Breast Cancer Awareness Month – It’s Personal

This particular blog article is a detour from my usual topics (anything Phantom of the Opera).  Bear with me; I’ll be back to my usual after this.  As everyone probably knows by now, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  It isn’t as if everyone ‘forgets’ about breast cancer for the other eleven months of the year – it’s that October is when outreach, information and fund-raising happens.  It’s a focused campaign, and during October a number of companies and research foundations (like BCRF) sell various items.  Percentages of the proceeds go toward funding research as well as helping lower income women get free or affordable mammograms.  Runs and walkathons are held, and it’s all about getting the word out.

I will tell you this: we women are really tired of losing our breasts and in many cases our lives to breast cancer.  A small percentage of men get breast cancer too.  But in general, women have the specter of breast cancer looming over us all our lives, just as men have the specter of prostate cancer.

This is my story; only one of many.

For me, breast cancer was always in the back of my mind as a nagging worry.  What if?   It is the cancer we fear more than any other. My right breast was always a source of pain and problems for me: it had more fibrocystic lumps than the other one, and bothered me for years.  But every year my mammogram would be fine, so I would put the worry out of my mind for a while.

As the years went by I steadily did absolutely nothing to reduce my risk.  (Now here, I am talking about what I believe personally, and I expect others may disagree but that’s ok; we are all entitled to what we believe.)  I blithely slathered my face and body with products containing parabens and all sort of other chemicals, used toxic dryer sheets and burned toxic scented candles, happily ate meat full of hormones and antibiotics, and spared no thought for whether something was GMO’d or not.  If I ate a vegetable or some salad for supper, I considered myself good in the healthy eating department.  I didn’t make time for regular exercise, and I allowed myself to gain too much weight.  In short, I was a walking poster-girl for breast cancer risk.

Six years ago, my luck ran out.

When I had my routine annual mammogram, ‘something’ didn’t look right, so I was called in for more.  These were inconclusive but the radiologist thought it was better to be safe than sorry, so I was scheduled for a needle biopsy.  Let me tell you, if you have never had one of these, it is a weird experience.  You have to lie on your stomach on a flat surface with a hole in it through which your breast pokes.  You have to lie there for quite a while.  You don’t feel the needle snaking its way through your breast tissues because they give you a local painkiller there.  Once the technician gets to the place they are looking for, they take away a bit of you and leave a little metal tag.  A marker, it’s called.  So that if more procedures are necessary (surgery), the surgeon will know exactly where to go.  That marker stays in your breast for the rest of your life.  Afterwards, you cannot leave until the bleeding stops.  I bleed very easily, and a nurse was pressing and pressing on my right breast for what seemed like an eternity before I was patched up and allowed to leave.  That was probably the most uncomfortable part.

A week later, I got the call.  There was a small amount of cancer cells in the sample.  I was promptly scheduled for a surgical biopsy. I met with the surgeon: he was incredibly handsome, as I couldn’t help but notice.  Tall, blue-eyed, Irish.  And did I mention handsome?  It was slightly distracting.  He said he would go in and remove whatever could be seen, and it would be sent away to a lab for testing.

I had never had any surgery of any kind before, and I hated not being able to drink any water for what seemed like an entire day on the day of.  And being given anesthesia was very weird.  I knew I was being wheeled into the surgery, I talked to my surgeon, but the next thing I knew, I was suddenly awake and it was over.  I was in the recovery room.  I fervently hoped while I was still under the effects of the drugs that I had not blabbed about my handsome surgeon.  That would have been very embarrassing.

About a week went by and I was recovering nicely from the surgical biopsy.  I had to wear an ice pack in my bra (a roomy jog bra works really well for this, by the way), and only needed a little ibuprofen for pain.  But I was anxiously waiting for the results to come in.  I think somehow I knew.  My husband thought I was just being my usual hypocondriacal self, and to be honest, he had a point.

To make a long story short, I had to have another surgery – luckily no lymph node removal other than the sentinel ones (what a brilliant thing, by the way, the sentinel lymph node testing).  So it was a lumpectomy followed by radiation.  I was left with a right breast that points downward, and is smaller than the other.  I wear padded bras so that people don’t notice one headlight is pointing down.  I didn’t know that I would have scar tissue and pain in that breast for years to come, but it is so.  I have to be very careful to maintain good, solid support because if I don’t, and I jog a bit or jump around and jar things, I will have pain for several days.  Whenever I go in for my annual mammograms, the technician compliments me on now nice and neat the surgery area looks, and who was my surgeon?  I tell them and then we share a giggle over his good looks.

After it was all over, I metaphorically cleaned house, I can tell you.  I joined a gym and I work out and do cardio 3 – 4 days a week.  I read labels religiously on all my skin care products and if it isn’t natural and paraben-free, I don’t use it.  I ditched any products that contain toxic anything.  We are now about 90% organic and I try my best to make my 5-a-day in the fruit/veggie department.  We eat a vegetarian supper once or twice a week, and we eat lots more fish and chicken than red meat now.  Any meat we get is vegetarian fed, no hormones, etc., and all fish is wild-caught.  I scrupulously avoid GMO foods.  I did a lot of research and joined a support group, and I take supplements like Vitamin D and garlic and a few other things designed to help bolster my immune system.  I almost never catch colds any more.

So yes, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is personal for me.  It is ever in the back of my mind that my cancer might return some day, either in my breast or somewhere else in my body.  It could be there right this minute, lurking.  I do know that if it were not for my annual mammogram, I probably would have lost my breast entirely and had to endure chemotherapy.  I consider myself one of the lucky ones, and I used my diagnosis as a teachable moment, if you will.  It is vitally important to both fund research on better treatments and help women who can’t afford mammograms to get them.

If you are a woman over 50 and you are reading this, it is my personal opinion that you ought to get that annual screening no matter what the current recommendations are.  It could make such a difference.  We don’t any of us know what is around the corner – I was reminded after my diagnosis of John Lennon’s line: Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.  I urge everyone to do what they can to support a legitimate breast cancer organization like the American Cancer Society and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.  (Before you donate to any of these organizations, do your research to be sure they are legit.) The life you save could be your own.