A Fifth

Disclaimers:

  • It’s taken me a long time (5 years) to write about my fifth experience with breast cancer because I’ve been through a number of changes, including the illness and passing of my dear husband, Mike, in June of 2020 after 38+ years of a good marriage. He was 77 and I was 70. But there have been good changes too.
  • One of the breast “cancers” I’ve had was DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma In Situ) in 2006 (right breast). It was triple positive (hormone receptive), following a triple negative in the left breast. I include it in my history because the medical world treats it as cancer when, in fact, it’s a non-invasive tumor surrounded by healthy cells and has been found in autopsies of women who had no record of breast cancer or of DCIS. For all I know, it’s a normal body thing. But since I’d had triple negative in the left breast, it was agreed by all that removing the DCIS from my right breast made sense. There was no treatment for it beyond a lumpectomy.
  • This is long. I’m sorry. There was a lot to it.

~~~

In November of 2016, my breast cancer surgeon (Dr. Rebecca Yang) found another cancer along the scar line of the preceding surgery. She guessed it was the same cancer and I can’t argue about that: I don’t have the paperwork to know if it, too, was an entirely different type of breast cancer as the others had been. Given my history, it probably was; but I’ll give Dr. Yang the benefit of the doubt, because she earned my respect and trust.

I first met Dr. Yang at the hospital nearest my home. But by this time, she’d moved to the Lahey Clinic in Peabody, MA, and was heavily booked. Still, she always took enough time to set me at ease. The day she suspected another cancer in the left breast she told me she’d like me to get an ultrasound biopsy before I left. I agreed. My dear husband, Mike, sat in the waiting room for about 3 hours that day.

As the ultrasound was getting underway, I was laying on a table with a doctor at my side who was injecting a numbing solution … in the wrong place. I told her she wasn’t numbing the area she’d be working on and she told me she was where she needed to be. We waited 15 minutes for the lidocaine (or whatever it was) to take hold, and then she got to business. I was right: she hadn’t numbed the area she was working on so she was digging out a sample of the tissue from my left breast without anything to numb my pain. In a knee-jerk reaction, I pulled away from her and cried out that the area wasn’t numb and the procedure hurt a LOT! She told me to lay still or the biopsy would be scheduled for another time because she had a busy schedule. (The Lahey Clinic in Peabody, MA is an hour commute each way, so delaying the biopsy would mean another half day dealing with this.) I gritted my teeth and tears ran down my cheeks, while she removed tissue from the breast. When she was done she quickly left the room, and the nurse who’d been there during the procedure suggested I not get up for a while. She handed me a tissue to wipe my eyes and asked if I’d like something to drink. I asked for Ginger Ale but was unable to sit up to drink it.

Dr. Yang had told me the tumor was “on the wimpy side” and there was no hurry to remove it. I was fine with that BUT it meant I’d be going through a 4th surgery on my left breast, which was already considerably smaller than my right breast due to the prior surgeries. I asked if it was possible to adjust my breasts so they’d be about the same size. She said yes, adding that she knew a good Plastic Surgeon with an office down the hall from her department. 

My husband and I met Dr. Wou, Plastic Surgeon, about 2 months later at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, MA. We waited about 45 minutes before my name was called. Mike and I then sat in one of his offices for another 15 minutes before Dr. Wou came in. He was in his 40s, friendly, and willing to talk. 

Both Mike and I complained about the wait. Dr. Wou suggested that for future visits, I should see him at the Peabody, MA location because “they only double-book there”. I asked what that meant and he told me appointments are made for two patients at the same time in Peabody, whereas in Burlington appointments are made for three patients at the same time. I hadn’t heard of this practice and was stunned. How does that make any sense? We agreed to meet him in Peabody for future appointments.

Mike and I said we thought the double and triple bookings must be an effort to increase hospital profits, to which Dr. Wou replied: “That’s not so. This hospital doesn’t make a profit.” We looked at him, confused. He explained (and I paraphrase): “Hospital doctors like me don’t make the kind of money most people think, and we have no say about how things are run. I have no control over the decision to double or triple book appointments. In fact, I have three Plastic Surgeons who report to me here and that’s it. I have no authority over the nurses and aides, or the policies of this department.” 

We pressed the point: How could it be that the hospital was making policies which didn’t improve profits? Dr. Wou responded: “There are three industries making a profit from medical care these days: pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, and software programmers.” 

For the first time, some of the changes I’d seen over the years began to make sense. The reception desks which once had 4 or 5 staff gradually wore down to 1 or 2 staff — with long lines of patients waiting to check in. Unlike 20 years ago, when checking in was quick, today the person checking me in nearly always says: “the computer is really slow today”, or “I’m having problems with my computer.” Comments like these aren’t limited to medical settings either: I hear them at banks, retail stores, suppliers, vendors, online customer service … anyone using a computer to keep the records. (A subject for another post.)

Dr. Wou looked at my breasts and told me he could remove the (many) ugly scars from previous surgeries on the irradiated left breast, and he’d make both breasts the same size. He took my measurements, and told me he’d get together with Dr. Yang to look at their calendars and schedule a date for surgery. The date was eventually set for July 26, 2017, over six months after the diagnosis and botched ultrasound procedure.

As with all prior surgeries, I had a pre-surgical appointment a week before surgery to provide current information and to talk with the anesthesiologist. For the surgery that would take place in Peabody, I needed to go to the Burlington office for this. When I asked about that, I was told “that’s how we do it.”

By then I’d compiled a summary of my medical history because it’s too long to write it out for new doctors. The summary goes into detail about difficulties I’ve had with painkillers and anesthesia: I’ve awakened during surgery twice; for an in-office sigmoidoscopy I was given insufficient anesthesia and was in pain while the doctor ignored my urging for more anesthesia; and I’ve awakened in post-op more than once at a pain level of 10. In short, I need more anesthesia and painkiller than the average patient, and I need to convince anesthesiologists to believe me. Based on this, I’ve concluded they don’t read my chart to see how I did with previous surgeries. That seems negligent, but I won’t dwell. They’re under more pressure than most of us know.

For the Burlington pre-op appointment, I asked for extra time with the anesthesiologist to go over my history so he or she could adjust the dosages for pre- during- and post-op. I gave the anesthesiologist the history I’d compiled, and drew his attention to the sections on poor responses to painkillers and anesthesia. To me, the man looked bored, so I left hoping the information I’d provided would at least make it into my chart.

On the morning of the surgery, my husband and I were the first to arrive on the surgical floor, and I was the first called into pre-op. I wasn’t given pre-surgical “calming” medication because “we need you to be alert when the doctor sees you before surgery”. The anesthesiologist poked his head into the room and introduced himself. He wasn’t the same guy I’d talked with in Burlington, which was discouraging. He told me he’d prescribed morphine for post-op and that’s when I lost it: morphine worsens pain for me, which was on the summary of my medical history and something I’d stressed with the anesthesiologist in Burlington. I told the Peabody anesthesiologist what I’d told the guy in Burlington and asked if he’d even gotten a copy of the medical history. No, he hadn’t gotten anything. While my husband went to the car to get an extra copy of the summary I’d compiled, I told the anesthesiologist the only painkillers I know of which are successful for me are oxycodone and oxycontin. He told me Lahey doesn’t carry IV oxycodone or oxycontin so that wasn’t an option. I asked him why that was and he told me he guessed those drugs weren’t included in the negotiations Lahey had had with the pharmaceutical vendor for IV painkillers. I was quite agitated when Dr. Yang happened to arrive and heard why I was upset. My husband was back from the car and handed her the copy of the summary I’d prepared and she ordered it be scanned and put in my chart. 

