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My Breast Cancer Story

The year 2011 was, in short, the worst year of my life... a year that changed just about every part of my life. But here it is, Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2012, and I feel mostly good.
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mother breastfeeding her baby...
mother breastfeeding her baby...

I was diagnosed on Jan. 18, 2011 with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I was 43, a wife, a mother of four, and a midwifery student. I was breastfeeding my fourth child, our first son after three girls, an "oops" baby; he was just four months old when I noticed a weird lump in my right breast, up by the armpit. I was a natural-earth-mama type, hardly ever going to doctors, preferring herbal or homeopathic remedies, and my first thought was that I had a swollen lymph gland and that it would probably clear up by itself. It really did not even cross my mind that it could be cancer, and in fact I considered myself "immune" to it (no family history, no risk factors, 11 years of breastfeeding -- and counting -- to protect me).

After a month, I did see a doctor, still thinking it was an infection either of my lymph gland or milk duct. She didn't think so, though, and sent me for an ultrasound. Both the doctor that read the ultrasound and the breast surgeon I saw afterward felt very sure that I had a fibroadenoma, or possibly a galactocele... both benign conditions. The surgeon recommend a repeat ultrasound in a month, to see if there were any changes, and a possible future but not urgent biopsy.

I put off the ultrasound, though... it was the Christmas season, and I didn't feel like dealing with it. Then, Elizabeth Edwards died. Her story was a bit like mine: a late pregnancy, a lump that was noticed while breastfeeding. My mother urged me to go ahead and get a biopsy. Something told me she was right, so I scheduled it for Jan. 12.

Nothing could prepare me for the reality of getting that phone call a week later from my surgeon, five months after first feeling the lump, telling me that I had breast cancer. It was so overwhelming, I fell apart; my mother had to take my kids that day, because I didn't want them to see me in that state. The absolute worst thing about the diagnosis, in those first days, was being told I had to wean my baby. It may be hard for some people to understand, but I could not see how I would be able to do that. I had never used bottles with my other babies and nursed them into toddlerhood; I considered extended breastfeeding to be the core of my mothering philosophy, the only way I could feed and comfort and care for my son. Having that ripped away from our relationship was completely devastating. I should have spent the month gradually weaning him, so that it would be done by the time I started chemotherapy, but I just couldn't do it... so there I was, nursing him for the last time on the morning of my first chemo.

The second worst thing about the diagnosis was having to tell my mother (she had just gone through this the year before when her sister was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer), my oldest daughter (a junior in college), and my two elementary school-aged daughters. I feel terrible that not only have they had to see me go through this, causing them much fear and stress, but they also are now at higher risk for getting breast cancer themselves. This haunts me every day.

I had eight rounds of chemo; after the fourth one, I had to be hospitalized for four days due to a neutropenic infection (my white blood cell count went down to zero), but other than that I got through it as well as can be expected. The chemo did its job and shrunk the tumors quite a bit (it turns out I had a second, smaller tumor as well). In July 2012, I had a bilateral mastectomy with immediate tissue expander placement. I chose to do the double because I knew that I would be constantly worrying about the other breast... and I'm glad I did, because the pathology report showed some precancerous cell changes in there. This is when I found out that I was Stage IIIA, due to the size of the lump and the fact that cancer was found in a few of my lymph nodes.

The recovery was smooth but challenging (surgical drains to empty -- yuck -- and no hugging the kids for a few weeks); the expanders were extremely uncomfortable. A month after the surgery, I started radiation treatments: one per day (weekdays only) for 33 days. This was the easiest part of breast cancer treatment for me. I didn't mind going there every day, although my skin got pretty bad toward the end, quite burned and raw. I then had two months off to recover before my reconstruction surgery. On Dec. 14, I had a DIEP flap breast reconstruction. That's when they take the flab from your tummy and use it to reconstruct the breasts. This was the part I was "looking forward" to, because I had quite a mummy tummy after four kids, not to mention being quite anxious to get the expanders taken out. It was a long surgery, a long recovery, and I have some pretty crazy scars to show for it. But my plastic surgeon was amazing, and the results are better than I could have imagined.

The year 2011 was, in short, the worst year of my life... a year that changed just about every part of my life. But here it is, Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2012, and I feel mostly good. I'm NED (no evidence of disease), and while I still frequently feel emotionally overwhelmed and terrified, other times I feel like a strong-survivor-warrior-goddess-woman who can do anything (at least during the short time periods in between the near-constant Tamoxifen-induced hot flashes).

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My Breast Cancer Story