Shock & Awe — Who, Me?

“Your biopsy is positive…”

Updated from a post originally written for The Art of Healing on 8/23/08

I cannot describe how stunned I was to hear those initial words over the phone, from a breast cancer surgeon, on Thursday afternoon, July 24th, 2008. No, there was no other breast cancer in my family, as far as I know. No, I didn’t feel anything. Neither did any of my doctors. I had had no reason to feel any alarm when this whole adventure started in May, 2008.

In May, I had had my annual physical. In June, I had my annual screening mammogram. Against a strict interpretation of the “rules” for these things, the mammographer, who knew I was a physical therapist, explained in detail the probable interpretation of the group of calcifications that showed up on my mammogram. I wasn’t worried. True to her predictions, I was phoned to come in for a second, longer set of mammograms, after which the radiologist, with all the warmth & compassion of a grave-digger, told me I needed a biopsy.

This is where working in healthcare is a great advantage, because your friends are in the position of knowing who the good doctors are for anything. The same name kept coming up, so I made an appointment for a consult with a breast surgeon & ob/gyn, a woman who gave me her cell phone number 5 minutes after I met her for the first time. After an exam & an ultrasound which revealed nothing, we looked at my mammogram together, where the calcifications shone brightly like a small scattering of aquarium gravel. She reiterated the mammographer’s interpretation & ordered a stereotactic biopsy. After that procedure, the diagnosis was official: I had ductal carcinoma in situ, a cancer of the mammary ducts that can progress to full-blown, invasive breast cancer.

Three weeks later, still operating out of stunned but purposeful action, I had a lumpectomy. Four weeks after that, I started radiation — once a day, 5 days a week for 16 sessions. A week after radiation ended, I returned to work. The week after that, I started taking tamoxifen, a selective estrogen-receptor modulator, which hopefully will keep that hormone away from my breasts, where estrogen-loving cancer cells could form again.

My prognosis is excellent. My cancer was caught very, very early and my doctor tells me this type, caught this early, is “100% curable,” words doctors don’t use unless they mean them. I didn’t have to have chemo. I didn’t lose my hair. I had health insurance, paid sick time & state-administered short-term disability income. I’m very fortunate. But don’t ever tell me I’m “lucky.” Don’t ever tell a person with cancer that they are lucky. Lucky would be never having cancer in the first place.

I got a few of these pink coldpack bandages to soothe my battered boob after my stereotactic mammogram & biopsy at the Radiology Department of Women & Infants Hospital in Rhode Island. Too cute!! They had warm pink robes there, too, instead of those awful, skimpy johnnies that don’t cover everything.

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