It was 1985 and I was working at what was then BroMenn Healthcare when I found that thing that all women fear: a lump in my breast.
Working in health care, I knew the importance of quick action. I called my internist to get a mammogram order and radiology agreed to work me in. I stood by the radiologist while he read the image.
"What advice would you have if I were your sister?" I asked. He replied "I'd say 'Get it checked now!'"
The biopsy came back positive for cancer. It was Christmas week. I worked with my surgeon to get a mastectomy scheduled for Monday. On Friday afternoon before the procedure, I decided to talk with a surgical floor nurse about what to expect. She mentioned immediate reconstruction, which I hadn't considered. I called the plastic surgeon to learn more. He had me come right over to his office to evaluate if I was a good candidate for the procedure.
After determining I was realistic in my expectations, he invited me and my husband to meet him at his office on Sunday afternoon (yes, Sunday) to discuss the reconstruction. He knows these procedures go better if the spouse understands what to expect.
I had the surgery and reconstruction the next day and the surgeon biopsied the other side. The following day he brought the good news and bad news. Good news: No cancer in 31 lymph nodes. Bad news: Breast cancer was starting in the other breast.
I told him I "wasn't doing anything the rest of the week" so let's go do the second mastectomy. He agreed. I jokingly told the plastic surgeon, "With my luck, you won't have another prosthesis that is the same size." They are sized by the cubic centimeter (cc) of fluid they contain. He assured me that no one would notice the difference if one side was 25 cc smaller than the other. He was right.
The second mastectomy with reconstruction was done and I spent New Year's in the hospital. Our son came in to watch a movie with us and brought popcorn. Two days later, the surgeon unwrapped my ace-bandaged chest and discovered a piece of popcorn had fallen in my "new" cleavage. We laughed as he declared that was a first!.
Because both breasts were gone and my lymph nodes were all clean, the oncologists didn't see the need for any post-operative treatment. Even with all those lymph nodes removed, I didn't get edema in my arms — a common side effect.
That was the end of the story. For 23 years.
The story resumes in 2008. I was facing new issues: my cholesterol was too high, my hair was thinning and I had brown spots in various places. But one of those spots saved my life.
I pulled back my prosthetic breast to examine a brown spot and felt a nodule. It was small, about the size of a grain of corn. Could my prosthesis be leaking?
I called my internist who sent me to radiology for an MRI. Results indicated that I had another breast cancer tumor growing between my skin and prosthesis.
How could that be? I didn't have any breasts. I was told it is impossible to remove all the breast tissue and breast cancer can grow anytime it finds new cells.
A quick lumpectomy was done but the edges were not clean of cancer tissue. So, back to surgery I went to remove the prosthesis.
In a new test for me, a PET scan — which looks for rapidly growing cells from your eyes to your thighs — came back clean.
In another new test, the tumor was tested for the number of abnormal genes as an indicator of the likelihood that the cancer will come back. Not surprisingly, I had a high likelihood, so aggressive treatment was needed.
My oncologist referred me to a research center to get another opinion. Both agreed on the type of chemo and radiation that would be most effective. I got both at the Community Cancer Center in Normal.
Amazingly, I didn't lose my hair during chemo. Then I had 33 radiation treatments. The radiation team and I became so efficient that I could pull into the parking lot, get my radiation and be back in my car in 19 minutes!
It's now 2014 and I'm still working at what is now Advocate BroMenn Medical Center. I finished five years of medications last year. Without good insurance, the meds alone would have cost $411 a month.
I feel so blessed to be fine today. Even so, I will keep watching. My message is, if you find something, don't ignore it. When you treat it, don't assume it won't come back. This advice is for men, too.
Breast cancer is relentless. You must be relentless, too.