From the minute someone hears “you have breast cancer,” she undergoes a series of tests to decide what’s next. They biopsy the cancer to see what kind it is, they investigate how far it’s spread by MRIs of the specific area. They also look at the full-picture: a PET- CT of all organs to see if cancer has spread and how healthy the organs are in order to determine how much treatment a person can handle. Today, cancer is being treated on an individual basis depending on a myriad of factors—something that is quite cool. I hadn’t considered it before, but I guess I thought that breast cancer treatment was as uniform as getting a drivers license: everyone goes to the DMV and takes the same driving test. What’s amazing is how much innovation has been done and how unique treatments are. What is not amazing is how, pardon my French, shitty the whole thing is, in spite of all the innovation, incredible doctors and amazing chemo nurses.
I have triple negative breast cancer. It doesn’t seem to be Google’s favorite. Of the garden variety types, it´s one of the worst. The triple negative means that cancer cells test negative for the three most common cancer cell markers–estrogen, progesterone and a human growth protein called HER2. Why is it considered one of the worst? Because the non-chemo treatment therapies that have been discovered for the previously mentioned markers (Tamoxifen, Herceptin) don´t work- and aren´t even applicable. So, in essence, there are fewer alternatives to cure it. In talking to many people who have had breast cancer, I feel like my treatment plan* is on the longer side. What I’ve gleaned is that while they don’t seem to know a lot about triple negative, they do see that it responds well to chemotherapy. This is why I am doing an exhausting 20 weeks of chemo before I even go into surgery, and afterwards radiotherapy. I shared my chemo plan with a friend who is an oncologist and his remark was: “Ok, so they are going to bomb the $%&! outta it- Good.”
I’m new to this whole universe and I’ve learned alarming things—the most being that 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer in their lives. That is just too big of a figure. I look at my daughters, sisters, friends and every female that I see and think: I don’t want anyone to get this– ever! When my 12-year-old daughter found out about my cancer, her fifth comment after shock and fear was: “that means I’m going to get it.” I combed through my parental book of answers and didn’t like that I had nothing to say.
I’ve been asked how I knew there was something wrong. I did a mammogram every year since I was 35. I felt a lump myself in the shower on Monday Aug 25th—no, I wasn’t performing a breast exam—I just happened to feel it. I instinctually knew it wasn’t ok (and fainted). I went to the OB office the next day, saw a nurse practitioner and had a breast exam where she thought it was a cyst, probably nothing. Still, she ordered the standard follow up tests of a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. My friend Amanda was stubborn and made me get these tests done at the expert cancer hospital in the area. Even there during the mammogram, they also said it was probably nothing, before I continued into the sonogram. It was Aug 27th, just 2 days after I had first felt the lump —and the ultrasound showed it had spread to the lymph nodes. That same day, I went onto fine needle aspiration, or FNA, where they extracted cells from the lump that they told me less than two hours after that, were “abnormal, pointing to cancer.” There you go. My advice: be in control of your heath. And have stubborn friends, because the natural reaction in the face of terrifying news is to crawl into a hole and lose your executive functioning.
I promised my friend, Linda, I’d continue to write about this journey in the most honest way I can.
Here is the reality so far…
The port is the lesser of two evils
They did a mini-surgery on my first day of chemo where I now have a port bulging out of the skin in my chest with what looks like plumbing attached (a catheter that somehow goes deep into my body- freaky). This is so the medicine they administer over the coming months can easily access the jugular vein. For a week I was completely freaked out by this—and it hurt a lot. Someone hugged me head on and I almost passed out from the pain. Yesterday, however, I witnessed the alternative: in the chemo ward, I saw a guy get injected multiple times by different nurses trying to access a vein in his arm without luck. Veins collapse. We aren’t meant to be stuck all the time. Not accessing veins is more devastating than having a large quail egg sticking out of my chest. Ultimately, I want these drugs- they are going to get me better.
New relationship with food
With chemo, they tell you the common side effects: neuropathy (painful loss of feeling in your limbs), nausea, sleeplessness, early menopause, fatigue, total hair loss etc. The nurse told me the other day: “don’t eat the foods you love,” and I looked at her with the same puzzlement that I have with all this new information. The other morning, as I watched Mauricio and my daughter swim in the bay, I drank a hot chocolate and had to lay down from nausea. It leveled me and unfortunately my daughter witnessed it.
Reaction to the chemo ward
I know I’m new here–only completing 3 chemo sessions–but walking into the chemo ward weekly is tough. You look around at everyone going through what you’re going through and it is just impossible to process. I can’t even process what is happening to me–much less group a bunch of people with the same fate, all together. I think about all the heartache, fear and stress that I’ve seen first hand and it breaks my heart. Yet, everyone is there, trudging through.
Somehow when they told me all the side effects, no one said I’d break out worse than I ever did as a teen. Bald AND zitty. Bring it on!
Thank god for friends and family. Thank you, thank you. People are giving me so much strength. I’ll write more about the fun stuff that makes me giggle—next. It’s just too good.
– 12 weeks of Taxol, with every 3rd week added carboplatin.
– Followed by 8 weeks of every other week AC, Adriamycin Cytoxan
– Weekly Neupogen injections to keep white blood count cell up
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 1)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 2)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 3)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 4)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 5)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 6)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 7)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 8)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 9)