michael Jackson happy juice to get you through the procedure. But the staff at Kaiser was so kind, reassuring and, well, almost motherly, that it really wasn’t so bad. The technician who was running the ultrasound machine while the radiologist was poking around with a needle held my hand throughout. The lidocaine took care of any pain, and then it was over. I was treated with kid gloves afterward, as I got another mammogram, and then bandaged up and sent home.

And then the waiting game began. Six very long days later, I went into see the surgeon. I pretty much knew what was going on because no one called to say, “Hey, good news, Mrs. McKenzie! No need to see the surgeon; the biopsy was benign!” So the day before Thanksgiving, I waited to meet with my doctor. Where while the news wasn’t good, it really wasn’t all that bad. Here’s the scoop:

  • Small tumor, under 1 centimeter
  • Caught very early (couldn’t even be felt at this point)
  • Likely stage 1
  • Choice of lumpectomy or mastectomy – my choice
  • Lymph nodes to be biopsied during the surgery
  • Surgery this coming Friday (I chose a lumpectomy), followed by radiation treatment and hormone therapy

As my surgeon said to me, “Terry, you’re not going to die from this.” Good to know.

The maybes are over now, and dealing with the reality has begun. And while I know that all will be well, what I’d really like to do is just turn the clock back to when I returned from DC, bouncy and energized, without a care in the world.