This Christmas will be two years since my breast cancer diagnosis and lumpectomy, and it’s nice to think I’ll be celebrating the holiday season without a black cloud hanging over my head. I was 42 years old when I was diagnosed in December of 2006, and I was one of those cases where:
1) My gynecologist felt the lump on physical exam in August of 2006, but insisted it was a cyst and did not request a diagnostic mammogram since I’ve had dense (lumpy) breast tissue all of my life;
2) My annual mammogram–on September 11, ironically–completely missed the tumor (I still have the letter saying, “You’re all-clear. See you next year”).
Luckily, I sensed something wasn’t right. But I was so busy at the time (selling my condo, buying a house with my boyfriend, working on a book deadline) that I ignored the warning voice inside my head until three months later in early December at a brunch for my sister’s birthday. I had sharp pin-pricks of pain in my left breast during the meal, like it was saying, “Hey, check me out, please!” I knew then that I needed further screening, for peace of mind if nothing else. So I called my gynecologist, explained my fears, and scheduled an ultrasound for that week. She performed another physical exam before the ultrasound and again assured me, “It’s a cyst, Susan, it’s a cyst.”
Fast forward a week later to an exam room at the Missouri Center for the Breast, where I lay on a table while the ultrasound tech smeared my chest with goop and ran the cold paddle over my skin until she located the lump. She immediately excused herself, left the room, and brought the Chief Radiologist back with her. He moved the paddle around some more, frowned at the monitor, and finally told me, “This is NOT a cyst.” Whoa, boy. Though the tech assured me that around 80% of all scary lumps aren’t cancer, I knew it was.
The biopsy was scheduled for December 19, and it revealed my worst fear: I had breast cancer. To be more specific, I had something called mucinous carcinoma, which only accounts for 1% to 2% of all breast cancers and is far more common in women much older. When I got the news, I burst into tears, thinking, “This can’t be happening.” My first question to my doctor was, “Am I going to die?” She said, “Of course not,” and told me that mucinous carcinoma (aka colloid carcinoma) has an excellent prognosis from the start with a 90% survival rate. It’s also much slower growing and less aggressive than the typical invasive ductal carcinoma. I read as much about my cancer as I could online, and I learned which sites to trust (Mayo, Johns Hopkins, BreastCancer.org) and which not to trust. Few research studies involved women of my age, which was very frustrating, but I went to meet my surgeon armed with as much information as I could get.
I talked to Dr. O just before that holiday weekend and scheduled surgery for three days after Christmas (just as my boyfriend proposed to me, mixing some good news with the bad). I underwent lumpectomy then re-excision several weeks after to clear one margin that still showed cancer cells–no cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. My path report looked really good, so I didn’t do chemo; but I did undergo six and a half weeks of radiation, all while working on two book deadlines and planning my wedding. My mother drove me to rad therapy three days a week and my mom-in-law took me twice a week. “So you’ll never be alone,” they said, which I thought was very sweet.
I’d been told radiation would make me exhausted, but I wasn’t any more tired going through that treatment than recovering from my two surgeries. I even tried to get on the treadmill a couple times a week, walking more slowly than usual; but I do think that helped my mood and my sense of having some control over my physical well-being, while so much else felt so out of control. My fourth series mystery, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEB, was released while going through radiation, and I kept as many book signings scheduled as I could…though I did cancel out of town gigs. Flying while my chest was red and sensitive and with a 10-pound limit on what I could lift with my left arm just didn’t appeal to me. I gave talks at local bookstores and libraries in camisoles and zip-up hoodies, speaking openly about my cancer whenever possible.
Whenever I felt down, I threw little pity parties. Fortunately, they never lasted long. My husband, my mother, my mom-in-law, and friends held my hands and propped me up. Thank God for them, because they made me laugh even when I felt the least like laughing.
In July of 2007, four months post-radiation, my docs cleared me to start working out with a personal trainer to regain my strength. No one had told me how weak my left arm would be with just four sentinel nodes removed! So I shaped up my body, lived my life as if I felt normal (even when I didn’t), wrote more books, made my deadlines, got married on February 24, 2008, and have had clear exams, ultrasounds, and mammograms ever since.
It’s been almost two years since my diagnosis, and I honestly feel better than ever. Not that the boobal area still isn’t sensitive–because it is–but I’m much stronger emotionally and physically than I was before. One thing going through cancer treatment does for you: it makes you realize how tough you can be when you have to be.
I do have an MRI scheduled for this Thursday to check on a 3 mm area of “dense glandular tissue” that the radiologist couldn’t see through on my first-ever digital mammogram two weeks ago. My surgeon assures me it’s the area of scar tissue and I want to believe her, but I won’t breathe easily again until I come through that screening with flying colors.
In the meantime, I continue to enjoy being a newlywed (did I mention that my husband rocks?), promoting THE DEBS (the YA novel I wrote during radiation), and working on deadlines (three coming up within the next 12 months–ack!).
My advice for other women: everyone is different, every body is unique. Sometimes it seems like the medical community tries to treat us all like we’re the same person. Being well-informed and proactive is the only way to stay in charge of your health. And listen to that inner voice! What a huge mistake I would’ve made if I hadn’t listened to mine.
Susan McBride is the author of THE DEBS young adult series for Random House and The Debutante Dropout Mysteries for HarperCollins. To learn more about Susan or her books, check out her website.