In March of 2005 I was a 39-year-old, happy, healthy wife and mom to two great kids; a 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old boy. I also had a lump in my left breast. It wasn’t my first lump – I’d had my maiden mammogram and ultrasound at the age of 26 for what was found to be a simple fibrocystic lump in my right breast. After that little scare I learned how to read my body. When I’d find a lump, instead of freaking out I’d just wait out my cycle and it would always shrink if not go away completely. At 36 I had another mammogram and ultrasound for a lump in my left breast. I just happened to have it when I saw my gynecologist for my yearly exam. He wasn’t concerned, but he was also aggressive and scheduled the tests. Again I was told it was fibrocystic.
At the end of March 2005 my husband, Todd, came home from a business trip and asked how I felt about moving from our quiet suburb of Little Rock, Arkansas, to the Philadelphia area. He explored the possibilities and by the middle of April we knew we’d be moving out of state. Meanwhile, I still had this lump that didn’t seem to be changing any. Not only that, but it was causing what I refer to as MFS or “Marty Feldman Syndrome”. While my right nipple looked straight ahead like normal, the other nipple strayed to the left. Still, I wasn’t overly concerned because not only had I been through all this before; I didn’t have any risk factors for breast cancer.
I went to see my OB/Gyn for my yearly and in preparation for our move and showed him my breast. This time he wasn’t so casual about what he saw. In fact he told me he didn’t like it one bit. So in less than a week I was scheduled for the usual mammogram and ultrasound, but this time I also had an appointment with a breast specialist (as he called her) immediately following. All I could think was what an inconvenience this was. I was in the middle of getting the house ready to list and as soon as school was out in May the kids and I would hopefully be joining my husband in Pennsylvania.
So the following week Todd and I went to the diagnostic clinic for the tests. The mammogram went as usual. I let the very nice technician manhandle my chest and tug on me just so there would be enough to cram in the cold contraption. After the usual mammogram was the usual ultrasound. This time, however, the radiologist said it looked a little suspicious, but not overly so.
From there we went to the “breast specialist’s” office. Turns out she was a surgical oncologist. We sat in the cold, sterile room – Todd in the chair and me on the exam table in my lovely gown, feet dangling like a child – totally ignoring the huge elephant while we prioritized our ever-growing To Do list. The doctor came in with the films, clipped them onto the view box and introduced herself. She said the mass looked suspicious and a needle biopsy would be in order.
Exasperated, I told her we were in the process of trying to move and I really didn’t want to waste the time unless she thought it was truly necessary. When I asked what kind of chances we were looking at I realized she had been easing us into the reality of what we were dealing with. Her demeanor changed from professional courtesy to one of blunt frankness. “I’ve seen thousands of films and judging from this starburst pattern radiating away from the tumor, I would give this a 95% probability of malignancy.”
I’m not sure if I made a sound, but I felt as though I’d been hit in the stomach, the wind completely knocked out of me. Deep down I’d known this was different than the lumps I’d had before, but the shock was a physical blow. I was almost afraid to look at Todd and when I did I knew he’d been slammed by the same force. The doctor handed me a box of Kleenex and left us to gather our thoughts. Not speaking, we clung to each other and wept. This wasn’t part of the plan. We were supposed to be moving. What about our children? Suddenly nothing made sense.
When she returned to the room I told her I didn’t want to mess with a needle biopsy. All I could think was I didn’t have time for it. If she was that certain it was malignant then let’s just do the surgery and get it over with. I had other things to do, after all. She agreed a needle biopsy would be nearly useless and before we left I was scheduled for a surgical biopsy and potential modified radical mastectomy in less than a week.
I held on to that 5% chance it was benign, but as I returned to consciousness the recovery nurse made it clear to me it was malignant. The next day we found out it had started to spread to the lymph nodes, increasing the amount of chemotherapy I would require. Needless to say it messed up our plans tremendously.
Not knowing how I would handle the chemotherapy or what complications might arise, we decided it would be better for me and our children if we were to stay in a familiar and safe environment. So less than two weeks after my surgery my husband moved to Pennsylvania, flying home to us every other week.
My son turned 13 the week between my diagnosis and my surgery. Both kids were old enough to know what cancer was and all of a sudden they had one parent with a life threatening disease and another parent living 1200 miles away. There was a lot of sadness and not just a little bit of fear, but there was also a lot of laughter and joy. And after what felt like the longest 54 weeks ever, the kids and I were reunited with Todd in Pennsylvania.
It’s my hope that as I share my experience of mothering a tween and a teen while dealing with cancer and all its baggage, another woman might find some encouragement or help – whether it’s because I did something right or because they learn from my mistakes.