The anesthesiologist had disappeared while Dr. Yang, and then Dr. Wou, came to see me pre-surgery. I was in distress that my concerns had been ignored, although both surgeons assured me the situation would be dealt with and my pain would be controlled. Shortly after they left, the anesthesiologist came back to the room and told me he’d changed the post-op medication to Fentanyl. I’d never had Fentanyl for pain, but figured I had little option.

Before long, I was wheeled into the operating room where the anesthesia quickly knocked me out and, to their credit, I didn’t awaken during surgery. However, when I came-to in post-op, my pain was at level 10. It was as if both breasts had been attacked with knives and I’d been left on a roadside in pain: except I was in post-op with nurses who didn’t know what to do. I cried. (Side note: I later learned the dosage of Fentanyl the anesthesiologist had prescribed had to have been too low for my body and thus didn’t do any good. Years later, on an unrelated issue, an anesthesiologist fully listened to my problem and used enough Fentanyl to keep me out of pain during and post-procedure.)

The post-op nurses at Lahey met with other nurses, but nothing came of any of it for 5 hours. You read that right: I was in post-op for 5 hours at a pain level of 10. Why? The anesthesiologist had moved on to other surgeries, so they were unable to reach him. And no, there wasn’t anyone else they could talk with. And no, they couldn’t give me any other kind of painkiller because they needed a doctor’s prescription to do that. Eventually, I was given oral oxycontin and within 5 minutes, the pain subsided. I was told I could spend the night at the hospital or go home. Given the uncertainty of the pain, I decided to stay the night where (I hoped) there’d be a doctor who could help if the pain shot back up. The nurses made notes in my chart, letting my husband and me know I’d be given a dose of oxycodone in another 4 hours to keep the pain at bay. And from there I was rolled into a hospital room with a lounge chair on which my husband would sleep that night. (Yes, he was that protective of me.)

As the four hour time period began to come to a close, the pain began to shoot up. I pressed the button to call for a nurse, but no one came. After 10 minutes or so, my husband went to find a nurse to let her know I was in pain and it was time for my next dose of painkiller. The nurse came into the room nearly stomping her feet. She told my husband and me that she wasn’t required to follow the instructions of the post-op nurses, and that I’d get painkiller when she was doing her rounds and not before. She then turned and stormed out of the room. 

My husband (my hero and advocate) followed her while yelling that his wife needs the painkiller NOW! The nurse phoned the hospital’s security and, as later reported to me by Mike, when the security guard arrived and the nurse told him to remove Mike from the premises, the guard looked at Mike and then at the nurse and said: “Ma’am, his wife is in pain. Why don’t you give her the medication she needs?” Then the guard turned around and left. 

 I got my medication and was able to fall asleep without pain. I was awakened once in the middle of the night for another dose, and when I awoke the next morning, I was given another dose and then a woman I’d never seen before arrived and told me it was time to go home. She hurriedly asked how I was feeling and I tried to tell her I was in a lot of discomfort, but she handed me prescriptions for Oxycontin and Oxycodone and told me to take them as needed. I got dressed as best I could, and Mike drove the hour it took to get me to my own bed. The following morning (a Sunday) I awoke again at pain level 10 and the painkillers weren’t helping. I told my Mike I thought I needed to get to the E/R at the hospital near our home.

When I got into an E/R room, a Physician’s Assistant (PA) came in to see me. Mike and I told him what was happening and the PA asked if he could have a look. While I’d been in surgery, a bra had been put over the area that was operated on, and when the PA removed that bra, 80% of the pain immediately disappeared. It turned out the bra itself was digging into two of the incisions made by the Plastic Surgeon. I was so relieved I told the PA he’d fixed it and it was okay to send me home.

I had an appointment with Dr. Wou (the Plastic Surgeon) the next day. I told him about the E/R and the bra, and he told me I should have gone to the Lahey E/R (an hour from my home). I told him that was unrealistic. He also told me I didn’t need to wear the bra, or any bra if it was uncomfortable.

Dr. Wou then looked at the incisions and told me everything looked like it should, and that it would take a while to heal. He made another appointment to see me in a week. I had an appointment with Dr. Yang that same week and asked if he could fit me in on the same day, and he did (kind of).

Dr. Yang was very pleased with the outcome of the surgeries, and told me further follow-ups would be with Dr. Wou. And thus began a series of appointments with Dr. Wou which generally required waiting at least an hour. Meanwhile, the incision made by Dr. Yang was healing, but the incisions made by Dr. Wou were still open wounds. My sisters, both retired RNs, looked at the incisions and suggested I ask to see a wound specialist. When I next saw Dr. Wou I asked about seeing a wound specialist and he told me he’s the wound specialist, and that other doctors from around the area send patients to him for wound healing! He said I needed to get into the shower and spray each open wound (on each breast) with water as hot as I could take it, twice a day for 15 minutes/breast, and that the wounds would eventually heal.

On the fifth or sixth appointment with Dr. Wou, in late October 2017, my husband and I waited an hour and forty-five minutes before we were called into the doctor’s office. I was given a Johnny which I put on after removing my sweater, and my husband and I waited for the good doctor. Twenty minutes later his nurse came in and said the doctor is running late but should be with me in 15 or 20 minutes. Twenty minutes later the nurse came in and said the same thing. After she left the room, I told my husband I was done. I tossed off the Johnny, put my sweater back on, and asked my husband if he was ready to go. He said he was and we walked out of the office into the hallway where we saw Dr. Wou talking with two nurses. There was a chorus of “Oh no! Don’t leave!” To which I responded: “We’ve waited for more than two hours and are not going to wait any longer.” Dr. Wou came up to me and told me he’d at least like to see the incisions. I lifted my sweater and let him look. As he did so, I asked how long it would be before the open wounds would close. He told me to keep watering them, and said they should be closed by the end of the year. He added he’d like to see me once they healed, and I nodded.

It turned out Dr. Wou was right: it took 6 months of “watering my wounds” before they finally closed, leaving new scars and one breast smaller and higher than the other. I never went back to see him.

Soon after, I got a letter from Dr. Yang letting me know she’d gotten a job in New Jersey. I’d known she was unhappy at Lahey, so I wasn’t surprised she was leaving, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do without her. For nearly 18 years she’d been a trusted source of breast cancer care.

In time, I decided my breasts and I can’t take another surgery, and if I get another breast cancer it’s not going to be treated in any way. I stopped taking supplements to prevent breast cancer because it was clear they weren’t working for me. I stopped worrying about what I eat or drink or how often. I stopped thinking about breast cancer except to establish a relationship with a breast cancer surgeon who works at the hospital closest to me. I did this because if I do get another breast cancer, I’ll need someone within the system to refer me to hospice care. I was honest with the surgeon about why I was there and, to my gratitude, she agreed without a fuss.

And that’s been my relationship with breast cancer since 2017. As I write this, it’s late November, 2022, so I’ve gone 5 years without another one. I’ve stopped getting mammograms, I’ve stopped feeling for lumps, I’ve stopped wearing a bra, I’ve had to take a mild (non-opioid) painkiller for chronic pain across my chest because Dr. Wou’s surgery evidently pulled the cartilage too tight and there’s nothing that can be done to fix it. I’ve also stopped worrying if I’m going to die. Of course I’m going to die, and I have no say over how or when that will happen. No one gets out alive. There’s only one person responsible for the quality of my life between now and “lift off”, so I’m focused on living as peacefully, lovingly, and happily as I can.

A Note To New Readers and/or those who are newly diagnosed:

Please remember I’m now 73 years old and have lived with breast cancer(s) since I was 50. It’s very possible I’ll live into my mid-’80s! So my situation is unique to me. If you’ve been newly diagnosed, and especially if you’re younger than 60, don’t let my experiences — or my current approach — discourage you. And don’t panic! You have time to research the treatments prescribed for you, and I urge you to do that. But most importantly, listen to your body while also learning all you can about your diagnosis so your “intellectual voice” and that “little voice in your head” are in alignment before you make any major treatment decisions.

The odds of surviving breast cancer can be very good. The more you know about it, the better your odds. (Honest.)

