About 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime.
“It won’t happen to me, I live a healthy and active lifestyle”.
“I won’t get it, cancer doesn’t run in my family.”
We’ve all had these thoughts, maybe because we truly believe them, or maybe because it helps us hide from the reality that it really COULD happen to us.
My Aunt Jane had these same exact thoughts and unfortunately for her, she couldn’t hide from reality. She is the youngest of 5 children and lives the most active lifestyle out of all of them. I mean, I always envied her toned arms and huge biceps! Nobody thought that she could get breast cancer.
I had the opportunity to ask my Aunt Jane a few questions about her journey battling breast cancer and I highly encourage you to please read on not only about her struggles that she endured, but also her strength and support system that helped her fight on.
Q: Could you give a brief introduction about you, your family, and your interests and hobbies?
Jane: My name is Jane. I’ve been married to John for 16 years and we have two sons, John-Reagan who will be 15 in Dec. and Brenden who will turn 13 in Dec. I was a stay-at-home mom for 12 years and went back to work 2 years ago. I love living in our family-oriented town and enjoy watching both my boys play baseball. I’ve always been pretty health conscious...eating well and doing various forms of exercise.
Q: When and how was your breast cancer discovered/what stage were you diagnosed with?
Jane: Last October, I noticed a lump on the upper portion of my right breast. I didn’t think too much of it as I’ve felt lumps in the past and they would go away. My husband was a little concerned and really wanted me to get it checked out. I was due for a physical anyway so I made an appointment with my primary care physician and my ob-gyn. My ob-gyn did a physical exam and referred me for a mammogram which was scheduled for the next day or two. She said they might do an ultrasound as well.
I wasn’t too worried until the day I got the mammogram. First, I had the mammogram done and then a few minutes later I went to another room for the ultrasound. That’s when I finally started to think that something may be wrong. The ultrasound technician was taking a long time and asking questions like, “Have you had a recent trauma to the area?” Then she left for a while and returned with the doctor. The doctor explained that he was concerned because the lump looked “irregular” and said I should have a needle biopsy to find out for sure. I then had the needle biopsy that same day. I was told I would get the results within a few days. I was suppose to go back to work afterwards, but I was too emotional to go back.
Two days later, on Friday, Oct 21, 2016 I got a phone call from the doctor who performed the biopsy. I was at work at the time. She told me it was cancer. Although I knew it was a possibility, I really wasn’t expecting to hear that. Breast cancer or any cancer didn’t run in our family. I was healthy and in good physical shape. How could this be happening? She said the breast surgeon’s office would be calling me to schedule an appointment. My boss came into my office at the time to ask me something and saw that I was crying. She felt so bad and walked out and shut my door. She was the first person I told. She sent me home for the day. As I was driving home I was wondering how and when I should tell John. He is a fireman and would be coming home the next day. We wouldn’t see each other until the next morning at my son’s baseball tournament.
Q: How did you and your family deal with the news?
Jane: I decided to tell John the same day I got the news. I didn’t want to keep it to myself for a whole day and have to tell him at a baseball game. I told him over the phone while he was at work. He came home to be with me and didn’t finish his shift. Initially, we had planned to tell the boys after we met with the breast surgeon the following week so we would have more information and have a game plan. But we found that whispering to each other and trying to hide it, was too difficult and figured they’d be able to sense that something was wrong. We ended up telling the boys that weekend. We explained that I had breast cancer and would go through treatments to get me better. We talked about some people that we know who have gone through it and have survived. We told them not to feel like they had to keep it a secret and they can ask us any questions any time. Brenden, my younger son, said, “No wonder Dad has looked so sad.”
Q: Can you describe your journey with breast cancer (treatment, obstacles, lifestyle changes)?
Jane: It felt like an eternity..between all the tests and waiting for results. When I first met with my breast surgeon she explained I had IDC (invasive ductal carcinoma). Estrogen receptor positive, Progesterone receptor positive, HER2 negative. She explained that the first step was to treat the breast. The tumor would have to be removed by either lumpectomy and radiation (Monday-Friday for 5 weeks) or a mastectomy (and no rads depending on results).
Second would be to treat the body with most likely chemotherapy and hormone therapy since I was hormone receptor positive. She was pretty sure I would need chemo because of the aggressiveness of the tumor and she was pretty sure it was in my lymph nodes due to the location. Next step would be an MRI with contrast to get more information on the tumor and see if there any other suspicious spots. That took about an hour, and I had to wait two days to get the results. The MRI results showed a nodule in my right lung. Concerned that the cancer may have spread to my lung required another test, a PET scan. I was required to fast prior to the scan. They injected me with a radioactive tracer and had me lay down in the dark for 45 minutes. They said to be still and close my eyes while the tracer travelled through my body. I couldn’t read or look at my phone. I asked if my husband can come in and wait with me, but they said no because I was now radioactive.
