When the calendar flips from September to October, the first thing on my mind is Halloween candy. Or the hilarious costume I’m going to try and get my son to wear (last year he was a hot dog). Or whether I’m going to carve a Garfield pumpkin and how am I going to sneak-eat mini peanut butter cups all month. Not this year. This year I’ve got breasts on my mind – it’s breast cancer awareness month. So I thought I would share my story of how I found my breast cancer, and what the stages of treatment were like for me, in a straight up manner. Not “look at this clear blue liquid poured on a maxi pad commercial” style, but truthfully. I had just turned 38 when I was diagnosed. I wrote this for the scared and freaked out ladies, freshly diagnosed, who might be deep-googling breast cancer treatment or staying up late reading every entry of breast cancer blogs, just as I did after I found out. I wanted to know what I was in for. I wanted information. I wanted anything, something to help, soothe, encourage, or to know that there were other women out there like me.
I’ve always been somewhat-aware of changes in my breasts, mostly because my maternal grandmother had breast cancer in the 1990s. For some horribly goth and macabre reason I always imagined I would get breast cancer too. What I felt was not a lump, but a thickening of flesh, right where my right breast met my rib. Was it just my rib or something weird? I kept feeling the area, wanting it to go away. I went to my family doctor and she sent me for an ultrasound and mammogram, to put my mind at ease. The mammogram showed nothing, but because I had felt something, we did the ultrasound and I still remember light-joking with the technician and asking if she saw anything. Eventually she zoomed in to the screen to show two suspicious looking ball-like shapes. I had a biopsy, then was sent home to wait a few weeks for the results. My family doctor called me and her voice was serious, she could barely whisper that it was “C.” Invasive ductal carcinoma. The shock felt palpable. I hung up the phone and hot tears burst from my eyes and my mouth hung open. I wanted to freak the eff out right there but my 2 year old was in the other room and I could hear him calling me to come and play. My mind raced and fear overcame me. Teddy’s little voice and me thinking I was going to die, to have to leave my son and my husband and my family. My husband (then a fourth year medical student) came home and set to work organizing appointments in conjunction with my family doctor. We needed to find out if it had spread to any other parts of my body. Skeletal survey, bone scan, CT scan, blood work. It was a week of unknowns as I went through all the tests. In my mind I was planning my funeral, mind-spiralling imagining Teddy asking for me and being confused, wondering if he would remember me and me feeling so sad that he might not. Had I done enough with my life? Did I do everything I wanted to? I hamster-wheeled myself into major stress.
As the test results rolled in, they all came out negative – nothing seemed to have spread anywhere but it would only be after surgery “they” would know for sure. My happy, pretty-pictures, cake-filled life screeched to a weird halt. I felt thrown into a snake pit of unknowns, with an overwhelming laundry list of treatments laid out for me. When I first met with my surgeon, she felt the area of my breast, examining me. I’ll never forget what she said. “I can’t believe you found this. If you had waited until this was something more prominent, this would be a completely different story.” Those words chilled me. I had felt something off, then decided to investigate it, even though I wanted to plunge my head in the ground and fuggedaboutit. My family doctor also put me in touch with a fertility doctor ASAP. Not only was I given the news I had frigging cancer, I was also being told that having another child would be unlikely – the treatments would destroy my fertility. This news crushed me harder than the cancer. We ended up doing IVF to preserve embryos for implanting once all of my treatment was finished – however, we only got 3 embryos which isn’t a lot…but I’m still hopeful. For my surgery, I opted for a lumpectomy – I was given the choice of a mastectomy (removing the entire breast) or lumpectomy (cutting out a portion of the affected breast and keeping the nipple). You get the words “survival rate” thrown around when you are making these choices. I went with partial removal. I found the idea of surgery to be pretty frightening. But the surgery was successful and the surgeon got all the margins, and three lymph nodes were removed and tested – negative. The cancer had not spread.
Chemo may be the worst thing that has ever happened to me, physically. I had a pretty rough time with it. You feel like you ate a poison apple. Your insides feel like they’re covered in thick syrup with a brutal headache on top. Your stomach is, as I described once, “debauched buttsanity.” Your appetite is bizarre, if you can eat at all due to raging diarrhea and nausea (although they make very strong drugs to try and counter the nausea.) Water tastes sickeningly sweet. I craved super salty potato chips. You basically feel like a pale grey dog turd. And then you don’t. I started to feel better after day 10, but my mind became very stupid and I couldn’t remember anything or concentrate at all. My hair started falling out just before my second round of chemo, so my husband shaved it. (Being bald when you don’t want to be sucks donkey balls and my self esteem plummeted. It’s hard to believe it will ever grow back when you’re bald – but it really does. I’m at 13 weeks post chemo now and my hair is extremely short but it’s there, and it’s growing in pretty thick. I’d say it’s note quite an inch long yet.) After my second round, I had a horrible allergic reaction – I broke out in huge red welts all over my body, even my crotch, all over my head, my eyelids – my hands ballooned up into the world’s itchiest puffy Mickey Mouse gloves. I got a kidney infection which landed me in Emergency – I remember feeling embarrassed and feeling so ugly and unrecognizable, I wanted to show the doctors and nurses a picture of the old “me” – this is me, see? I had to get my wedding ring sawed off too because my finger was turning purple from the puffy hands. I had a “I’m going to exercise every day of my chemo” attitude initially but then felt like such shite that it turned into “I am going to lie in bed and blind my eyes with silly TV shows and feel-good rom-coms” attitude. I will say that during chemo (I had four rounds in total, spread apart by 3 weeks) I got pretty depressed.
