About a month before I got married, I noticed a Tic Tac sized ball under my left breast for the first time. Since I was busy planning for the wedding I decided to put off an appointment to the doctor until I returned home from my honeymoon. My primary care doctor examined both of my breasts and indeed also felt the Tic Tac sized ball under my left breast and said it didn’t worry her but ordered a mammogram for me “just in case.” I was only in my mid 30’s, had no family history of breast cancer, and had no other noticeable lumps or symptoms of any kind. At the time I didn’t think anything of it.
A short time later I went to a local imagining center for my mammogram screening. I was optimistic, my typical outlook on life, as I hadn’t had any health issues my entire life. I had never even broken a bone or been in the hospital for any illness. My doctor ordered a bilateral mammogram (one for each breast) instead of just one for the left side where my little Tic Tac sized ball was present. In the middle of the mammogram, the imaging technician asked me to wait in the room while she went to ask someone a question. I was still undressed on top wearing only a robe cover up as well as pants and shoes. This was when I knew something might be wrong. As a born worrier, I tried not to panic, but often when faced in a situation like this, I automatically think of the worst.
Moments later the imaging technician came back into the room with another technician to “do more tests.” They both tried to reassure me that everything was fine but I could see the worry in their faces and they tried not to say too much to me. I asked, of course, a million questions throughout the extended process, but all they would say is that they found something that looked unfamiliar on my right breast that they wanted to test more extensively.
Wait, what? My right breast? I came to the appointment to test the Tic Tac sized ball in my left breast, but nothing was wrong with my right breast!
Little did I know at the time, that my right breast was, in fact, the problem. I later received the results from the mammogram though I didn’t understand them and was recommended to a local breast surgeon that could help me read and comprehend the results. It turned out that the Tic Tac sized ball in my left breast was benign and more of a nuisance than anything else. It was meant to be that my primary care doctor ordered a bilateral mammogram to examine both breasts, because if she hadn’t we never would have found the cancer, at least not as early as we did. It was meant to be. I realized the entire reason I found the Tic Tac sized ball on my left side was to discover the cancer on my right side.
The next step was an ultrasound of my right breast followed by a biopsy of some of the tissue on my right side. What the doctors found was a cluster of calcium deposits or calcifications on my right side that had cancer like characteristics or atypical cell formation. Apparently they were concerned with the pattern that they found in the mammogram. The ultrasound found nothing. It wasn’t powerful enough to find the cluster that the mammogram did. Again, I remind you that I had no lump or any symptoms of any kind. The only way the cancer could be identified was through a mammogram. Did I also mention that I was in my mid 30’s with no family history of breast cancer? Cancer does not discriminate and can affect anyone at any age for any reason.
I was told that my biopsy results would be ready by a certain day and time but never heard from my breast surgeon. I waited two more days but still heard nothing. These are one of those tests that you agonize over and when you are told you will hear something, you desperately wait by the phone waiting to hear results, good or bad. So I called the doctor’s office and the receptionist and nurse gave me the run around. Without going into all of the details, I was extremely unhappy with the service I received from this practice and switched breast surgeons. Once all of my records were transferred I went in for my appointment with my new breast surgeon to hear my results from my biopsy.
Please keep in mind that I had just gotten married and this was completely unexpected. This was also a big stressor for my marriage and me – something a newlywed couple shouldn’t be dealing with. Also, my appointment with this new breast surgeon was only a few days before Christmas, which is supposed to be a happy time full of celebrating and fun. Instead it was everything but a happy time.
My husband came with my to my appointment and we both went in like a deer in headlights. Neither of us had dealt with something to this magnitude before. The doctor entered the room and was somewhat cold. She was right to the point and didn’t waste any time like she had seen too many patients and had no empathy or personal touch left. It is somewhat a blur, but what both my husband and I remember is that this is what she said. “You have breast cancer and we will want you to come in for an MRI to see if it has spread beyond your right breast. Then we will schedule a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous tissue and then follow the surgery with approximately 6 weeks of daily radiation treatment and then you will be on a medication called Tamoxifen (hormone therapy) daily for 5 years that will help keep the cancer at bay and prevent it from returning. Any questions?” We were speechless. I honestly thought I was dying and would be dead soon. My only experience with cancer is that you die from it if you are diagnosed. The “BIG C” had always been a fear of mine and now I had cancer. I wasn’t even sure what to ask at the moment, so we said we would need some time and wanted to schedule another appointment. The breast surgeon shook my hand and left the room. Before her assistant left, he handed me a piece of paper with “all of the information we discussed” on it as well as a script to get a blood test done at the hospital before we left. The last thing he said to us was “1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer so it is very common.” But that was it. What was that supposed to mean? Was that supposed to normalize my experience or make me feel better? If anything, it made me feel worse like I wasn’t a human being but a statistic without a soul.