~~~

If you or a loved one are struggling with decisions about breast cancer, here are a few points I’ve learned that might help:

  • After the age of 60, the efficacy of chemotherapy is 2% or less in real numbers. Oncologists know this, but don’t tell you.
  • Younger patients have better outcomes with chemotherapy and radiation than older patients.
  • Radiation creates an environment that increases the risk of further breast cancer after 10 years. The doctors know this but probably won’t tell you.
  • Chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone treatments have side effects and some can be long term. Do your research before agreeing to anything.
  • After a breast cancer diagnosis, there is usually no reason to rush, although the medical world might try to get you to schedule appointments with Oncologists and surgeons the same day you learn the diagnosis.
  • If it’s in you, research breast cancer and medical decisions. I started with “Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book”, but there are many others. Two recommendations: “Your Medical Mind”, and “Radical Remission”.
  • DCIS is pre-cancerous. It’s “Stage 0”.
  • If you’re considering your doctor’s treatment recommendations, ask for summaries of studies done on other patients with similar characteristics to yours (age, race, hormone status, stage, etc.), then read them to see how well the patients did on the treatment that’s been recommended and take that information into account as part of your decision(s).
  • Don’t let a doctor or a loved one frighten or rush you into making a decision about your treatment(s). You have to believe in what you decide to do. Your thoughts affect your cells. (It’s true!)
  • Removing your breasts won’t remove the possibility of more breast cancer on your chest wall.
  • The medical system in the US has deteriorated to the point where patient comfort is not a high priority. You must have an advocate or advocate for yourself. This is easier when you’re listening to, and believe, what your body is telling you.
  • It’s your body. You’ll be living with your decisions for the rest of your life. And guess what? It’s your right.
  • I wish you the courage to do what you feel is best, and to embrace whatever comes next.

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Breast Cancer, Again

In September of 2011, I had my third breast cancer removed. In November of 2014, I learned I have a fourth breast cancer. As with all the others, this one is different in character from the previous breast cancers I’ve had. That means it’s known as a “primary” breast cancer, rather than a “recurrence” or a “metastasis”. For reasons I don’t understand, my body makes different kinds of breast cancers. Over the years, I’ve come to learn about each one … not as well as a medical student, but enough to be reasonably educated about my treatment options and decisions.

My initial response to this news (which I got late yesterday afternoon) could be characterized as “numbness”, or maybe I’m just used to it by now. I’m not frightened by it. I’m not worried or concerned about it. Based on what the breast cancer surgeon told me, the tumor size is less than 1 cm (Stage 1), and it’s not aggressive. As breast cancer tumors go, it’s on the whimpy side. In a very real sense, it’s hardly worth getting worked up about.

But here’s the thing: this breast has now had three breast cancers, and with this latest one, it will have had three surgeries (lumpectomies) to remove the tumors. It’s also been through radiation (first breast cancer), which means:

1. Radiation doesn’t prevent further breast cancer in the breast that’s been treated (I really wish I’d known that back in 2001);

2. Skin that’s been irradiated doesn’t heal as well as “normal” skin, so my post-surgical recovery is going to be less than predictable. I’m hoping for the best, of course. I always do.

The above is so matter-of-fact, I’d have skipped it, but in case you happen to be reading this at a time when you’re trying to decide whether to go through breast radiation, I decided to give it a mention. My best advice: learn all you can about it, and (most importantly) listen to your body. My experience with radiation didn’t work out all that well for me, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. Do your homework, then give a healthy dose of credence to your gut instinct.

My homework now is to try to figure out what to do about my body’s inclination to make breast cancer. Since my last “bout” in 2011, I’ve been on supplements designed to keep breast cancer away. So this news will be upsetting to my very fine naturopathic doctor, who has been my guide on supplements and inspiration for alternative treatments. I can’t say I’ve been the idyllic patient (I drink too much wine), but I haven’t been entirely irresponsible either. In truth, it doesn’t matter: the approach didn’t work. So now what? I’m sure she’ll be wondering the same thing. It’s a set-back, but I already know there’s no sure cure. How can I blame anyone for doing their best to help and it didn’t work? I can’t.

Other than the decision to go through radiation in 2001 (a decision I regret), I’ve refused all other “standard care”. That means I’ve turned down chemo, Tamoxifen, Arimidex, and the like. Why? The side-effects can seriously impact quality of life, even after you stop taking the drugs. I know this because I’ve searched the web and found far too many women posting their stories about the experiences they’ve had with these drugs, including lingering and painful side effects for years after they’ve stopped taking them. Without consulting their doctor, many have taken themselves off the drugs. All too often, I’ve read “A life like this isn’t worth living”.

A rational reader would understandably wonder why I’d assume I’d have these negative side-effects, since not all patients do. I have only one answer for that: when it comes to my health, if something rare can happen it’s going to happen to me. If you were to put me on a bell curve with other breast cancer patients, I am — in all respects — at the far edge of the curve: no where NEAR the middle. Thus, even a small chance of life-long joint pain, or debilitating fatigue, isn’t worth the risk to me.

So here I go again. I’ll research what I can find and then listen to my body. One problem right off the bat: the medical community doesn’t follow women who refuse post-surgical care. Standard western medicine doesn’t know how many breast cancer patients have survived or died as a result of refusing chemo, radiation, drugs, and/or surgery. They have little information about, or interest in, what patients are doing for themselves. That means they don’t have all the relevant information when they present findings of their clinical trials. Since they don’t track, or include, information about those of us who don’t buy their wares, their information is incomplete. Or, put another way: their science is incomplete.

At best, I can do Google searches on terms for patients like me, which goes something like this: “65 year old with history of 4 primary breast cancers”. There are many variations for this kind of search (I tried all I could think of when I was at 3; researching for 4 won’t be easier). With luck, I might find a chat room where there’ll be a woman or two with a history similar to mine. But for the most part, this is a road I’ll need to pave for myself. So far, I’m okay with that.

Helping Those Who’ve Been Diagnosed with Breast Cancer

As a survivor of five breast cancers, I’ve been asked by family and friends who know my history to offer help and/or guidance and/or advice to women who’ve been recently diagnosed with breast cancer and who, most often, are freaking out.

Naturally, I always do what I can, but one fact has become crystal clear: every woman responds differently to hearing she has breast cancer. Some want to know just enough to get by, some just want the doctor to “fix it”, and others are voracious in their need for information. This is important to know if you’re going to try to help others on their breast cancer journey.

A quick summary of my approach to my own breast cancers

I’ve had to know everything about each of my breast cancers (all five have been different). I researched, studied, got second (and sometimes third) opinions, and based my treatment decisions on what I’d learned. I assumed the role of  “Medical Team Captain” and (honest) I interviewed the practitioners I was referred to and decided whether or not I wanted them on my team. In short: my doctors worked for me, not the other way around. That might seem arrogant or blind-sided, but it was what brought me peace as I made my way through the difficult decisions that needed to be made. The more I knew, the more comfortable I was with my choices.

My first breast cancer “mentoring” 

Shortly after my second breast cancer, a young woman was referred to me by a friend. The woman had already seen a surgeon and a chemotherapist and she was afraid of the surgery as well as the recommended follow-up chemo. I suggested she get a copy of Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book — my first guidebook for making my way through the jungle of breast cancer care. But it turned out she didn’t want to read it: she just wanted to tell me how she felt and wondered aloud about what to expect.

Without having the specifics (particularly the stage at time of diagnosis), I wasn’t able to tell her much. I urged her to get a copy of the lab report from her recent biopsy and to visit with me again when she had  that information. I didn’t hear from her for well over two months.

Eventually, she did get back to me: after she’d had a lumpectomy. Now she had a new problem: the incision wasn’t healing and it had been two months since her surgery. Her surgeon had told her to keep a compress on her breast and to wait it out. I was appalled.

