I was 50 years old at the time of diagnosis and had had yearly mammograms since the age of 40. Each year, when I got my test results, there would be a notice on the bottom of the report alerting me that I had “dense breast”. I therefore chose to have my testing done at a facility that offered 3D mammograms, thinking it would provide more accuracy.
In the spring of 2014, I had a breast cancer scare. They thought they saw a small mass and asked me to come back in for a few more pictures. After taking the additional pictures on the 3D mammogram, I was told it was nothing, just some dense tissue. I was so relieved and was happy to be told I did not need additional testing. Two and a half years later, that same spot had become a 3.5 cm tumor.
Thanksgiving Day will never be the same for me. This day for giving thanks for all the blessings of life, is now, for me, the day my old life ended, and my new life began. Thanksgiving morning 2016, I felt something in my left breast- a lump a bit larger than a quarter. It was not hard. It felt more like a dense clump of tissue. It was so large and seemed to appear so quickly. I just knew in my heart something was wrong.
The Monday morning after Thanksgiving, I was at my doctors’ office getting a 3D mammogram. Even though I could clearly feel the lump, the 3D mammogram was only showing some irregularities and not a solid mass. My doctor then did an ultrasound on the breast and found a mass that was only a few millimeters in size. Not the large lump I was feeling. I was then referred to a breast surgeon for a biopsy, and got the call a few days later that I had breast cancer.
The breast surgeon had another problem - what we were feeling was much larger than what was showing up on the ultrasound. We did not know if a small lump was pushing on the rest of the tissue, making it feel like a larger lump, or if the mass was actually that large. Since it could take several weeks for my insurance to approve an MRI, my breast surgeon suggested I have a test called a contrast enhanced mammogram, that did not require pre-approval from insurance. The contrast mammogram revealed a very clear 3.5-centimeter mass.
After consulting with a breast surgeon, oncologist, and a plastic surgeon, I had a unilateral mastectomy to remove my left breast. My team felt confident that the cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes and I would not require chemo.
I was devastated to wake up from surgery to discover the surgeon had had to remove 18 lymph nodes, 4 of which tested positive for cancer.
I would not only require chemotherapy, but also radiation. My cancer staging changed from stage 1 to stage 3A, due to the size of the tumor and the 4 lymph nodes involved.
How I wished I had discovered this cancer 2 years earlier, when it was much smaller. Perhaps I would have saved myself and my family from all the pain and heartache of the next year.
After recovering from surgery, I began chemotherapy treatment. Four treatments of AC (Red Devil) chemotherapy, followed by 12 treatments of Taxol chemotherapy. Following chemotherapy, I was scheduled for 30 treatments of radiation, but was only able to do 26. I developed fluid in my heart and lungs during radiation treatment. The doctors did not know what was causing all the fluid build-up. I was told there was a 90% chance the cancer had spread to my heart. I was devastated. They needed to perform a pericardial window procedure on my heart to drain the fluid and test it for cancer. A pericardial window is a procedure in which a small part of the sac around the heart is surgically removed, allowing doctors to drain excess fluid. Thankfully, there were no cancer cells in the fluid.
The hospital ran every test they could to try and determine the cause of the fluid build-up, but nothing came up positive. It was assumed that the fluid was caused by the radiation treatment. I spent weeks in the hospital with tubes coming out of my heart and lungs, draining the fluid that continued to build up. While in the hospital, I also developed a C-Diff infection. I was at my lowest point. My body was broken, and it was difficult to imagine when and if I would ever be whole again. It took several months to recover, but finally, thirteen months after by mastectomy I was able to have reconstruction on my breast.
My cancer journey does not end with my reconstruction surgery. For the next ten years, I will have to take hormone therapy to lessen my chances of the cancer returning. Hormone therapy brings its own its own set of side effects that need to be managed.
I am happy to be able to say I now have “no evidence of disease”. My cancer journey taught me that I am much stronger than I ever thought possible, but came at the expense of physical and emotional scars that will never go away, not just for me, but for my family.
Much of this could have been avoided if I had been told that my dense breasts required a yearly ultrasound along with my routine check.
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Viki lives in New Jersey with her husband of 23 years , 2 beautiful daughters and her faithful dog Daisy. Works as a senior customer service representative for a mineral supplement company. She enjoys traveling and spending time with family and friends.