All I remember is that for the rest of the evening I couldn’t stop crying. I honestly thought I was dying. And I kept asking “why me?” I was so young, why did this have to happen? I felt scared and alone. Even with my husband there trying to comfort me, he was in over his head. Bless his heart for trying but I felt so alone that he couldn’t come close to imagine my fear, my pain, my brokenness, and my battle that lay ahead. I was in this alone. At least that is what I thought at the time. No one would understand what and how I felt. They weren’t experiencing it the same way I was.
My Christmas was ruined that year. Being diagnosed with cancer 3 days before the holiday put a damper on everything. But after taking some time to gather my thoughts and do some research, my outlook slightly changed to a more hopeful one. I learned that despite feeling like I was given a cookie cutter diagnosis and treatment plan, I learned that I had a unique type of cancer that provided me other options than what the breast surgeon expressed to be originally.
What I was diagnosed with was called DCIS: Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, otherwise known as Stage 0 Breast Cancer. If you are like anyone else I have ever spoken to about my breast cancer journey, no one has ever heard of DCIS unless possibly you are a doctor or a breast cancer survivor. DCIS is a non-invasive type of breast cancer where abnormal or atypical cells are found within the milk ducts, not outside like other breast cancers that are more likely to spread into surrounding breast tissue. Some doctors in the field do not even consider DCIS to be breast cancer and provide a different type of diagnosis and treatment altogether. Sometimes it is considered “pre-cancerous” or “pre-invasive.” Because the abnormal/atypical cells have the possibility of turning into an invasive cancer over time, most doctors still treat it as they would any other cancer tissue and suggest removing it surgically. Doctors do not know which cases of DCIS will spread and which ones will not, so they treat each DCIS case in a similar way. Luckily, I also learned that the five-year survival rate for DCIS is 93%.
The next step in my journey was to find a breast surgeon that could provide me with an individualized treatment plan based on my diagnosis as well as someone who specialized in DCIS. Luckily it didn’t take long and I found my third surgeon in this process, and he never once called my diagnosis cancer, but only DCIS. He also told me that an MRI wouldn’t be necessary and that radiation and hormone therapy may not be best suited for me. I learned that if you receive radiation treatment in a specific area of your body you cannot receive it again in the same area. So our logic was why waste radiation treatment now when my cancerous cells were non invasive and save radiation as an option if the DCIS ever returned or if I were ever diagnosed with an invasive cancer in the future. If I chose the radiation option now, and a more invasive cancer entered my body years from now, my only treatment option would be a mastectomy.
My third surgeon was located about 8 hours away from me so I had to travel further away to see him but he was very well known and respected for his, and his team’s work, with DCIS and breast cancer. As soon as I met him I felt at ease and knew I was in good hands. He explained everything in detail and took what I wanted into consideration as we discussed my treatment options. Before I left my appointment with him, we scheduled a lumpectomy.
I had never had surgery before and was terrified of hospitals so I was under a great amount of anxiety in the days leading up to my lumpectomy. My surgery was scheduled for noon that upcoming February and I was told I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything for the 12 hours leading up to the surgery. Being slightly anemic and suffering from a great amount of distress emotionally, I arrived at the hospital feeling physically and mentally weak. Before my surgery could begin I had to receive a metal marker in my breast so the surgeon could find where the abnormal/atypical cells were located as he also had to use a mammogram type machine during surgery otherwise he wouldn’t know where the cancerous cells were located. In the middle of the process of putting in the metal marker I fainted. My blood pressure dropped so low it took them a little longer to revive me and even considered postponing the surgery if my body was unable to cope quickly. In the end, I was cleared for surgery and shortly after trying to put in my marker for the second time, I was taken to the operating room and put under anesthesia for my lumpectomy. If you’ve ever been put under before, it seems like a minute before you wake up in the recovery room, but my surgery took just over an hour.
I remember waking up feeling a little confused on my whereabouts yet relieved. I was surprised I wasn’t in that much pain, but I was also on pain medication. I stayed in recovery for an hour or two but was soon released to go home. Technically my lumpectomy was outpatient surgery and I was only at the hospital for a total of a few hours. I recovered over the next week at a local hotel. I was still very weak and could barely walk, so I left the hospital in a wheelchair and had to find a rolling chair from the hotel’s business center to take me to my room, as it was difficult for me to walk. We stopped at a local drugstore to pick up my pain medications and I remember just resting, eating light meals, and sleeping for the next few days before heading home. The pain wasn’t as bad as I imagined it would be, but without my medication I sometimes would lay in agony with a sharp pain in my right breast and would just cry out in pain and pity for myself. I felt so alone, so scared, and so broken. Over the next couple of weeks I healed and felt better with each new day. Then I received a call from my surgeon for the next steps.
