Sunday, April 24, 2016

And now for something completely different...breast cancer

I know this isn’t my usual blog about writing, but sometimes life smacks you up against the head and you have to pay attention. One in eight women will get breast cancer. This year, I became one.

Think about that: one out of eight. If you know eight women, you know someone who’s had or will have breast cancer. Maybe even you. Cancer doesn’t care if you’re young or old, if you eat right and exercise or not. It just happens and no one really knows why.

You’ve probably heard the slogan “early detection is the best protection” and it’s true. The smaller the tumor is when it’s found, the better the result can be if you’re treated right away. I’m not done with my treatment yet. I was only diagnosed in March, but I had surgery immediately and my tumor was very small.

I wish I could tell you I was religiously doing my self-exams, but I wasn’t. My doctor told me to get a mammogram when I was 40, so I did that. It was normal at the time. I do, however, get my yearly gynecological exams. My last one was normal too. The only reason I found my tumor was I happened to wake up one Sunday morning lying on my hand in such a way that I felt a tenderness in my breast. I thought “That’s weird.” I felt around the tender spot and wondered what a lump would feel like. Would it be round like a bead? This didn’t seem to be round, but it did feel like a knot of tissue that was harder than the surrounding area. And it hurt when I pushed on it. I had never noticed it before so I thought I’d watch it that day and see if it changed. It didn’t.

I went to work on Monday thinking I needed to call for an appointment and have it checked. Then I got busy at work and forgot about it. The next day it was still there and I finally called. It would have been an easy thing to ignore for awhile. There was no rash, no weird breast appearance, nothing on the surface. I felt perfectly fine. I was convinced it was nothing. I think the only reason I went in was because I’ve been told all my life, if you find a lump, get it checked! I guess I’ve been well trained.

The nurse practitioner I saw was pretty sure it was normal too, but referred me for a mammogram anyway, thank goodness. It wasn’t normal, which goes to show you, no one knows what’s inside you by only touching the outside. Not even a health care provider.

Since then, I’ve had ultrasounds, MRIs, biopsies, blood tests, and surgery, all in less than two months. Once the result is positive, they don’t mess around. I was potentially facing chemotherapy too, but the doctor decided the size of the tumor was small enough (less than 1 cm) that I can just have radiation treatment for it. After that will be chemo-prevention drugs, to reduce my future risk of a recurrence. I may need to take that for five years or more, which I will gladly do. The drugs reduce future risk by 50%.

I’m not going to lie to you. It’s been a scary couple of months, learning about all this stuff. I’m already sick of getting poked with needles. Waiting for lab results is grueling. Getting bad news is even worse, but not knowing is worse than knowing. All in all, I know am very, very lucky. I found my own tumor. I felt it only because there was a larger area of pre-cancer around it and I don’t have much breast tissue, so it caused the tenderness I was feeling. Women with more tissue may have felt nothing at all and ended up with a much larger tumor. That’s why mammograms, self-exams, and check ups are so important ladies! I know mammograms are uncomfortable and awkward, but all the technicians I’ve had are women. You can handle it, I promise you.

If you’ve got a family history of breast cancer, (aka you have family members with breast cancer), start your yearly mammograms at 35 years old. If you have no family history like I did, you can wait until you’re 40, but start your self-exams right now, today. Women in their 20s and 30s can and do get breast cancer. Men can too, in case you didn’t know. I want you to be healthy and take care of yourself (no smoking), but if you ONLY do one thing, DO your self-exams!! If you’ve never been taught how, check here.

Even though I feel like I dodged a bullet now, breast cancer will be with me for the rest of my life. I have to go through radiation treatment. I’ll be on medication, have mammograms every six months for awhile, and professional breast exams twice yearly. If it returns, I’ll have to have more treatment and surgery. I feel extremely fortunate to have a good job and insurance to pay for all of this because the price of this treatment without insurance is already pretty unbelievable and I’m not even done! I can’t imagine what it must be like for cancer patients with no insurance. My local hospital actually has financial advocates that help patients through the insurance process, set up payment plans and find financial assistance if needed. I can only hope all hospitals are so helpful and that no one ever hesitates to get care if they need it.

Still, even with all that ahead of me, I have a good life and a lot left to do, including a few more books to write. No matter how scary, the treatment is worth it. I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon. I intend to fight like a girl and kick cancer’s butt. And if it ever happens to you, I hope you will too.