My Breast Cancer Journey
Shared By: Jennifer L
Cancer has been a thorn in my family’s side since my mother was diagnosed with Sarcoma in 1993. I was 20 years old. She was a tough little lady and survived 12 years, her body could not handle anymore and in 2005 she passed away at home in her bed. She called me at 5:00 am the morning she died, her speech was slurred, and she told me it was going to snow that day. It was February, I must admit I was annoyed, she woke me up, I had an 11-month-old and a 5-year-old was barley sleeping, the alarm was going off any minute and I had to go to work. Hours later, sitting at my desk I started having strange feelings deep in my soul, I called Mom, no answer. I called my Grandmother and remember telling my Grandmother that I think it may be time Mom needs extra care, she lived alone. My brother worked in the same office as me, he called Mom, no answer. The feeling in my gut was undeniable, I knew she was gone. I told my brother go, we worked in DC and she lived in Gaithersburg, MD.
As tears are welling in my eyes writing this I fast forward to the spring of 2015, I was 41 years old with 4 children; 15, 12, 7 and 3. As all woman with children and age my body went through many changes, some good, some not so good. I started to notice a brown/red color discharge from my right nipple. In my typical style as I am not a fan of the doctor’s office, I brushed it off and thought, it must be rotten breast milk or something. Weeks passed, a month, more time and I finally talked to my sister-in-law about it, she works at Georgetown Hospital. I stayed off Google and internet searches on nipple discharge in retrospect, subconsciously, I didn’t really want to know what was happening. My sister-in-law is aware of my “love” of doctors, so she asked around for me, inquiring to several doctors and they all informed her to inform me to get checked immediately. So, I went into Georgetown, a wonderful facility. The Lombardi cancer center is where I got my first mammogram. I honestly never thought about getting a mammogram, I am not defending this decision, as I mentioned earlier, I am not a big traditional medical person. The mammogram experience overall was ok, they seat you in a serene environment with flat screens playing waterfalls and soothing soundscapes. The radiology technician was kind, but she kept looking at the screen, adjusting me, clamping the metal down, taking snaps, looking at the screen, adjusting me, clamping the metal down again, taking snaps over and over. By this time my nipple discharge was flowing heavily. I knew she saw something in the images. She finally sent me out but not to get dressed but to wait for a sonogram. A different technician did the sonogram she went out in the hall, said they needed to consult with the doctor, came back and the doctor informed me I would need to return the next day for a biopsy. As I left, I was numb, I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but my mind was racing.
By nature, I can stay strong on the outside, I did not cry I just felt different inside like nothing from that moment on in my life would be the same. Next steps, hours, days, months and even years all seem like I was on the outside looking in, watching my life but strangely I had no feeling, no emotion. My sister-in-law later described it that I went through the process so clinically, expressed little emotion during all the tests, doctor visits, etc., she was with me every step of the way. I went home told my husband who took the news oddly, I say oddly because this news was not our only issue in our marriage and was not what I was expecting. He has always thought of me as an indestructible woman, super woman so he was cold and said it will probably be nothing. The next day we got in the car together to go get my biopsy, we got in the car together, but I pulled off alone. The biopsy was a bit uncomfortable and my nerves were on edge. They lay you down on your stomach on a table that has an opening for your breasts, kind of like a massage table that has an opening for your face. They raise the table and then make a deep incision in your breast, insert the large needle deep and pull “stuff” out. The kids and I were going camping a few days later, I was worried about being able to go in the ocean which I couldn’t.
