During my masectomy, my surgeon removed some lymph nodes for testing. I guess this is pretty standard. I had 5 removed and tested. All 5 came back positive. Talk about a blow. My doctors were all surprised by this. The scans were all clear and externally, the nodes looked and felt completely healthy. After a couple of opinions, it was decided and agreed that I would not have another surgery or more lymph nodes removed. Both the oncologists were confident that radiation and medication would keep the cancer from growing and spreading if it didn’t kill it.
My radiation oncologist is an incredible person. I have to admit, I lucked out in the doctor department. He spent so much time explaining everything to me; from diagnosis to radiation treatment. For the first time, I really understood what was going on, and what was about to go on, inside my body.
For my type of cancer, the stage, and the size of cancer removed, there is a standard in regards to treatment – 28 treatments with a 5 treatment kicker. Due to the condition of my skin (already being stretched and tight), my doctor was confident the 28 treatments would be sufficient. So, on June 1st, my journey into radiation began.
At first, I was like, “What the heck is everyone complaining about?” It was so simple. I’d go in, put on a gown, lie on a table for 15-20 minutes, get dressed, and leave. Really?? That was it? After about 2 weeks, I started to feel pretty worn down and tired and my skin was getting sensitive. After week 3 I wanted to cry. My skin was literally flayed. Even the time when I was a teenager and I burnt so bad in the sun that my skin blistered, was a walk in the park compared to this. And the ointments and creams they suggested….whatever! They did absolutely nothing to help or lessen the pain, skin condition or discomfort. Thank goodness my radiation oncologist was a nice, kind and compassionate man. Right before my last week, he gave me a few days off to let my skin recover a bit. I don’t know what I would have done if he didn’t do that. I’ve seen the results of the patients who did not have that short reprieve. I had it easy compared to them.
I can say this – neither treatment was easy. For me, radiation wasn’t as bad as chemotherapy. But all I really did was graduate up from one level of Hell to the next. I guess the only good news was I was moving up out of Hell after being violently thrown in.
My last chemo treatment was on 2/6/15. I thought that after a couple weeks, I would feel normal again. I didn’t. I still had aches and pains almost constantly. I was taking some sort of pain killer or muscle relaxer every night when I got home from work. Sleep was something I didn’t get much of. By this point, I didn’t think I would ever be normal again. And I wasn’t.
I had to have a masectomy. Since I was at a high risk of reoccurrence, a double mastectomy was highly recommended. I was all for doing everything I possibly could to prevent getting cancer again, so on 3/18/15, I had a bilateral mastectomy. I knew I wanted some sort of reconstruction, but I had to wait until after radiation for that. I had expanders put in at the same time as my masectomy. These were basically liquid filled bags that were going to stretch out my skin so I could be a certain breast size once I was ready.
This surgery was painful. It took several weeks to recover. The expanders were extremely uncomfortable. I eventually got used to them and my new chest in general. I sometimes got muscle twitches. At first, the twitches hurt. After I was healed, I thought they were gross. The feeling/sensation of it made me gag with disgust. I then found that I could actual control the muscle. That was different and a little cool. It didn’t bother me when I made the muscle move.
One of the worst moments after surgery was the first time I saw my chest. I cried. It looked awful. Very small, nippleless mounds with these ugly incisions and stitches across the center. Amazingly, the incisions healed pretty well over the next few months.
Cancer is a greedy bastard. It takes and it takes. Cancer took my hair. Cancer took my breast and nipples. It took my energy. It took my self confidence. It took so much of what made me – me. Sometimes I would look in the mirror and wonder who the person was looking back at me.
Oh, but it did give back. It gave me pain…and weakness…and scars…and tears.
I’m not the same person I was prior to diagnosis and I don’t think I ever will be her again.
During treatments, I went into chemopause – chemotherapy induced menopause. As weird as it may seem, it was one of the few benefits of chemotherapy. That and not having to shave my legs for several months. The hot flashes were horrible though. I would turn my thermostat down to 50, or even completely off, to help make the hot flashes a little more bearable.
