Last year, I was asked to write my ‘cancer story’ for a series about cancer survivors. I was happy to share, hoping my story would be an encouragement to those who are facing the fight of their lives against cancer. Because it’s such a scary place to be, when you hear the words, “You have cancer.”
The year I turned 40 was a tough one. On top of turning 40, I became a grandmother – much younger than I anticipated or hoped. And then, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was lucky, and it was discovered early. Still, very scary with a lot of big decisions to be made. At the time, I was told that surgery was probably sufficient and that I didn’t need any other treatment, just to be watched carefully. Radiation was not recommended since I might need it more later, should I have a recurrence. Then I was called back to hear that after further consideration, radiation was recommended, that I might consider bilateral mastectomy with reconstructive surgery. Basically I was told to consider my options and make a decision within 30 days, and to let them know what I wanted to do! Too many doctors with different recommendations, no clue what I should do, I finally decided to put my faith in the surgeon who said if I was his wife or daughter, he would recommend no further treatment, but careful monitoring. That seemed to have been a good decision. Nine years later, at a routine follow up appointment, and again with no lump or symptoms, mammography revealed breast cancer again. Not a recurrence, but a new primary cancer, on the other side. Again I was lucky, and it was discovered early. I remember being scared, and thinking to myself, ” you won’t get off so easily this time…” Surgery followed, and this time, radiation was required, but thankfully, chemo was not necessary. Six weeks of daily radiation was tough, but I got through it and knew that I was blessed; I had dodged the bullet again!
Two years later, during the winter, I caught a virus that was going around, seemed like everybody got it. Almost 2 weeks of feeling lousy, with an ugly cough that lingered for another 4-6 weeks, for a lot of people. But my cough never got better. I went to my family doctor who diagnosed me with bronchitis, and gave me a couple of prescriptions. When my cough had still not gone away after 2 more weeks, she sent me for a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia. Instead, the X-ray tech came out and asked if I had something under my gown… I had no idea what she was talking about, but no, there was nothing under my gown that wasn’t supposed to be – just me! She said something about maybe her machine wasn’t working right and that we should repeat the X-ray. After the second try came out the same, she told me she had never seen anything like it, and I asked to see the image. She wasn’t supposed to, but she let me look, and immediately I knew it was lung cancer. I have never been so afraid of anything! Before I finished driving home, my family doctor called me and asked me to come straight to her office. There she told me I had a growth in my right lung, and I needed immediate further testing. Right away, I called my favorite go-to person at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. She set up appointments and tests for me, and tried to calm me, but I knew in my heart I was facing another, bigger, worse cancer battle. Four years from my last chemo treatment, I can once again say that I am lucky, that my lung cancer was discovered early. Even though the tumor in my lung was the size of a grapefruit, there was no lymph node involvement. I went through an extremely difficult time with chemo to shrink the tumor, followed by surgery to remove the upper lobe of my right lung, then more chemo after that. I lost my hair (twice!), and was so very sick from chemo – there are months of my life that are just gone. No memory of any of it. My husband, Dan, was my care provider and he took amazing care of me. He has always been my hero; now I know even ‘hero’ cannot adequately describe what he means to me. And even with as difficult as my treatment and recovery were, I know that it all could have been so much worse.
Only a few months after I wrote my story, I was once again diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a blow. Again, there was no lump or symptoms; the new cancer was detected by mammogram. I was once again faced with difficult treatment choices, and the decision-making process itself was agonizing. I longed for a clear, ‘right’ decision – only to learn that there isn’t a single, ‘right’ choice; I had to come to grips with the choice that would be right for me. I underwent genetic testing, to help with my decision. What I learned was that I don’t have a recognizable, known genetic mutation that caused me to have cancer four times! It seems clear to me that there is something genetic going on, however, whatever it is, is not yet known. Ultimately, with the guidance of doctors both new and old, I made my decisions – and then, there was the treatment itself to get through. I underwent another surgery, followed by a course of radiation therapy. I’m happy to have completed my treatment, and am beginning to feel like myself once again.
I wear my i.d.mii international, inc. bracelet to make sure that if I find myself in a new doctor’s office, in an emergency room somewhere, or even receiving emergency care from paramedics at the site of an accident, i.d.mii will immediately provide information about my health history, my drug allergies, and other vital information needed to give me the appropriate care on the spot. With a complicated health history like mine, it is about more than just a having a feeling of security – it is important health information, to the right people, at the right time.