I am a prime example of a person who procrastinated when it came to scheduling my mammogram and learned to regret it. I had gotten my first mammogram when I turned forty, followed by another one two years later. There was no history of breast cancer on my mother’s side of the family, although my father’s sister had died from breast cancer when I was thirty-seven years old. The thinking back then was you did not have as great a risk for breast cancer if there was not a history of it in the maternal side of the family.
Since both of my early mammograms were clear, I failed to schedule a mammogram for the next eight years. I performed self-examinations and did not feel any lumps. I was busy raising children alone (I am divorced), working full-time and taking care of a home. I found excuses to postpone the mammograms. I developed a lung disease (COPD) when I turned forty-three, which, for me, requires hospitalization. I changed my lifestyle and tried to live a healthier life. Still I failed to get a mammogram done, rationalizing that God would not give me more to deal with than I could handle. COPD is a progressive, debilitating disease that decreases your lifespan.
A few days after my forty-ninth birthday, I was hospitalized for a COPD exacerbation (similar to a severe asthma attack). While lying in my hospital bed connected to IVs and oxygen, I noticed a lump in my left breast that I had not noticed before. I was in denial and hoped this lump was caused by some of the medications I received through the IV. My exacerbation was so bad that my doctor sent me home with oxygen and put me on permanent disability. After several days at home, the lump had not gone away and I arranged an appointment with my gynecologist, who scheduled a mammogram the following day. Within one week, I sat in a surgeon’s office with my son and two daughters. He explained that I had Stage II breast cancer with the tumor being 2.5 centimeters and that cancer cells may have travelled to other sites through my lymph system. I remember walking out of his office, wearing my oxygen canula and crying, with a referral slip for a local oncologist. The following day, my brother-in-law accompanied me to the appointment with the oncologist, who recommended a radical mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and possibly radiation. However, because I was on oxygen, he wanted an assessment done by my pulmonologist to make sure surgery was even a possibility.
My mother, who was living in New York State, came to Maryland to stay with me. One week after the visit with my oncologist, my mother, sister and daughters accompanied me for the assessment by my pulmonologist. My lung function was at 60%, so he felt I could withstand surgery but with alternative anesthesia. He sent me to a radiation oncologist who confirmed his suspicion that my lungs could not hold up to radiation therapy.
Forty-five days after I turned forty-nine, I had a radical mastectomy. The tumor turned out to be malignant with three out of twenty-one lymph nodes removed having cancer cells. That meant that the cancer was caught “fairly” early, but because there were cancer cells in some of the lymph nodes, it could have travelled to other organs. I started the first of two rounds of chemotherapy three weeks after the mastectomy. My mother and youngest daughter took me to a local boutique that specialized in dealing with cancer patients. The shop owner shaved my head so I would not have to deal with my hair falling out in clumps. I bought a wig from her, although it was uncomfortable and I rarely wore it. I preferred a few fancy scarves I had bought for work, topped by one of two different-styled straw hats. I bought breast prosthesis because I could not have reconstructive surgery that required too many hours under anesthesia.
The next six months were filled with weekly visits to my oncologist for chemotherapy infusions and blood tests. Every few weeks, I had body scans, bone scans, or CT scans or MRIs to make sure the cancer had not spread. I was able to get off the oxygen at home after one month of chemotherapy. It was so good to be able to lie down instead of sleeping in a recliner. My mother cooked for me and took care of the house, although there was not much for her to do besides dusting and laundry for the two of us. I could not drive and allowed my youngest daughter to take my car. She drove my mother to the store for groceries and took me to my various doctor appointments when she was not working. My oldest daughter, who was pregnant with her second child, came over a few times each week. She helped my mother, took me to monthly follow-up appointments with the surgeon and pulmonologist, and brought lunch for us to share. My son, who worked close to my home, called every day to check in with me and took me to some appointments when my daughters could not.
My mother returned to New York in May to take care of personal business. Knowing I was lonely, my next-door neighbors, who were involved in arts and crafts, gave me some fired ceramics, paints and brushes to give me something to do. The first round of chemotherapy had few bad side effects, besides the complete loss of hair. I had some minor irritation in my mouth but never experienced nausea or vomiting. After three months on the first round of chemotherapy drugs, my oncologist put me on a second type of drug for another three months. This new round of chemotherapy seemed to affect my bones. I woke up in the middle of the night from the pain it caused. The first few days after each infusion, just walking was difficult. The pain subsided over the weekends, but then I received another infusion the beginning of each week.
The final round of chemotherapy ended in September of that year. For the next five years, I continued having CT, body and bone scans. Monthly appointments with my oncologist and surgeon became quarterly over those first five years. Now I have yearly visits with my oncologist. I have been cancer-free for ten years.
However, the thought is always in the back of my mind that the cancer can return because of the lymph nodes that were involved, and knowing that it sometimes takes years for certain cancers to manifest. If I had done the right thing and had a mammogram every few years, my cancer could have been detected earlier. Perhaps I could have prevented the need for a mastectomy and chemotherapy, and the worry that the cancer might return. These are what-ifs and we cannot go back in time to change our lives. However, I hope my story, and those like mine, will encourage other women to get their mammograms done in a timely manner.