I guess I was lucky. I was done having children when I was diagnosed. It didn’t bother me to be in menopause and I wasn’t upset knowing I would lose my ovaries in the near future.
It could be considered odd that I referred to myself as lucky, but I have learned that some times, life is a matter of perspective.
On the day after Christmas, I started new chemo meds: adriamycin and cytoxan. My oncologist called it a chemo cocktail. I told him we have different definitions of a cocktail. Many recipients of adriamycin refer to it as the red devil. I found out the reason for this nickname is due both to its color and the side effects. Treatments were now every other Friday in the afternoon. Within a half an hour of finishing treatments, I would start to feel dizzy. The day after treatments, I had to get a neulasta shot to help boost the growth of white blood cells.
The next two months were pretty miserable. Treatment on Friday, about a week and a half of being tired and in pain, a couple of days of almost normal, and then repeat. The neulasta shot caused serious bone and joint pain. I did learn that claritin helped to reduce this pain. If I took it on Friday morning and every day for at least a week, the pain was not as bad.
I hate changes. Part of me fears changes. The unknown can be seriously scary. My life drastically changed, and it pretty much sucked.
One of the major side effects of taxotere is hair loss. I had long hair at the time of diagnosis and when I started treatments. Since my life was so far out of my control, I decided to control how and when I would lose my hair. On 10/10/14, I got my hair cut off. I donated my hair to Locks of Love and walked out of the salon with a pixie cut. I hated it. I didn’t want short hair. I loved my long hair. The worse part was that I knew it was only a matter of time before I had no hair.
That time came sooner rather than later. My hair was quickly falling out. I would lose clumps at a time in the shower. Trying to style it was a chore since half of it would come out whenever I touched it. And I didn’t dare mess with it during the day for fear of being left with a bald spot without realizing it.
On 10/17/14, I had a minor emotional break down in the shower after losing more hair than normal. I decided then to shave my head. Now, it may seem like I made this decision spur of the moment and during an emotional time, but I didn’t. I went through a grieving process and experienced each stage. I just did it in 20 minutes because I don’t have time for it. Besides, I was losing my hair and shaving it would make showering easier.
The next day, several coworkers and I walked in the Making Strides breast cancer walk. A banner was even made in my honor (that banner still hangs on the wall in my office). I was honored. I was honored to have such amazing coworkers – no, strike that – amazing friends. After we completed the walk, we went out to eat and then I went to the salon. I walked in with a pixie cut and walked out with a GI Jane buzz. No one got to see though since this is the day I started wearing hats. A week later I was completely bald.
Losing my hair was the worse change, but it wasn’t the only one. I gained weight during chemo. Many believe chemo patients are these bald, thin, and sickly looking people. That stereotype might be true for some, but not for all. I mentioned previously having to take steroids. That blasted drug made me hungry 24/7. I gained 20lbs. With the weight gain, and my bald head, I looked like a female version of Fester Adams. Yeah, me! Did I mention I hate change?
On 10/03/14, I had my first dose of chemotherapy. The chemo drug I started with was taxotere. After I got my IV in, she gave me an anti nausea medicine, benadryl and steroids. All of that was to help battle against the side effects and to help my immune system. After those were all given to me, they started the taxotere. I will say this, I might have put on a brave front, but I was nervous and scared as heck. I didn’t know what to expect or how I would react.
Once it was done, I was fine. I didn’t feel any different. I thought to myself that getting chemo would be easy peasy. That thought process continued over the next few days because I still had no side effects. Then, they hit. Like a storm. I woke up Tuesday feeling fine and normal, went to work like any other day. While I was at work, I started to feel off. Nausea came first, followed by serious hot flashes and then vomiting. At one point, I got extremely dizzy and passed out. I guess my skin even looked a sickly green color. I worked most of the day and then went home. I mentioned in my previous post about my boss also being a good friend – she had another employee leave work early as well and follow me home to make sure I made it there safely. Man, I lucked out in the employment department.