He told me that he successfully was able to remove the cancerous cells and clear the margins in my right breast but there was one area that he wanted to take out a little more. He gave me two options. He said I could do radiation once a day for about 6 weeks (accompanied with many different side effects) or return to the hospital for a less invasive lumpectomy. I dreaded both options, but decided to have the second lumpectomy. My second lumpectomy was roughly two months after my first one and they would use the same incision as the first time. Since I already had the metal marker in my breast, we were able to skip that step completely. Also, this time around I opted for being his first surgery of the day instead of at noon so my body wouldn’t be as weak or hungry and I wouldn’t be going all the way under anesthesia but have a modified version for a quicker recovery. These two decisions made a world of difference and I had a much better surgical experience the second time around. The second surgery was successful and I was released from the hospital within hours and went back to the local hotel to recover for a few days before heading home again.
My doctor and I decided that, at that point, going on the hormone therapy, Tamoxifen, was not best suited for me for a few reasons. One reason was because I still wanted to have children and if I went on Tamoxifen I would most likely not be able to as the medication would put me into early menopause. Secondly, a common side effect is ovarian cancer and I wasn’t willing to take the risk as I was still healing from another type of cancer that was controlled. We decided we would come back to reassess after I was done having children.
In the meantime, it took a while for me to feel completely back to normal, as any surgery does, especially having two back-to-back surgeries in the same spot. It was very difficult for me to do anything very physical, and especially run for at least six months after my second surgery. Luckily I had an amazing surgeon and my scar was tiny and barely noticeable. In addition, since a microscopic amount of my breast tissue was taken out, my breast looked exactly the same as it did before the surgeries.
My surgeon and I agreed to have a follow-up mammogram six months after my second surgery to make sure there were no other growing abnormal/atypical cells, which thankfully there weren’t. Once I was given the go-ahead from the doctor of radiology from the results of my cleared mammogram, my husband and I were finally able to start growing our family.
This December, it will be 5 years since my diagnosis and I am proud to say that I have had 4 cleared diagnostic mammograms since my two lumpectomies. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t get nervous each year that I take my mammogram and cry of happiness each time I am cleared for another year. I don’t take the good news for granted and feel blessed and fortunate every time I am cleared.
I sometimes struggle calling myself a breast cancer survivor because I had such a mild diagnosis, but my scar reminds me that I am a survivor and even though I was too scared, ashamed and embarrassed to tell anyone about my diagnosis when I was going through it all, I have been creating awareness for the disease ever since.
My breast cancer was literally found my accident, as most DCIS cases are. As I mentioned, DCIS is difficult to detect, as there are no lumps or symptoms. It is a shame to me that mammograms aren’t recommended until at least 40 years of age as so many women could prevent breast cancer and detect it earlier if they were screened at a younger age. Honestly it infuriates me. I know so many women that have been diagnosed in their 20’s and 30’s. There is always a chance that I could have not had any of the surgeries and still could’ve had dormant cells, however, I chose to be safe than sorry and feel much more relieved about removing my abnormal/atypical cells as a preventative measure.
I cannot control if my breast cancer returns one day, but I am educated more on the topic and know that if it ever comes back I will have a lot of support from loved ones. What I have been able to do is change the things in my life that I can control. For example, I have completely gone non-toxic with all of my beauty and household products that contain chemicals that are correlated with cancer. I also avoid pesticides in food that have also been linked to cancer and choose only to eat organic eggs, meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables. I also have had a holistic (MD) doctor give me specific supplements that can help keep my chances for the breast cancer from returning. For instance, studies have shown that a Vitamin D and or Iodine deficiency has been correlated with breast cancer, therefore I take daily Vitamin D and Iodine vitamin supplements to make sure my body is getting what I need. I have also decreased my iron and copper content for the same reasons. I take a daily multi-vitamin supplement from Life Extension that doesn’t contain either of these. However, I have had to temporarily increase my iron due to being diagnosed with pregnancy anemia. Even if you have never been diagnosed with breast cancer, you can still make some of these changes as a way to prevent or lessen your likeliness of ever being diagnosed. I have also extremely limited my alcoholic beverage consumption, only drink decaf beverages, and only wear bras with no underwire.
Here are a few book recommendations for you to read in case you’d like more information. I found these books to be very helpful when I was going through my experience. I included links to buy these books on Amazon as well.
The Whole Food Guide for Breast Cancer Survivors: A Nutritional Approach to Preventing Recurrence – by Edward Bauman and Helayne Waldman
The Green Beauty Guide: The Effects Synthetic Products Have on You – by Julie Gabriel
Better Basics for the Home: Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living – by Annie Berthold – Bond