Laying alone in the dark for 45 minutes left me with thoughts such as, “Wow...is this my life now?” A series of doctor appointments, various testing, getting blood draws, injections with various compounds, waiting for test results--”do I have cancer in my lungs too?” I had to dig deep to brave through it. Just as I was about to doze off, they came in and said it was time for the scan. They scanned from my head to my thighs. Any cancer would “light up” on the results.
I got the results the next day. My breast surgeon called me as I was leaving my plastic surgeon consultation. Good news..the only area that lit up was the right breast area, the cancer we already knew about. Now we can just focus on the upcoming surgery. From the time I was first diagnosed, I did so much research. I read about 15 books and talked to other women who have gone through BC. Some were friends, some were friends of friends. I preferred to have a mastectomy, but due to the location of my tumor my breast surgeon said it would be best to have a lumpectomy which would also give her direct access to my lymph nodes. If I still wanted to have a mastectomy later, I can do so.
On Nov. 21 I had a lumpectomy and sentinal node biopsy. The surgery was a success and 3 lymph nodes were removed, and thankfully they were all clear. The tumor turned out to be 2.4 cm which was double the size they thought it was. The following week I met with a medical oncologist. After being told by two surgeons that I would more than likely need chemo, I was surprised when the oncologist said she wasn’t sure since it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes. She recommended the oncotype dx test which tests 21 genes from the tumor that had already been removed. The test would show how much I would benefit from chemo. If my recurrence score was low, I would not benefit from chemo. If it was mid range, we would discuss it. If it was high, I would need chemo. The results would take another 2 weeks.
More waiting. We talked about which chemo regimen would be best for me. Cytoxan and Taxotere (TC), once every 21 days for 4 cycles. Four cycles didn’t sound too brutal to me...I can handle that. I read up on everything I could about TC and other BC chemotherapies. Two weeks later we met with the oncologist to discuss the results of my oncotype dx test. I scored a 60 which is considered very high, in fact it was the highest score some of her colleagues had seen. Because my chance of recurrence was so high, my oncologist now recommended a more aggressive chemo treatment. Adriamycin, Cytoxan, and Taxol (ACT) and treatment would be about 5-6 months long. But it was up to me. It was a blow to be psychologically ready for the 4 rounds of TC and then being told that ACT for 16 rounds would be better for me. But based on all my research, my husband and I agreed to go with the TC regimen. I had 4 chemo treatments which started in January and ended in March. My double mastectomy was scheduled for May 8 to give me enough time to recover from chemo. My mother passed away on May 7...so it was a very emotional time.
My next (and hopefully last) surgery will be this November to complete the reconstruction process. As of now I guess I’m technically a “survivor.” The hardest part of this journey is thankfully over. Because my cancer was estrogen positive (meaning estrogen can cause breast cancer to grow) I will have to take Tamoxifen for the next 5-10 years. So far, the side effects haven’t been too bad. I’m hoping they don’t get any worse. After all this I still don’t feel like my old self...I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t look like my old self as I always had longish hair before. Now my hair is about an inch long. My body feels older with more aches and pains due to the chemo. My upper body strength is still weak from the mastectomy. I’m trying to embrace the new me and just live in the “now” and not let the “what if” thoughts creep up (ie, what if it comes back?). When my bones ache I can’t help but wonder what if it metastasized to my bones. Keeping busy and knowing that I’m doing everything I can do to lessen the chances of recurrence helps keep these “what if” thoughts at bay.
Q: Who has been your biggest support through all of this?
Jane: My husband has been a huge support. He came to every doctor appointment with me and helped in the decision making process, but always said it was my choice. My friends both old and newer, near and far were a huge support through prayers, meals, help driving my boys around, sending cards and gifts. Family members took time off from work to help out as well. I was so touched and appreciative by all the support we received. Even friends of friends were very supportive in different ways including giving me hats and scarves to help keep my bald head warm and looking cute.
Q: Are there any other assumptions or misconceptions about breast cancer that you would like to shed some light on?
Jane: Unfortunately, 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. In some cases it might be hereditary, but in many cases such as mine, it could be completely random. No one is immune from it. Getting breast cancer was not on my radar at all. I was in great shape, ate well, exercised regularly. Plus I had small breasts so I thought there was no way I would ever get breast cancer.
I would say do your self-examines on a regular basis so you know what lumps are normal for you. Get your mammograms on a regular basis. It had been 5 years since I had mine. I don’t know how much of a difference it would have made for me if I had them every year. Maybe it would have been detected earlier...I don’t know. Mine was stage 2A, grade 3. Early detection is key.