I suggested she get a second opinion from another surgeon but she was afraid it would upset the surgeon she was already seeing. Two months later she contacted me again: the incision was still not healed and she was still resistant to seeing another doctor. I reluctantly wound up telling her she’d be fine, even though I didn’t have a clue if that was true. But it’s my belief that our thoughts affect our physical well-being, so positive support made sense. Besides, what else could I do?

Although I didn’t tell her this, I was shocked by her lack of concern for herself, and her reliance on the surgeon. This was my first venture into helping another with their breast cancer, and I felt I’d failed miserably.

After giving this a lot of thought, I realized she’d come to me three times and — all three times — what she’d wanted was someone to talk with; or, more accurately, someone to listen. I’d made the mistake of thinking she wanted more.

This was a painful lesson to learn, but an important one. When another is dealing with breast cancer, they’ve got their own gut response (however nutty I might think it is) and the least I can do is respect that. Since then, I’ve learned to customize my input to the genuine needs of the woman who’s asking.

How to Know What to Say or Do

When one of my family members was diagnosed with breast cancer, I reached out to her. She responded that she just wanted the doctor to “get rid of it”. I desperately wanted her to understand her treatment options, and that there are no guarantees that a doctor can “get rid of it”. I asked her if she knew the results of the biopsy she’d had. She didn’t and, what’s more, she didn’t want to know. Her lack of interest in digging deeper was my guide to knowing what to tell her. She was most comfortable not knowing the nitty gritty of breast cancer, so I told her  the odds of her living a long and happy life were  good. This has the advantage of being true:  one in three women die of breast cancer, so without knowing more than that, I knew she had at least a 66% chance of surviving breast cancer. Because she wasn’t talking about it, I’m not sure what she went through, but I believe she had a lumpectomy and chemotherapy, and possibly radiation. To this day I don’t know what stage she was at when she was diagnosed, or any other characteristics of her tumor. It’s behind her now and that’s all she wanted. In short, knowing what to say or do is fairly easy: just pay attention to what the woman is saying or not saying and let that be your guide.

For those who want to know all about it

One of my oldest and dearest friends was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She phoned me shortly after she’d had a biopsy and was waiting for an appointment to see a surgeon to whom she’d been referred by the mammogram screening group. Her mother had had breast cancer when she was in her 40s or 50s and had dealt with it by having a double mastectomy. When her mom was in her 80s, she had another breast cancer grow on her chest wall. Her mom spent the last two years of her life in pain from repeated chemotherapy treatments until her children  finally stepped in and told the oncologist “enough is enough”. My friend’s mother died a month or two later. After she died, I told my friend that the effectiveness of chemotherapy declines as we age and that, in my opinion, the oncologist who treated her 80+-year-old mom with repeated doses of chemo had done so knowing the likelihood of success was almost nil.

The experience with her mother gave my friend an appreciation for knowing more about her own diagnosis; something I was more than happy to help her with. As with all newly diagnosed patients I’ve talked with, I first wanted to calm her down as much as possible. Since she knew the size of the tumor was relatively small, I told her the likelihood of her living a long and healthy life was very good. I also told her she’d be joining a wonderful group of women who’ve survived breast cancer. I promised her there are blessings she’ll come to appreciate which she might not have come to know about without going through breast cancer. Then I turned toward the nitty gritty and asked her to send me a copy of the lab report from her biopsy. Within a week, I got the report and saw she was at the border between Stage 1 and Stage 2, with a tumor slightly less than 2 centimeters in size. The hormone receptors were positive (more on that in a bit). From that information, I was able to tell her the treatment recommendations she’d be given would include surgery,  chemotherapy, possibly radiation, and  hormone-blocking supplements such as Tamoxifen or Arimidex.

A week or so later, she called to tell me she’d seen the surgeon and had been told exactly what I’d predicted. In fact, the surgeon had told her that, as breast cancer goes, she’d gotten the best of all worlds: every treatment available would benefit her. That was my cue to more fully customize my input to meet my friend’s level of interest and need. I prefaced what I told her with a statement that she MUST listen to her own body and accept or reject what I told her based on her gut instinct and not on my say so or on what any doctor (or anyone else) told her. As always, I recommended she get a copy of Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book and read it from cover to cover. I also told her to ask her doctors for summaries of studies that would support their treatment recommendations and for her to read them well, looking up words she wasn’t familiar with so she’d honestly understand as best she could.

By the time she was through with her research, she switched surgeons twice and ended up with one who practices standard treatment of care as well as alternative treatments. She decided to have a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery and skipped all other treatments other than focusing on some changes in her diet and lifestyle, and adding some supplements to her daily routine. She knows she might get another breast cancer in the other breast, or one on the chest wall of the reconstructed breast, but she’s comfortable with her decisions. Being comfortable with the decisions made in treating ones breast cancer is key to quality of life — during and after the whole ordeal. Lastly, I urged her to make plans to do something on her “bucket list” when her treatments were complete. In my case, I’d taken a cruise of the Mediterranean. In her case, she decided to move to Colorado.

A summary of what I’ve learned that may be helpful to others

I’m not a doctor who’s been trained in treating breast cancer, so the information I have has been gathered by me through reading, talking with other patients and practitioners, and my own experience. I can’t guarantee that everything I claim to know is accurate. My purpose in sharing the following is to point you in directions I believe will be of use. You (or the woman you’re trying to help) would be wise to do your own research and consult your doctors with what you learn. You might be pleasantly surprised to find there are doctors that value patients who advocate for themselves.