The next week was spent in pain. My joints and bones ached. My oncologist prescribed pain meds, which only helped a little. I was miserable. I wasn’t sleeping very well, I kept waking up every hour or two. I hated my life.
On the following Wednesday, a week and a half after receiving chemotherapy, I started to feel better. The aches and pains were mostly gone. I pretty much felt normal again.
And so began a cycle – chemotherapy on Fridays, nausea on Tuesdays (the zofran really helped, kept the nausea at minimum and no vomiting), aches and pains started on Wednesday and lasted a week. Peace for a week and a half then it started again. This cycle ended the day after Christmas.
After I was officially diagnosed, my surgeon referred me to an oncologist. I really lucked out in that area. My oncologist is a wonderful doctor and person. His bedside manner is unmatched. When I went for my first appointment, my close friend (who happens to also be my boss) went with me. The oncologist patiently listened to all of our questions and concerns, and answered each and every one of them in detail. He order some blood tests, CT scan and bone scan. The reason for the scans was to see if the cancer has spread to any other parts of my body. He wanted me to get a PET scan instead of the CT and bone scans, but my insurance would not cover it. I guess the cost of that one scan is quite higher than the cost of the other 2 put together and most insurances believe the 2 are just as effective. Once the test results came in, he wanted me to start chemotherapy immediately. I met with the oncologist on Monday, 09/29/14. By that Friday, 10/03/14, the tests were complete, results in, and I got my first dose of Taxotere, a chemotherapy drug. It was ordered for me to receive 4 doses, 1 every 3 weeks. And so, the cancer journey truly begins.
(At the time, I just wanted to get on with it. Get started on treatments so I can be cancer free as soon as possible. Now, I wish I could have waited another week or two. I didn’t have a port when I went for my first treatment. Chemotherapy drugs can destroy your veins and ports are attached to a main artery. It makes it easier to get the treatments and spares the veins from destruction. I did get my port in before the 2nd treatment, but that 1 treatment alone has made finding a vein quite the challenge. I cringe whenever I have to get blood drawn or have an IV. It’s not so much that the needle hurts, but that they will most likely need to stick me more than once and most try to “dig” around to find the vein.)
Do you remember the last time you were happy? I mean truly happy? You felt like your life was finally going in the right direction and it was near perfect? I do. It was Sunday, August 31, 2014. I was out with good friends that night. One of my best friend’s husband is in a band and they were playing at a comedy club that night. It was an awesome night! Two weeks later, my life as I knew it, shattered. But, I think I’m getting ahead of myself. I should probably start at the beginning.
In April, 2014, I found a lump on my left breast. It was slightly painful, but I wasn’t worried. Ever since I was a teenager, I would get those fibrocystic lumps caused by caffeine. I did have it checked out as that is the correct thing to do. My doctor wasn’t worried either. She said it could be expired bras and that caffeine could also be the culprit. She also told me that “cancer lumps aren’t painful.” I did as she suggested; I got professionally fitted for new bras and cut out caffeine. The lump got even bigger and more painful. She sent me for a mammogram that came back normal, but suggested further testing.
In late August, 2014, I requested to be referred to a specialist. The lump was about the size of a 50 cent piece, in the center of the breast, causing my nipple to become inverted. And the pain….was pretty bad. She referred me to a surgeon who specialized in breast cancers. At my first appointment with this surgeon, she stressed concern and sent me to have an ultrasound immediately. The results of this ultrasound were immediately reviewed by a radiologist who had me go straight to another mammogram. After my surgeon received results from both the ultrasound and the mammogram, she advised I needed a biopsy. On 9/11/14, I had a biopsy. On 9/15/14, I received a call from the surgeon, although the results were inconclusive, it did appear I had cancer. She advised I needed another biopsy, an ultrasound guided one, to gather a better sample for testing. This is the day my life changed. On 9/19/14, I had another biopsy and on 9/23/14, I was officially diagnosed – Invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 2.