What did you do last summer?
I had a mastectomy.
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Four days after I discovered the lump, I visited my family doctor. He touched my left breast on the lump, raised his eyebrows and told me that he wanted me to get some tests. For the rest of the visit, he made no eye contact with me.
I went home with the news. I began to think about things I needed to do before I die. . . before I DIE. . . I can't die. I don't have time to die. I don't even have time to be sick. I went to have an ultrasound and the technician found three suspicious spots that didn't look like cysts. I waited four days and called my doctor. When the receptionist told me I would have to wait three weeks for an appointment to get the results, I lost it.
I cried and told her I couldn't wait that long. I needed to know something sooner because I was going crazy. I felt like the clock was ticking and it was getting louder and louder. She said I could call the following Monday to see if there were any cancellations. I cried some more ...and then I went to work.
As much as I tried to go about business as usual, I began to have uncontrollable urges to cry. I allowed myself these pressure releases. In fact, I scheduled Mondays to stay home and break down.
The lump did not show up on my mammogram (X-ray) but there were signs of calcification. Calcification is caused by cancer growth or some other infection. Now I was being referred to a surgeon.
My surgeon recommended that I have surgery to remove the lump for a biopsy. I prayed to God that my life would not be cut short. It was strange praying for myself. I read in a book that God only does miracles for non-believers. I thought that was bad because I was a believer. I couldn't understand why he was letting this happen. I asked him what he wanted me to do. I didn't get an answer.
My family and friends prayed for me. A close friend gave me a poem and I remember the one line that repeats throughout, "God is taking care of it." I found peace in believing that it was in God's hands.
Every night I read myself to sleep surrounded with cancer literature. My husband would pile up all the books, photocopies, faxes and printouts at the foot of my bed. If I couldn't find the cure for my cancer, at least I could monitor the care I was getting through my HMO and rest assured that they were treating me properly.
One month later, I had surgery that removed two lumps. It was painful, but I was recovering and the scar was a fine 2-inch slit. In fact, my breasts were a closer match in size than they had been before surgery.
I made it through each day knowing that tomorrow I would feel a little bit better and soon I could put all of this behind me.
The pain pills were helpful. They lessened the pain, but more importantly, they numbed my emotions.
I decided to change my lifestyle. I would slow down and not work so hard. I changed my diet and started taking a myriad of herbs and nutritional supplements that promised good health. Some were quite expensive. I read books and magazine articles written by women who were cancer survivors and I cried over their experiences.
At my post-op visit with the surgeon, I was told that I didn't have "clear margins." This meant that it was possible that there was still some cancer in my breast. He told me that there were two courses of action I could take; I should consider a modified radical mastectomy (removal of the whole breast) or another partial mastectomy with radiation treatments to kill any cancer cells left behind. I asked what he would choose if it were his wife's diagnosis and he answered without hesitation, "Take it off!"
My husband and I left the office in shock. We had plans to go camping on the beach in Mexico that weekend with some friends. We resolved to ignore the diagnosis and deal with the decision when we got back. On the second day in Mexico, I took my pain medication and went down to the waters edge and looked out over the waves. I pulled my straw hat over my face, cupped my left breast in my hand underneath the towel wrapped around me and I said goodbye to my left breast as I wept quietly for about an hour.
The bandage was huge. It covered the whole left side of my chest. I couldn't move my arm. After two days in the hospital, I came home and tried to rest. The pain pills didn't seem to help this time. My family looked at me with wide eyes. The next couple of weeks are a blur. I remember the first time I looked under the huge bandage on my chest. There were staples running across my chest and two plastic bottles that dangled from tubes to allow the area to drain. I had to empty the bottles a few of times a day.
I had lost the urgency to find the reason for this disease and to find a cure. There was nothing I could do but heal. I packed up all of the literature I had gathered and stored it out of sight. I just wanted it all to be history.
Today I have a seven-and-a-half-inch scar that stretches from the middle of my chest to my armpit. They removed lymph nodes from under my arm and tested them. They were clean. I know I made the right choice because they found more cancer in my breast after they removed it. I will be considered cured if I do not have a recurrence of cancer in the next five years.
Life Goes On.
Today, I wear a breast prosthesis every other day because the nerve endings where my breast used to be are overly sensitive. Because they removed my lymph glands, the circulation in my arm is compromised. I have to do special exercises to keep my arm from swelling. When I go to a grocery store, I wear a sweater because when my arm gets cold, it takes a really long time for it to warm up again. I check my one breast for lumps often. I am very familiar with it and am confident that I can identify any new growths.
I'm alive because of early detection.
Eight years ago, I attended a breast awareness workshop in the student center at Citrus College. The moderator, Jane Dibbel, had had a mastectomy. She passed around a silicone breast that had 18 lumps in it. The lumps didn't feel as I imagined they would. They felt like the lump I found one morning last May, as I lay in my bed.