  • When a tumor is caught early (at under 2cm) and the cancer hasn’t reached the lymph system, the likelihood of NO recurrence (without treatment beyond having the tumor removed) is about 85%. That means there’s a 15% chance of recurrence. Under these conditions, when a patient is told that chemotherapy or radiation can cut the chance of a recurrence by 50%, the 50% refers to half of 15%. In real numbers, it’s a 7.5% benefit.
  • A mastectomy doesn’t mean you’ve eliminated all possibility of having breast cancer: breast cancer can form on the chest wall.
  • A lumpectomy plus radiation offers the statistical equivalent of a mastectomy in terms of 5-year disease-free survival.
  • Radiation to the breast can create an environment in which another breast cancer will form in that breast about 10 years later. (This is what happened with me.)
  • Hormone treatments are believed to prevent further breast cancer for estrogen receptor positive (ER+) and progesterone receptive positive (PR+) tumors. Estrogen and progesterone are natural hormones which some breast cancers need in order to grow. You’ll know if a tumor is ER and/or PR positive by reading the lab reports from a biopsy or the  surgery. You can simply ask for a copy.
  • Her2Neu is a term you’ll likely see on lab reports. It stands for “Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2”, which is a protein that adds aggressiveness to breast cancer. Herceptin is one of the current medicines recommended to prevent recurrence or metastasis of Her2Neu positive breast cancers. The 5-year disease-free survival rate when using Herceptin is reportedly around 80-85%, depending on the stage and agressivness of the tumor. Personally, 5 years doesn’t seem that long to me.
  • A “triple negative” diagnosis means the breast cancer tumor didn’t respond to estrogen or progesterone when tested in the lab, and the Her2Neu protein wasn’t present either. In this situation, the medical world doesn’t have a clear idea of how or why the cancer developed. For this reason, many practitioners feel it’s a more “dangerous” version of breast cancer. (This information about “triple negative” was given to me by an Oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL.) Treatment recommendations often parallel those of made for patients with E/R+, P/R+ and Her2Neu+. It doesn’t make much sense, but that’s what’s been done. My first breast cancer was triple negative. I had a lumpectomy to remove the 1.2 cm tumor, followed by 33 radiation sessions. I refused chemotherapy because my gut didn’t respond well to the idea of it, and I couldn’t find studies to support the recommendation. These were treatment decisions I made based on my own research. As I write, that was over 13 years ago. I haven’t had a recurrence or metastasis of that triple negative breast cancer.
  • A diagnosis of “DCIS” (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ) is Stage 0, meaning it’s pre-cancerous and it may never become an invasive cancer. It means there are cancer cells contained within a cocoon of healthy cells. Autopsies have been done on women who died of causes other than breast cancer in which DCIS was found in their breasts. These women probably had no idea they had it. As of 2013, a diagnosis of DCIS is often treated as if it were an invasive cancer. There’s a conversation going on within the medical community about whether or not this is the right thing to do. There’s even discussion to change the name of this “growth” to remove the word “carcinoma” (which means “cancer”) from the name. Some women have had a double mastectomy after a diagnosis of DCIS. If that’s what makes them most comfortable, it’s the right decision for them. But it’s not necessarily the right decision for everyone. Remember: removing the breasts doesn’t guarantee there won’t be a recurrence or new breast cancer on the chest wall. (My second breast cancer was DCIS, this time triple positive, so the cancerous cells were completely different from my first breast cancer. Since I’d already had one breast cancer 5 years prior, I opted for a lumpectomy and no further treatment because that’s what made the most sense to me, despite recommendations that I go through chemotherapy.)
  • The most common form of breast cancer (not including DCIS) is Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC): the cancer forms in the lining of a milk duct. A less common form is Invasive Lobular Carcinoma (ILC): the cancer forms in the milk glands (lobes), which are connected to the ducts. My third breast cancer was ILC, ER+, PR+, Her2Neu negative. Again, I opted for a lumpectomy and nothing more.
  • There’s a rare form of breast cancer called Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC). The chances of surviving this are not good using “standard treatment of care” (which is very aggressive and is what’s offered by western medical doctors). Alternative treatments may well be the best option.  (I was incorrectly diagnosed with IBC by a doctor at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL. It wasn’t fun. In the end, it turned out I didn’t have any form of cancer. The full story is in an earlier post.)
  • By the way, after my third breast cancer diagnosis, it made sense for me to be tested for the breast cancer (BRCA) genes: BRCA1 and BRCA2. Although breast cancer runs in my family, the test results were negative. There may be other gene “deformities” that contribute to breast cancer. They’re still working on it.
  • If you’ve already had surgery on one or both breasts, then later opt for a mastectomy (or double mastectomy), there’s about a 25% chance that you’ll experience severe pain in your chest for the rest of your life.
  • Chemotherapy has helped many women survive breast cancer. Based on what I’ve observed, it is most effective for younger women with E/R and P/R positive tumors. Chemotherapy doesn’t guarantee there won’t be further breast cancer, particularly if the cancer has metastasized (chemo doesn’t reach the brain, so women who’ve had chemotherapy have died of “brain cancer” … which is really breast cancer that spread to the brain: a biopsy of the brain cells affected by the cancer shows the same traits as the cells of the woman’s breast cancer).
  • Tamoxifen and Arimidex have some serious and heavy duty side effects, although some women don’t feel them at all or feel them for only a short period. For those who do feel the side effects (bone and joint pain being big ones), many women switch from one drug to the other, and others stop taking the drugs entirely before the prescribed 5 or 10 years (often stopping within 1 or 2 years). There is some indication that once you’ve been through 5 years on either Tamoxifen or Arimidex, there’s an unspecified but (in my view) relatively high likelihood of a recurrence within a year or two after stopping the drug. Oncologists would argue with me about that and I admit I could be wrong.
  • All treatments offered under the western “standard of care” have both short- and long-term side effects. It’s worth the effort to find out what they are. Each woman knows her body better than anyone else, so she also has the tools she needs to decide whether or not the treatment is worth the risk of the side-effects. Some women don’t trust themselves to do this. Those who do trust themselves tend to have better outcomes. Even doctors agree with this. In my case, what works for other patients usually won’t work for me. I fall outside the norm in almost every area of my medical history. I know this about me: I’m likely to awaken mid-surgery, or feel excruciating pain in post-op despite the fact that I’ve been given pain killers to ensure that won’t happen. So I go in advocating for close attention to my response to “normal” doses of pain killers. That’s just one area where my response to care will differ from those of most patients.
  • To get a full understanding of how side effects could impact you, Google “patient comments on _______” (insert the treatment name or drug). You want to find a site where women who’ve gone through it are posting their experiences with it. Take care to note the site’s host. If it’s a breast cancer center, you’re not likely to get completely unbiased information.
  • The lack of adequate iodine in the body may account for the development and/or recurrence of breast cancer. Iodine supplements have, in fact, reduced tumors entirely, eliminating them without surgery. For more information on this, see http://www.breastcancerchoices.org, or read Lynn Farrow’s book “The Iodine Crisis” as well as Dr. David Brownstein’s book “Iodine: Why You Need it, Why You Can’t Live Without It.”
  • Some women approach their breast cancer care by completely changing their diet and lifestyle. The Gerson diet has reportedly had very good results, although I knew a woman who used that approach and she died anyway. (Once breast cancer has reached the brain, the Gerson diet, like chemotherapy, doesn’t help.) A macrobiotic diet might help (this is what Steve Jobs of Apple Computer tried), and a nutrient dense diet might do the trick. Injections of a certain type of liquidized mistletoe is used in Germany, with reportedly excellent results.
  • The main thing to understand is that cancer develops because the immune system hasn’t worked well enough to stop it … so if you’re going to approach treatment (wholly or in part) with alternative methods, you’d be wise to focus on boosting your immune system. There are blood tests that identify which parts of your immune system are weak, and supplements are available that will strengthen those areas. A well-trained and experienced Naturopathic Doctor is the person to help you with this.
  • If you decide to go through chemotherapy and/or radiation, acupuncture and homeopathic remedies can ease the side effects. In my case, the fatigue from radiation affected me after the second “dose”. By sheer luck, I got an acupuncture treatment that restored my energy for about a week. I had acupuncture weekly while going through radiation, which is how I managed to keep working during the treatment. A skilled acupuncturist is worth his or her weight in gold. If they also happen to be a talented Naturopathic Doctor (or if you can find specialists in each area), all the better.
  • In my opinion, the best way to decide which treatments to go through is to listen to what your body is telling you. If you’re told you need chemotherapy and your body (gut) reacts negatively to that news, note the reaction then gather all the information you can find. Compare the traits of your breast cancer with studies that support the doctor’s recommendation. Make sure the outcome for women similarly situated to you is beneficial. (I was given a summary of a study by the head of the Dana Farber Breast Cancer Center during my first breast cancer. He was adamant that I needed to go through chemotherapy. In fact, he was visibly upset that I’d question his knowledge and experience. When I read the summary of the studies he gave me, I noted the results indicated that women with similar breast cancer traits to mine — who weren’t treated with chemotherapy — did better than those who got chemo. When I pointed this out to the doctor, he told me he’d run out of time to talk with me.)
  • Never let a doctor (or loved one) bully you into a treatment that doesn’t feel right or doesn’t make sense to you.
  • The medical community in the United States isn’t as organized as one would hope: chemotherapists, radiation oncologists, surgeons, researchers (and other “specialists”) don’t tend to mingle or share information with one another. As the patient, you might find yourself being the communication vehicle between the various departments of a breast cancer center. It’s insane, but as of now it’s true. For more information on this, there’s a fascinating and well-written book called “The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a big book, but it’s worth reading if this subject interests you.
  • There are many books about cancer, including books on listening to your body and following your instincts (“Your Medical Mind” is a good one). There are also surgeons who will support you even if they disagree with your decisions. These doctors are also worth their weight in gold. (I’ve followed my breast cancer surgeon around since my first diagnosis in October of 2000. She’s been the ballast I’ve needed during very difficult times.)