During the camping trip I got the results call, it was raining, we were in the car at the campground, the doctor called and said yes you have breast cancer and the rest of her words are not in my memory, my sister-in-law was there with me, knew the doctor personally so I just handed the phone to her and sat there. My daughters were in the car, so I was trying to control my feelings. I called my husband and did not get the reaction or sympathy that I guess I wanted. We were following my brothers to eat lunch, in the parking lot we shared the news and their reaction was quiet, we all went in and ate as if we did not just hear that I had Breast Cancer. In retrospect I believe the reaction from my husband and brothers set the stage for my lack of emotions throughout my journey. My main concern was the fact that my Mom died from cancer, I have cancer, is it genetic, are my kids at risk? The Lombardi cancer center has the genetic testing so that was my next step to get genetically tested. It was a huge relief to find out that the type of cancer I have is not genetic. I could rest a little easier knowing that my kids were not likely to get cancer.
The google internet searches began, what were my choices, what do I do, how do I get rid of this cancer? I wanted it cut out, I did not want radiation or chemotherapy, I didn’t have time be sick, I had 4 kids and a full-time job, was the main financial provider for my family. This was my personal decision and it truly is a very personal decision that I plead with you to respect people if they make this choice. Just respect the persons medical choices throughout their journey, save the opinions for another time. I met with a breast surgeon I got in with a top breast surgeon in the DC area again because of my angelic sister-in-law. Met with the oncologist, again the best oncologist and the best plastic surgeon. Weighing all my decisions I prayed, researched, read, researched, prayed and prayed some more and decided that my course of treatment would be a bi-lateral mastectomy. I wanted it out and I didn’t want to leave a breast behind that could get infected, at that moment in time it was only showing in my right breast. I told the surgeon that’s what I wanted and that’s what I was doing, she attempted to talk me out of it, the oncologist wanted me to do radiation and chemotherapy, but I knew those options were not for me.
I want to stop and share with you that IT IS YOUR BODY and YOU ARE IN CONTROL so if you do experience cancer or anything else know that you are in control and can make rational and educated decisions for yourself, there is a wealth of knowledge that we have access to. Trust science but PRAY, FAST and MEDITATE on it.
I would be nowhere without my faith.
Bi-lateral mastectomy it was, the next major decision was breast reconstruction. The plan was to remove both breasts fully with both nipples removed. Now the question was what I want to do afterward, do I want implants, do I want to do something that is called deep flap reconstruction where they take flesh from your stomach and make breast like shapes. Now we are talking stomach surgery. It was all very overwhelming. For me implants were not an option, again a very personal decision. I did not want to put foreign objects in my body when my body was fighting cancer. It just did not make rational sense to me. My husband did not agree with this decision. I considered the deep flap, using my stomach tissue, I thought maybe it would be like a tummy tuck, well that is not what it is, they don’t make your stomach beautiful afterward in fact it distorts your figure and is major stomach surgery so I ruled that option out. Another option is for them to put in expanders after surgery to stretch your skin in case you decide later to get implants. My decision was a hard pass I was going for the bi-lateral mastectomy and I was going to own my new body and scars afterward. Nothing prepares you for major surgery, nothing prepares you for cancer, nothing prepares you for the on-going physical and emotional journey.
On August 4, 2005 I went in for the bi-lateral mastectomy. Surgery took 8 hours, my angelic sister-in-law was there, my 2 brothers and my supportive and loving mother-in-law. My husband did not come to the hospital during my 3 day stay. He did stay home with the 4 kids. In retrospect during my journey he had his own journey and we did not fair well. Your spouse, significant other, children and loved ones will need their own support system. With mommas down and out the household just isn’t the same. Turns out pathology reports showed I had invasive cancer in my left breast that was not detected on the mammogram, sonogram or biopsy so the first thing my surgeon said to me was “good call with your bi-lateral mastectomy decision”. Well turns out they did not get all the cancer during that surgery; my margins were not clear so the day before Thanksgiving that same year I went in for round 2 surgery.
I am ecstatic to share that this July 2020 is now 5 years post diagnosis.
The invasive cancer has spread to my lymph nodes and left lung, but scans continue to show slow growth. I don’t know what is next for me, but I do know that I was given more time and I am here to support you, be your punching bag, your shoulder to cry on and your biggest cheerleader.
Women are strong and amazing, hold onto your faith.
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