Twelve years ago almost to the day I received a phone call and heard the three most devastating words a person could receive in their lifetime, “You have cancer”. Shaking uncontrollably, tears rolling down my cheeks, I feel to my knees and sobbed. All sorts of questions started popping up in my head like balloons bursting from a pin prick, “How long have I had it? Was that small lump I found 15 months ago in my right breast, cancer after all, even though the doctor said it was nothing? How long do I have to live? How do I tell my parents?” Not one to sit on a pity pot for long, I started re-tracing the events that led up to this moment.
In December of 2001, while watching a commercial for a breast cancer walk, I realized I had not done a breast self-exam in a while. That evening, I did a self-exam and found a small, pea size, hard lump on the side of my right breast. Though I had had soft breast lumps in the past, this one felt different. The next day I put in a call to my primary care physician and made an appointment. During my exam, she felt the lump and asked if I had breast cancer in my family. I went over the list of cancers that my relatives had been afflicted with: breast cancer, ovarian cancer, colon cancer, thyroid cancer, all of whom died too young. She scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound for the following day.
During my visit to the radiologist, she claimed she could not feel the lump both me and my primary care doctor had felt during my examination. She asked me to put a lead BB on where I thought the lump was located. She performed the ultrasound and still claimed she saw nothing. When she did the mammogram, she was sure I did not have cancer. She told me it would have shown up on the mammogram. She patted me on the back and told me to return in one year for a follow-up. I was relieved it wasn’t cancer.
The next ten months flew by. I had made new friends in my apartment complex. We sat at the pool every weekend working on our tans. During the week though, my stress level was beyond what anyone should have to endure. My commute to a job I hated was over two hours long each way. Trying to rush home to get to school in the evenings was taking a toll on me In other words, life was getting in my way. I didn’t pay too much attention to the lump in my breast. Every now and then I would feel for it but it didn’t seem to change in size.
It wasn’t until December of 2002 I realized the lump had grown to the size of a quarter. By April of 2003 the lump was now the size of a large lime. With the rapid pace of the growth of the cyst, the skin around it became itchy, it felt like I had a hundred mosquito bites in one area. My ignorance turned into educating myself. There was definitely something amiss here, and it was time for me to find a different doctor.
Because my insurance was an HMO (horrible medical options), I had to see a doctor within my plan. I called and requested to see a different doctor. When the receptionist asked me what my medical issue was, I briefly told her about the small lump that wasn’t so small anymore. They made the appointment for that day.
Sitting on the papered table with a paper blouse around my torso (opened in the front), the doctor walked in very nonchalant. He introduced himself and asked me why I was there. I explained my medical history from the previous year. He opened my paper blouse and began giving me a clinical breast exam. When he felt how big the lump was in my breast, he asked, “Do you have breast cancer in your family?” I replied, “Yes”. I went over my family’s medical history. He then said, “Well, I think we may have something to be concerned about. I want you to have a mammogram and an ultrasound immediately, today if possible.”
The mammogram showed nothing. No matter how thorough the technician was, she could not find one sign of the lump in the picture. The ultrasound showed something much different; a large, black mass with tentacles spreading all through the breast tissue. A core needle biopsy was scheduled for the following Wednesday. At this point, I still had not told anyone, not my mother, not any of my girlfriends of what I was going through, but I was very optimistic. I was young and I had my whole life planned out. There was no way I had cancer.
It took nine days to get the results of the biopsy. The news wasn’t good, Invasive Lobular Carcinoma, which meant the cancer was in the lobes of my breast which is not detectable with a mammogram alone. The phone call from my doctor rocked me to my core. The initial shock lasted a few hours. When the word got out, my house started filling up with friends and family and my anxiety seemed to ease a bit. I wasn’t alone in this fight and several of my girlfriends started pulling information from the internet as to what I needed to do next.
My first step was to find a good, competent surgeon. Dr. Lomis was a young guy with a wife and two girls. After examining me, he told me he was going to take good care of me. We talked about my options, either a total mastectomy or a lumpectomy. After going over everything at length, my choice was to remove the entire breast (total mastectomy). The surgery was scheduled for May 21, 2003.
The second step in all of this was to find a knowledgeable oncologist. Dr. Reyes was a young woman who specialized in breast cancer treatment. She had no children and referred to her patients are “her kids”. She was dedicated to her profession and made me a priority. She told me she was going to treat my cancer very aggressively. Seventeen days after my first treatment, my hair started falling out. I decided to shave my head. I never wore a wig but I did wear beautifully made scarves and would match them to my outfits. When my eyelashes fell out, I purchased false eyelashes, when my eyebrows went, I colored them in with a nice, brown filler.
The third step was to find a plastic surgeon who had experience with creating breasts from scratch. Since I had opted for a complete mastectomy, which meant they took the entire breast off down to the chest wall, this surgeon had to be creative in forming a new one. Dr. Smoot in La Jolla came highly recommended. My first of four reconstructive surgeries was for them to put in expanders. Expanders are saline filled sacs that are inserted into a pocket made in the muscle to see if the tissue can be expanded. Mine would not expand. The second surgery was to remove them. The third surgery Dr. Smoot took my back muscle, tunneled it under my arm and created a breast, he inserted a silicone implant to round it all out. It was during this third surgery when I asked him to remove my other breast. This procedure is called a skin saving prophylactic mastectomy. They opened up the breast, took all the tissue inside and replaced it with an implant. My fourth surgery was to create new nipples for both of my new breasts.
This entire experience took a year of my life. But in that year I educated myself on everything I could about breast cancer. Two years after my ordeal I was asked by a non-profit organization to be a speaker in high schools, to teach young girls about breast cancer, their risks, and how to be proactive in their health. Out of these workshops, I wrote and published my book, “One in Eight – A Teens Guide to Understanding Breast Cancer”. This book is currently being sold all around the world in many different languages. Today, I am thriving in my survivorship.