For me, the overriding guide to my treatment choices has been quality, rather than quantity, of life. I’ve seen too many women suffer the effects of chemotherapy and radiation at an age when it won’t really help them. The treatments might give them hope, but invariably (if it’s a terminal diagnosis) they die right about when the doctor originally told them they would. Instead of enjoying their last months or years, they spend their time in doctors offices, or in bed, losing their taste and sense of smell, losing control of their body’s functions, and the like. Death isn’t easy when it’s protracted, but it doesn’t need to be stretched out into a painful existence by treatments that do more harm than good. This is far more true for older patients than young women with breast cancer, but it’s important to understand none-the-less because there are doctors who financially benefit from patients who undergo chemotherapy, even if the likelihood of any benefit is close to zero. It’s true they’re doctors, but giving chemotherapy is how they make their living.

Regardless of my own encouragement to women I meet who’ve been newly diagnosed with breast cancer, one in three women die of it and that statistic hasn’t significantly changed in over 50 years. No matter how many “Walks for the Cure”, no matter how many “improved” drugs and/or treatment protocols, no matter how many “breakthroughs”, one in three women diagnosed with breast cancer will die of it. And the number of breast cancer patients is increasing. When I was younger, one in ten women were projected to be diagnosed with it; in 2013, according to the American Cancer Society, it was one in eight. With the increase in treatment of DCIS, the number of patients who survive has gone up, so it might now be 1 in 12 … but that number is padded because DCIS patients didn’t have active cancer to begin with. I stopped walking to raise funds for breast cancer when I learned these numbers. The only research group I currently support is Dr. Love’s Army of Women (http://www.armyofwomen.org/drlovefoundation).

The sad truth is that the medical community has less know-how to assure survival than one would hope. The cause of breast cancer is still unknown. The good news: if caught early, the chances of a normal and healthy life are better than most women know when they first hear the words “you’ve got breast cancer”.  If you can keep a newly diagnosed woman from panicking, and encourage her to learn more about her condition and the treatments available to her, you’ll have achieved all you can. The rest is up to her. I wish you, and those you mentor, a world of success.

On Quality of Life and Uncertainty

There are times when I wonder — after three bouts of breast cancer — what, exactly, do I want to do with my uncertain future. Without fail, there’s an immediate after thought: isn’t everyone’s future uncertain? None of us know how long we’ll live, how long the loves of our lives will live, how long our great career will last, how long we’ll have friends nearby to play with, how many dinner parties might be left, how many Christmas’s, how many goals are realistic, how many, how much, what if… all that.

Quality of life, it turns out, is the summation of the small things that make normalcy feel normal. It’s the comfort of “knowing” you’ll see your child again soon, or awaken to your husband’s smile, or surprising them both with blueberry pancakes. Quality of life is all those seemingly neutral events that make a ho-hum day a day you can look back on and find a giggle here and there, or a sweet image that caught your eye. It’s living without the constant awareness that no matter how hard you might wish otherwise, it’s all going to end when we die. It might end piece by piece, as loved ones die. But most of the people I know hope they go first so they won’t need to live without their loved ones. And I know exactly what they mean.

So to be completely honest, there’s a great deal to be gained by denying the inevitable. You get to have those moments that make up the fabric of your life without a note on your calendar that lets you know when this, or that, he, or she, will end.

Living with a disease which you’re told will probably cause you an earlier death than it might have been had you escaped your fate is a balancing act between denial of that early death and grabbing every moment as fully as you can. Well balanced, breast cancer can be one of the best gifts you’ll ever get.

And that brings me to balance.

A Clarification

Over the last month or so, too many of my friends have wondered if I have cancer now. Sometimes my own writing trips me up: I didn’t intend to leave anyone wondering.

The tests I had at Moffitt were thorough: I don’t have breast cancer in either breast, and I don’t have cancer that’s spread. So I don’t have cancer. If you were worried, I’d like to apologize.

To be fair to the factual side of me, breast cancer takes a long time to grow. It can be moving along, un-noticed and invisible, for 10-20 years before you’ll find out you’ve got it. With that little factoid in the back of my mind, I know I might have cancer growing somewhere, but so could you and all of our friends and family combined. So why even think about it? If it comes up, you (and I) will deal with it by doing what seems right at the time.

The experience I had earlier this year at Moffitt was what happens when a patient is given the wrong diagnosis and is left thinking she’s got a year or two left to live. It’s not a comfortable place to be. But don’t skim over the fact that the doctor was wrong. I didn’t have an aggressive and deadly form of breast cancer. I didn’t even have cancer. The “cancerous tumor” the doctor felt in my breast was really a sack of fluid that had collected after surgery I had in September of 2011. That’s all it was.

So…. I don’t have cancer, and I won’t ever have it again, unless it happens to show up. And then I’ll deal with it.

Better?

Regaining Control and a Moffitt Redemption…(almost)

One of the most useful things I’ve learned about having breast cancer is that I deal with it best when I have control of my medical decisions. My approach involves a lot of research on my part, and it includes giving myself the right to decide who’s on my medical team.

My experience at Moffitt got off to a bad start  because I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer (“IBC”) which is a type of breast cancer I knew very little about. And then — before I had a chance to fill the info void — I was told IBC is so aggressive that the only way to fight it is 1) quickly, and 2) very aggressively. The standard treatment is chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy, then radiation, and then more chemo. Those treatments happen to be ones I’ve refused in the past based on quality of life issues. I’m a patient who values quality over quantity. In the medical journals, you’ll see a lot of references to 5-year disease free survival, or 10 years, or 15, and so on. There’s no measurement for quality of life, other than use of the term “disease-free”. Please note: “disease-free” doesn’t mean “side-effect free”.

If you’ve read my prior posts, you already know the IBC diagnosis was wrong. And you know the doctor who made that diagnosis (Dr. K.) didn’t have the decency to use the words “good news” when she reviewed my test results, which didn’t support her diagnosis. Instead, she sent me off with warnings about the redness on my breast and what it would mean if the antibiotics she gave me didn’t change the size of the red area. That piece of news ruined the antibiotic treatment time (10 days) because my attention was so focused on the redness: had it changed? had it changed enough? Toss in an allergic reaction to the antibiotic itself and the entire experience with Dr. K. was a bust (no pun intended).

I was told I had Inflammatory Breast Cancer on 2/24/2012. I didn’t regain a sense of control until 3 weeks laster, when I emailed Dr. K to let her know I wouldn’t be working with her any longer. In other words, I fired her.

I know there are women who would never consider firing a doctor. In my world, I choose the doctors I want on my medical team (of which I happen to be the captain). The doctors work for me, not the other way around. When a doctor causes more angst than not, I don’t consider them a team player. And thus, Dr. K. is no longer on my roster.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised during my last visit to Moffitt, when I met with a chemo-oncologist, who I’ll call Dr. O. (The word “oncologist” applies to doctors who specialize in chemotherapy as well those who specialize in radiation; so I distinguish between the two.)

A little background before I fill you in on Dr. O:

I met with two oncologists after my first breast cancer surgery. The first became upset when I told him that the benefit from chemotherapy (which I understood would be about 6% for me) wasn’t enough to justify me going through it. His face got red and his voice got louder when he insisted I’d get a 10% benefit. I still didn’t like the odds. What I didn’t know then was that there was only a 15% chance of me getting breast cancer again anyway, so his 10% benefit was really 10% of 15%, which is 1.5%. So, for less than 2% actual benefit, the chemo-oncologist was nearly beating his fists on his desk. I told him I wanted a second opinion.

I wound up at Dana Farber where I met with “the big guy”. I hadn’t asked to meet with him: maybe he was the only one with free time. Who knows? But the staff at his clinic told me he was “the guy to talk with”. As it turned out… in my case… not so much. He was emphatic that I go through chemo because I’d “be dead in 5 years” if  I didn’t. I asked for copies of the studies that supported his recommendation and he was visibly offended, although he asked his assistant to get me two study summaries. When I reviewed those summaries, I noted that patients with characteristics similar to mine (age, cancer stage and type, etc.) had done better without chemo. I pointed that out to him and he told me he didn’t have time to discuss the matter any further with me. So I skipped chemo.

