I took annual mammograms in stride, even when I was called back for a retake. I knew I had dense breasts that sometimes made reading the images difficult. I had a routine mammogram on May 2, 2018 — my 71st birthday. The tech returned to the examining room after the radiologist looked at my films and pronounced me “good to go.” I was surprised, then, when I got a call a few days later asking me to return to the hospital for an ultrasound of my left breast. The computer detected an abnormality, but I still wasn’t concerned. There was no history of breast cancer in my family that I’d heard of, and I did regular self-exams and didn’t feel anything. I was totally unprepared when the ultrasound led to a biopsy, which was followed by a diagnosis of invasive cancer.
My family doctor delivered the diagnosis and laid out the immediate steps. He finished his call to me with, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I had surgery on June 25, 2018, to remove a 5-centimeter tumor. There was no lymph involvement, and the tumor was estrogen and progesterone positive — all good factors for successful follow-up. The initial shock of the diagnosis was followed by several months on an emotional roller coaster as I healed and learned more about cancer treatment than I ever wanted to know.
Invasive ductal carcinoma, estrogen, and progesterone positive is the most common form of breast cancer in my age group. But within that group, each woman’s cancer journey is unique. The distance between my tumor and the lymph node that drained that area of my left breast was six inches long. The surgeon essentially carved a tunnel between the two that resulted in extensive tissue damage and severed nerves.
I slept for many weeks in a recliner, wearing a sports bra 24/7. The tightness and burning in my arm, chest, and breast persisted for almost a year. Parts of my chest and arm are still numb and probably always will be. I developed cording, a painful condition in my armpit, due to the scarring of the lymph channels. I was at risk for lymphedema, a treatable – but not curable – swelling of my left arm. I went to physical therapy and spent part of each day at home doing exercises and massages. It took months before I could resume normal activities without triggering pain.
I had a series of follow-up appointments after my surgery with the specialists who would provide ongoing care. None recommended radiation, the traditional next step after a partial mastectomy. They all cited a study that concluded that women over 70 with my type of breast cancer didn’t benefit from radiation. Every adjunct therapy has side effects, and radiation can lead to several, including skin damage and a 79% greater risk of a heart attack down the road. I didn’t want radiation if I didn’t need it, but I had just turned 71 at the time of my diagnosis, and everyone else I knew who had breast cancer underwent radiation.
In an effort to explain the recommendation for not doing radiation, the first oncologist I saw said, “If you had an old car that you knew was going to break down soon, would you invest in new windshield wipers?” Talk about an insensitive, ageist remark! I fired him and consulted with three other specialists before getting comfortable with passing on radiation and limiting my treatment to a daily anti-estrogen pill. The pill mimicked menopause — causing my hair to thin, breakouts on my face, hot flashes, mood swings, and intense, periodic joint pain. I just hoped that the side effects meant it was working.
It’s not my style to succumb to a victim mentality or retreat into denial. I read everything I could about surviving breast cancer from reputable sources, ignored community chat rooms full of collective anxiety, and made some changes. There is very little solid research on what prevents breast cancer recurrence, but there are some common-sense guidelines to follow. I focused on my diet, increasing daily servings of fruits and vegetables. I decreased fat, sugar, and alcohol intake. I limited red meat, grilled and cured meats, and GMO foods and bought organic produce whenever possible. I took brisk daily walks for at least 30 minutes each day. I worked on stress reduction, journaling every morning, and listening to guided meditation recordings before bed every night. I restructured my life to keep cancer at bay.
Despite the positive changes I made to my daily routine and general mental outlook, when the time came for my first mammogram post-cancer, I was anxious. What if I’d made the wrong choice in not insisting on radiation? What if that first tumor was just a harbinger?
The mammogram was uncomfortable, and I waited for the tech to return after showing the films to the radiologist. “You’re good to go,” she said. I swallowed hard and asked, “Any chance the computer will see something different, and I’ll get a call back?” She assured me that the new mammography machine was reliable and that I was clean. My new oncologist reinforced the message when I saw her a few days later. I was now officially a breast cancer survivor for a year!
I will continue the meds for at least four more years and do annual diagnostic mammograms. I will see my oncologist regularly, and I am to report any health changes. I’ll need periodic bone density testing to see if my medication is causing my bones to thin. If so, I’ll require additional treatment.
My oncologist told me that my mammogram anxiety was normal and would likely always be there, as would the fear of cancer occurring somewhere else in my body with every symptom I experience. As I left her office, I thought of the “marathon versus sprint” analogy that my family doctor shared. The lifestyle changes that I made weren’t just to get me to that first mammogram. They were forever.
This last year has definitely changed me. The disciplined lifestyle changes resulted in a loss of almost 20% of my body weight, lowered blood pressure, and a reduction in my cholesterol meds.
People tell me that I look younger. I feel it. I have lots of energy. The most significant change, however, has been psychological. Yes, every day seems like a gift. I celebrate everything from special occasions to a beautiful dawn or a good conversation. I’m also fiercely intolerant of things that I would suffer through a year ago. I’m bored with people who don’t make me laugh easily or fail to push me to think differently. I don’t have time for false friends. I’ve always been a people-pleaser. Now, I speak my mind and let my true self show. If people don’t like me, that’s okay.
There are no guarantees that the lifestyle changes I’ve made will prolong my life, but I promise that whatever time I have left will be quality time. I’m oddly thankful for my cancer journey and confidently hopeful for my future.
To others surviving breast cancer: each path is different, and each path brings change.
Most Women with Early-Stage Breast Cancer Can Skip Chemo
Cancer, Courage, and soon, Celebration
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Are you Breast Aware?