I have asked a very good friend of mine, G.A., who went through a mastectomy in 2011, to do an interview and describe what lead up to her cancer diagnosis and how she is doing now.
***For privacy purposes, I will refer to my friend as ‘G.A.’.
ME: Hi G.A, thank you for taking the time to give this important and informative interview on your experiences with Breast Cancer.
G.A.: You’re welcome.
ME: Have you always done the breast self-exam that we’re told to do?
G.A.: I hate to admit it, but I have rarely given myself a self-exam. I would check once in a while.
ME: Did breast cancer run in your family?
G.A.: No…there hasn’t been any breast cancer in my family, except for me.
ME: Had you had any symptoms?
G.A.: No symptoms whatsoever.
ME: How did you first find out you had breast cancer?
G.A.: I have always been prudent about getting my yearly mammogram.
In 2006, on my 50th birthday, I was dIagnosed with breast cancer and told I would need a lumpectomy. This was after a mammogram showed a ‘spot’ and then a biopsy to check for cancer. The cancer was located near the chest wall in the center of my breast, so the doctor didn’t catch it when he gave me a breast exam at my yearly gynecological appointment. Fortunately, he sent me to get a mammogram every year.
I was told a small area, where the cancer was, would be removed, plus 2 lymph nodes (which came back negative). Since the cancerous cells were going to be taken out, I wasn’t too concerned because the type of cancer I had wasn’t a fast-spreading, scary kind of breast cancer. This type of cancer responds well to tamoxifen, which I started taking after radiation treatment.
The breast cancer I had was the “estrogen receptor positive” kind. As a participant of a clinical trial, called ” Accelerated Partial Breast Irradiation” I did a special radiation treatment from the inside of the lumpectomy 2 times a day for only 5 days vs. the 4-6 weeks of whole breast radiation. This was the 1st clinical study I was in. Maybe if I had done the whole breast radiation, I wouldn’t have gotten the second bout that required the mastectomy. I also joined, and am still in, the “TAILORX study”,
They contact me once a year and get a copy of my yearly mammogram. That had to do with gene testing and whether to do just tamoxifen or tamoxifen and chemo for people who scored in the “middle” on the “oncotypedx” test.
Five years later, I got diagnosed with “ductal carcinoma in situ“ which means there were cancer cells in my milk duct. They saw micro-calcifications on my mammogram. This type of cancer doesn’t have a lump and can only be found by mammogram.
The calcifications aren’t necessarily cancer. If found on a mammogram, it has to be verified cancerous with a biopsy. I wasn’t concerned until the biopsy verified the cancer.
For 5 years, despite the lumpectomy, I still had cleavage and I felt pretty normal.
They don’t do 2 lumpectomies on the same breast, so I had to face a mastectomy. The plastic surgeon refused to do the reconstruction because I was diabetic and he didn’t feel that I would heal very well after surgery.
So, I was facing not only a mastectomy, but there would be no reconstruction.
ME: You have a husband, a son, a rather large extended family. What were their reactions?
G.A.: This is where a good marriage comes in.
My husband, who does not like me to go under the knife at all let me know that if I was able to do reconstruction later, it was for myself — not for him — because he didn’t care if I didn’t have a breast. He loved me no matter what. He also hates waiting worrying outside an operating room. He figures that more operations mean more risk of something bad happening and he just wanted me alive.
My son was worried enough to come up and ask me point-blank: “Are you going to die?” I told him, Of course..eventually, but not now and no inheritance for you yet.” He was better after that short conversation.
My cousins from my father’s side of the family who are all large-breasted like me, called and wrote. I made sure they knew that I was diagnosed by mammogram and made sure they were getting checked out every year. I believe I nagged you too.
ME: Yes, you did and I did go for a mammogram..
ME: Did you need chemotherapy or radiation?
After my mastectomy, there was no radiation or chemo. The doctors just added 5 more years that they wanted me to take tamoxifen.
ME: What would you tell women who are just going through the process now with breast cancer?
G.A.: Boy, that depends on age and circumstance.
I was in my fifties with both surgeries and I’m in a long-term relationship and not having any more kids.
This would have been much, much harder if I were younger, hadn’t had children yet or hadn’t found my soul mate. In those cases, the loss of breast(s) can have a more profound effect on a woman’s quality of life.
“Life” is the vital word in that sentence. I choose life and mourn my breast. In my types of breast cancer, I had that choice. I consider myself lucky, oddly enough.
However, if I were younger, I might have been in a better condition to get reconstruction. I think that would be important for younger women to feel normal as they got on with their lives. There is a future after most breast cancers. The key is to get checked every year and probably be better at self checks than I am.
ME: What products have you found that made your life easier since your mastectomy:
I found a bra that has the prosthesis permanently sewn in, so I don’t have to do anything but put on a bra. I also found a prosthesis that attaches to your chest wall. I’m still looking into that one. Also, when I don’t feel like putting on a prosthesis, I wear a big T-Shirt.
ME: What do you wish the doctors had done or said in he hospital to prepare you for the surgery and after-care?
G.A.: I wish I had been made better aware of the tube inserted inside of me for 10 or more days after surgery, while it’s “draining” liquid into an attached bag.
My husband would hold my bag while I took a shower.
I guess that’s True Love!
The doctors and nurses also didn’t give me much information on prostheses. I have had to do all the research on this myself.
Fortunately, there ARE people out there to help. There was a wonderful shop in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I got my prosthesis and first bras.
Plus, there’s a lot of information on-line.
ME: How are you doing now?
G.A.: I see an oncologist every 6 months.
They are happy, so I am happy that they are happy!
My last mammogram on my left breast was good. I only have to get a half of a mammogram now. I get done in half the time. I forgot to make sure if they charge me half price now. Okay, I’m done with the ” halves” now.
My present oncologist thinks I should consider the reconstruction, and wants to recommend a plastic surgeon, who might still say they won’t do it. I’m just thinking about it now.
ME: Thank you so much for being so candid and getting this information out.
G.A.: You’re welcome!
National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc.
Susan G. Komen.org
Breast Cancer Health Center – WebMD