by Kathy Foushee
The letter came in the mail in a plain white envelope. An innocuous container for such devastating news. “Your mammogram results were irregular. Please contact our office for further testing.” Several tests, scans and one biopsy later, I got the call. “It’s cancer.”
My world crashed, my mind raced. How had this happened? I had no family history of breast cancer, I had no symptoms – no lumps, no changes. Maybe it was because I was on the pill for so long. Perhaps I drank too much in my younger days.
But I was lucky, because they caught it early.
The day of my surgery, I had an ultrasound, an MRI, a wire guide attached to the remains of the tumor, and a mammogram – all as part of my pre-op. As they wheeled me to the OR for surgery, I kissed my husband good-bye, knowing that the next time I saw him, I would be irrevocably changed.
Three hours later, I woke in Recovery, disoriented and in terrible pain. I hadn’t eaten in eighteen hours. My first thoughts were of my poor husband, waiting and worrying, fielding calls from concerned friends and relatives. The doctor told me it took longer than usual because my nodes were “deep.”
But I was lucky, because I only had a lumpectomy.
The first two days at home, I barely managed to stay awake long enough to eat and go to the bathroom. I counted the minutes until my next dose of pain medicine. The fourth day, I managed to shower and dress myself – a major accomplishment I celebrated with a two hour nap. Half my breast was completely numb for weeks.
But I was lucky, because it hadn’t spread.
More doctor visits and more tests followed. Someone asked if I had a problem being treated by a male nurse. I told her that at that point, half the town had seen me topless, so one more person didn’t matter. Modesty was no longer part of my vocabulary.
But I was lucky, because I had a good medical team.
Radiation therapy was the next step. I burned after the first treatment. My breast swelled, the skin became sensitive, the flesh beneath hardened. Half-way through, I began having nausea after every treatment. Fatigue hit like a ton of bricks. The simplest task became a Herculean task.
But I was lucky, because I didn’t need chemo.
Hormone therapy will be next, followed by surgery to remove my ovaries. My type of cancer is hormone-driven, so reducing those levels will decrease my chance of recurrence – in my breast or elsewhere. It will also send me into menopause 5-10 years early – abruptly, like diving off a cliff.
But I’m lucky, because I had already made the decision not to have children.
Removing my lymph nodes increased my risk for lymphedema, so I can never again have blood drawn or blood pressure taken from my right arm. (Did I mention I’m left-handed?)
I’ll see the oncologist for follow-up visits for the next 5 years. That’s a good thing, since I’m already developing the paranoia of a hypochondriac. Every lump, bump and change is suddenly cause for concern. Every visit will be preceded by worry, anxiety, and the hope that it hasn’t come back.
But I’m lucky, because I’m alive.
I am a 45 year old wife, cat mother, and university library employee. On December 5, 2016 I also became a breast cancer survivor. I wrote this partly as a rebuttal to all those people who feel the need to tell me how fortunate I am that my cancer isn’t worse, and the ones who look at me and don’t see a cancer patient because I still have both breasts and all my hair. This is my journey so far.