Given my experience, talking with chemo-oncologists about what they have to offer has been off my list-of-things-to-do for many years. That changed when I read the book The Emperor of All Maladies by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee — a chemo-oncologist. Dr. Mukherjee is clearly a doctor who cares about his subject and the well-being of his patients. He also has the decency to admit that the medical world doesn’t have a thorough grasp on cancer. There are cures for some types, which is wonderful. But the hunt is still on for other types of cancers, breast cancer among them. You can get all the treatment in the world and still have about a 30% chance of dying from it.

After my last breast cancer in September ’11, my surgeon encouraged me to meet with an oncologist. I hadn’t read Mukherjee’s book yet, so I told her I wouldn’t do it. Waste of time. But then I read his book and, soon thereafter, an oncologist practically fell in my lap as part of the Moffitt process.

I’d decided I’d use the opportunity to meet with Moffit’s chemo-oncologist to better understand the various theories of how breast cancer originates and travels, and to share my own theory, which I’ve formed as a result of what my body seems to be telling me. Dr. O is young enough to be my daughter, with an easy communication style, open to give and take. I was as willing to listen to her as she was to me (a genuine relief). I described my theory to Dr. O by telling her it feels like a cell is given the message to go to the breast and grow with reckless abandon. According to Dr. O, my theory has a name: “stem cell theory”. Using this line of reasoning, if I’d had a mastectomy after my first breast cancer (in the left breast), I wouldn’t have gotten the second breast cancer in the left breast. The second breast cancer was Invasive Lobular Carcinoma (“ILC”). If I’d had the breast removed 11 years earlier, there wouldn’t have been any lobe in which the ILC could form.

As it turned out, Dr. O wasn’t very concerned about the diagnosis of IBC (she admitted the diagnosis was probably 98.9% wrong). Instead, she was far more worried about the ILC I’d had surgically removed in September. ILC tends to occur bilaterally (meaning it’s likely to show up in my right breast), and it metastasizes in a sneaky way, making it hard to know about until it’s at Stage IV (worst case). Dr. O told me that, in her opinion, I have two options: a double mastectomy or Tamoxifen. She recommended tamoxifen rather than a newer hormonal drug (Arimidex) because the side effects of Arimidex would be very difficult for my body, and she felt I’d tolerate Tamoxifen just fine. I told her I’d research them both and would give it serious thought.

While I was at Moffitt for the appointment with Dr. O, the Clinic Manager also teamed me up with two other doctors to help me resolve some outstanding questions about the fluid in my left breast and the antibiotic treatment I’d been given. I left feeling Moffitt had redeemed itself.

My first branch of research was to find out what had been learned about Tamoxifen since I’d last read about it many years earlier. I should note that my research always involves reading as many summaries of clinical trials that would apply to me as I can find, and also reading websites where other patients (mostly women) post about their experiences with each treatment. Two things jumped out about Tamoxifen: 1) it appears to be less effective than Arimidex; and 2) it has some heavy-duty side effects of its own, including frequent hot flashes, trouble sleeping, blood clots, bone pain, and some others which are rare but beyond-the-pale. Knowing the side effects was the first bit of information I needed. Next I needed to know the statistics about Tamoxifen’s efficacy so I could weigh the risks against the benefits. Well, finding the efficacy of Tamoxifen, for a person with my history, is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I read the absolute benefit was as low as 2% to as high as 50%. Getting at a realistic number for me to use was going to take years. I decided to email Dr. O to ask for her best estimates. I made it as simple as I could:

If I don’t take Tamoxifen:

— Percentage likelihood of ILC in the right breast? Percentage likelihood of recurrent ILC in left breast?

If I do take Tamoxifen:

— Percentage likelihood of ILC in the right breast? Percentage likelihood of recurrent ILC in left breast?

And, does Tamoxifen prevent metastases (I couldn’t tell from what I was able to find).

That was on Tuesday. It’s now Friday. I haven’t heard from Dr. O. So Moffitt’s redemption is incomplete.

While waiting for Dr. O, I switched my research to mastectomies, which I’d also done before but wanted current data. This time I came across a site I hadn’t run into before, although you’d think I would have: CancerCompass.com. On this site is a long thread (100 posts) on post mastectomy pain syndrome. I won’t weigh this down with too many details, except to say that the likelihood of having excruciating chronic (life-long) pain after a mastectomy is about 24%, and you’re more likely to get this pain if you’ve had breast cancer surgery before you have a mastectomy. Lucky me.

Despite my change in attitude toward chemo-oncologists (or at least some of them), my research is showing me (yet again) that the quality of life costs of breast cancer treatments can be crippling. Some women are willing to live with those costs. I’m not one of them. For one thing, I don’t like pain. For another, and more importantly, I don’t like the idea of living in pain when it might not make any difference in my overall survival. I’m not here forever anyway. I long ago made up my mind to enjoy my life. Why change that policy now? Just to live longer? Not if I’m in pain.

As with each episode I’ve had with breast cancer, I’ve arrived at alternative approaches to living as a breast cancer survivor. There are a lot of us. Interesting (to me anyway) that the medical world doesn’t have a clue about what we’re doing and how it’s working. Depending on who you speak with, when you “go rogue” you’re either being stupid, stubborn, misguided, or courageous. For me, it’s simply a matter of being as honest with myself as I can be, and then making choices that make the most sense to me.

Given where the medical world is with breast cancer, it seems reasonable to walk away from “standard treatment” when there are no guarantees and, worse, there are side effects that could impact your life in ways you’d hate — and in ways you couldn’t know abut unless you research outside the confines of websites funded by pharmaceuticals or other medical special interest (look closely at who owns the site).

For me, for now, I’m back to diet and lifestyle changes as my best bet for a good life — no matter how long it lasts. My next research project is pain management, since it’s possible I’ll need it at some point. Until then, onward!

 

Update as of 9/8/2012: Dr. O never responded to my questions about Tamoxifen. So Moffitt’s redemption was short lived.

On Waiting…

If you spend any time reading breast cancer blogs, websites, and comments, you’ll run across the fact that none of us is comfortable waiting to hear the results of our tests. This comes up a lot because we have to wait a lot.

Let’s take my last week and a half or so:

1. I had an appointment with a breast cancer surgeon at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa Florida. It was on a Friday and the surgeon told me I very likely have Inflammatory Breast Cancer, also known as “IBC” — a highly aggressive and deadly form of breast cancer with a 5-year survival prognosis of between 25%-50%, and that’s WITH treatment. The “standard” treatment would be chemotherapy to reduce the size of the tumor, then a mastectomy, then removal of the lymph nodes under the arm next to the affected breast, then more chemotherapy, then radiation. So if you’re me, you find yourself thinking “why bother with treatment if my time is short and I want to live as normally, and as free of pain as I can, for as long as I can?”

2. I had to wait through the weekend and then through the first two days of the following week until Wednesday, when I was scheduled for an MRI, a mammogram, and an ultrasound. I’ll skip over the 2 hours I spent waiting for the ultrasound with no explanation about why I was waiting, but note the length of time here: 5 days before any testing began. That’s 5 days to wonder how sick I’d get and for how long. Would I die before the end of the year, or sometime during the next? How long does a woman who refuses treatment for IBC have to live? What options are there for pain management? Are there alternative treatments that work? How would my loved ones (especially my husband and son) feel about it all? Should I tell anyone, or would that forever change my relationship with them: we each change when we learn someone is terminally ill — it’s probably impossible to ignore that elephant in the room. What could I do to make it easier on my friends and family? Is this really happening to me? Until this 5-days of time, I thought I knew what it meant to be alone. It’s much more intense and all-encompassing than I’d known. It’s the kind of thing you can’t change by talking to others or trying to distract yourself. Your focus becomes identified by what you’re going through: you and death have come close enough to hug one another.