Zapppppp! I had 20 rounds of radiation on my breast. They tattoo you with tiny dots to help line up the laser beams (not the technical term, ha). You lie down and a giant grey machine that looks straight out of a 1960s science fiction movie hovers over top of you and blasts the area with radiation. The actual treatment only lasts a minute or two. My skin was ok for the first three weeks, and then it started to brown, and get darker – finally my nipple was practically black and cracking open raw, and the skin around it was so dark and tender and dry. Painfully tender but I moisturized daily with Glaxal Base and used Lanolin cream for the nipple – I found it in my breastfeeding storage box, it helps with dry and cracked skin during nursing and it really helped. Currently the skin is peeling off in a very disturbing, horror-movie-ish way – my breast is all sorts of skin tones. I gotta say it’s not looking so good (charred sagging old eggplant anyone?) and I wonder if, aesthetically, a mastectomy would’ve been better – but my radiation oncologist says in 6 months it will have all peeled away and will look more normal again. Just before radiation I started running again, and hitting the gym hard. I must say that this made a big difference for me – I didn’t feel too fatigued from the radiation, but most of all, it helped boost my mood and got me out of feeling depressed – the cancer blues. I managed to work out every single day of my radiation treatment. It gave me a little sense of purpose and accomplishment. I kind of liked having somewhere to go every day, too (not that going to the cancer agency every day is fun) – I had a little routine again after so many months off of just “treatment.”
I’ve been getting another IV drug infusion every three weeks called Herceptin, because my tumour was Her2 positive. It’s a targeted treatment which I’ll be doing 16 rounds of. At first I was depressed that I had to do all of these treatments – chemo, radiation, herceptin, tamoxifen. But now I am feeling lucky that there are targeted treatments for particular types of cancers like mine. Just stepping on to the chemo floor at the cancer agency gives me anxiety and a feeling of fear – but I am getting better at going. I go for my herceptin treatments on my own. I read gossip websites or look at pictures of my kid and listen to music or I watch an episode of the Mindy Project. Distraction, and then it’s over.
I haven’t started Tamoxifen treatment yet but it will be an oral drug I will take for 5-10 years. Again, another targeted treatment to help prevent the recurrence of my breast cancer type. It has some yucky side effects that I’m not ready for yet in my life. It basically puts you into menopause, complete with hot flashes, slowed metabolism, dryness in the lady parts, low sex drive, fatigue. And you can’t have a baby. I’m not ready to feel like a lady in menopause yet. But I’ll do it anyway. I’ve been in talks with my oncologist about waiting to start Tamoxifen until after we try implanting a frozen embryo. I told her that if I could have a baby first, I will take Tamoxifen for the rest of my life even.
So that’s where I’m at now. An eight month blur of mind fuckery, body changes, depression, anxiety and happy days, too. I’ve slogged through a lot this year so far. But I’m still here. If you are reading this and you are newly diagnosed, things I would suggest: lean on your friends and family for support. It’s one of those times in life you really need their help. Seek professional support if it’s available to you (counselling, therapy). Treat your mind, body and spirit right if you can – going out for a walk, trying alternative healing treatments, going for a massage or even a pedicure – treat yo self if you can. I guess there have been a few amazing parts of my having cancer: Life. I get to celebrate another birthday and not be sad and annoying about getting older and looking old – but I get to be stoked on living. Live and let live, love harder. Feeling cared for, feeling loved by family, friends. Beautiful gestures of letters in the mail or home cooked meals and sweet cards. Words of love and caring, silly sweet gifts, thoughtful presents. Those small things would make an entire day of crap (literally and figuratively) feel better instantly. Appreciate life more. Who gives a flying dog shit about the small stuff – don’t sweat the small stuff as much. Finding exercise again to help with my mind, body and spirit. Loving on my sweet sweet little boy and snuggling and laughing with him so deeply, daily, whenever (while still being driven crazy by him sometimes – toddler alert). The love and deep pride I feel for my husband, lifting me up through my continued treatment, deciphering medical talk, bringing me flowers, loving me through my darkest and ugliest moments and most morbid jokes. My family – my parents and my sisters, especially – life is nothing without family and friends. I will leave you with this image, because it seems to have worked for me thusfar, fingers crossed. xo Lyndsay