3. The MRI, mammogram and ultrasound were done on Wednesday (at the end of which I learned it’s unlikely I have Inflammatory Breast Cancer…more on that in a bit), and then I had to wait until Friday before I returned to the hospital for bone density and CT scans, which (‘natch) took all day. Lots of waiting between injections of dyes, for scanners to be free, ’til the next appointment time, and so on. It doesn’t matter that you have 3 hours to kill while in a town you’re not familiar with and you’ve got to have something healthy to eat for breakfast. (If you’re at Moffitt, you’re in a part of town where you’ll find a Denny’s and a Perkins. Good luck with the healthy eating thing.)

In brief, from my first meeting with the breast cancer surgeon it took a week to get 5 tests done which, in an Emergency Room (E/R) environment, could have taken a day and, let me be honest, when you hear you probably have IBC, it’s an emergency.

It’s now the weekend after the bone and CT scans, and I’m waiting for the results. If I don’t have Inflammatory Breast Cancer, what do I have? The MRI shows a sac full of fluid that looks like a large raindrop. I’ve studied cancer enough to know that a cancerous growth doesn’t have the smooth outline of a raindrop: a cancerous growth is jagged. That’s probably why the radiologist told me he couldn’t rule it out as IBC, but he doesn’t think that’s what it is.

If what I have is another cancer, has it metastasized? Great question! Unfortunately, we’ll need to wait until next Tuesday to find out. That’s when I’m scheduled to see the surgeon who will, no doubt, have a plan for what to do about the sac of fluid. Will it be drained, as the surgeon’s nurse suggested? If so, when? Will there be a biopsy? If so, when? If it’s an infection, will I be put on antibiotics and if so, when? And why let me go so long without them?

I’d heard Moffitt is a great facility. Well, we haven’t had the greatest start. The staff might be wonderful and highly skilled, but as a patient, I’m becoming impatient.

For now, my only bit of advice — should you find yourself in this unwelcoming part of life, is this — you can kill some (not all) “waiting time” by going into denial, which is what I’ve been doing ever since I learned I probably don’t have IBC. Hubby’s my partner in escape. We’ve found ways to distract ourselves and I’ve lightened up on the extreme healthy eating plan for now. It’s easier that way. Sometimes a pizza (with wine) is the exact right thing.

A Surprising Turn…

Mar. 1, 2012 4:23 am
If you’ve been following the current episode of “Robin’s Breast Cancer Journey”, here’s what I learned after yesterday’s MRI, mammogram, and ultrasound.
There is no tumor in either breast.
The “large tumor” the surgeon felt during the physical exam turns out to be a large sac of fluid, assumedly left over from last September’s surgery. I’m told this is not uncommon, and that the plan is to drain it.
The radiologist — who was good enough to let me see the images and describe what he saw — doesn’t believe I have Inflammatory Breast Cancer but, since he’s not a breast cancer specialist, he added that he can’t entirely rule it out. Fair enough: I wouldn’t want to be a radiologist who contradicts the surgeon either.
Tomorrow I’ll get two more tests (bone density and PT scan), which will be looking for metastases. Assuming those are clear, I’m fully back among the living. When I have the final diagnosis, I’ll write more about what I’ve learned about myself during the last five days… some of it surprising even to me.
In the meanwhile, I broke my “nutritionally dense only foods” and celebrated last night with pizza and wine. A girl’s gotta do what she’s gotta do.

A Bump in the Road

Feb. 25, 2012 5:51 am
It’s not fully fair to call my latest health development a “bump”, but more on that in a bit.

The lovely (and very sweet) doctor I saw at Moffitt Cancer Center yesterday suspects I have an aggressive and advanced breast cancer — again in the left breast. I’m scheduled for next Wednesday to go through pretty much everything having to do with imaging: mammogram, ultrasound, and MRI, followed by scans of my bones and organs to look for metastases. By the end of the week, I should have a clear picture of how much trouble my body is in…if any.
It could be a common healing problem with breasts that have been through radiation. That’s the optimistic hope. The surgeon (who is Indian, and whose name is hard to spell and pronounce, so I’ll call her “Dr. K.”)… Dr. K gave me the worst case scenario: in part because I believe that’s what she thinks is going on, but also because she’d rather prepare me for the worst and if it’s better than that, hurrah! I don’t necessarily disagree with her approach unless she turns out to be wrong. I now have 5 days to get through “knowing” the likelihood of me living to a ripe old age is slim to none.
The facility I’m connected with is solely dedicated to women with breast cancer, so — all things considered — I couldn’t have landed in a better place. True, it’s an hour from where we’re “snow-birding” and 1500 miles from home but, for now anyway, it makes sense to stay the course. When we know more about what I’m dealing with, we’ll make whatever decisions seem best.
I can’t say I’m happy about the news, of course. It’s discouraging, scary, upsetting, and sad. Hubby (Mike) and I have had some difficult moments since the exam yesterday, using more Kleenex than I even knew we had in the car. (My dear Mike sees to many things without me realizing what he’s doing… and why. How lucky, and loved, I am).
And now for my thoughts on whether or not this is a “bump”. After a great deal of thought, soul-searching, and Sundays at church, I came to the conclusion many years ago that I’m not a good fit for organized religion. Instead, I’m best described as “spiritual”. Without going into a lot of detail, I believe the emotions I go through in response to the decline of my health are defined only in relation to life on earth. From a broader (spiritual) view, the sadness I feel is a response to the illusion of loss. The true “me” is part of a much bigger picture with no beginning and no end (and it fits well with the notion that we’re all God’s children, made in His image to do unto others as we would have done to us). When I focus with this view of things, I’m at peace with the events of my life and am able to love and savor each moment…and that changes “bumps” into new opportunities, phases, and greater love. I hope this makes sense.
I’ll let you know how things go.

A quick update

Feb. 18, 2012 12:46 pm
The surgery I had last September was done on my left breast which is the same breast I had surgery and radiation on in late 2000-early 2001. Statistically, a lumpectomy followed by radiation is the same as getting a mastectomy. So (needless to say) I was disappointed when I learned I had another breast cancer in the left breast.

(As a side line of inquiry, which is still unsettled in my mind, my initial thoughts were: would the second breast cancer have formed on the scar tissue left by an actual mastectomy — as has been the case for many other women? Would an initial mastectomy have limited my options for treating the second occurrence? Would the second breast cancer not have formed at all if I’d opted for a mastectomy in the first place rather than the statistical equivalent? If breast cancer begins in the breast, why (and how) does it occur after the breast has been removed? Surprisingly, I haven’t found any definitive answers. There are compelling theories, but nothing concrete.)

All that aside, when there’s surgery on a breast that’s had radiation, the healing is different. I knew that going in. What I didn’t know was that the breast tissue itself would also be altered. In my case, it’s become more dense. In fact, so much so, that it feels heavier than it should. And, possibly because of an over-zealous work-out during last Thursday’s water aerobics class, I noticed bruises had formed above the scar of my first breast cancer. That lead to a quick email to my surgeon who replied that it’s cause for some concern.
As it happens, hubby and I are snowbirds, currently in Florida and my surgeon is in Massachusetts. Thus, I quickly found a breast cancer surgeon at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida and arranged for the reports and films to be sent to her in time for my appointment next Friday.
The bruises are disappearing now, which is comforting. My body is telling me everything is fine. Intellectually, I’m smart enough to know I need to have it checked out before I can give my body full say-so. For now, I’m at peace with this (God knows why). Somehow I’ve been blessed with a genuine conviction that, no matter what happens, I’m exactly where I ought to be, experiencing what I should be. With that thought alone, I can make it through anything.