• Cheryl

"Hump Day" = "Lump Day"

It seems fitting that Wednesday be my day to write about life after breast cancer each week, doesn't it? In fact, how is Wednesday not already Breast Cancer Awareness DAY? Maybe it is and I've just missed it. I hope it is. If not, it should be!

So - I haven't really talked a whole lot about myself as a breast cancer survivor outside of the first few episodes of the original "Anything But Routine." I don't think I ever even shared exactly how my diagnosis came about. And I think it's important to share, because I'd always been under the impression that if you had breast cancer, you'd know it. You'd feel a lump, or experience pain, or your breast would look misshapen somehow. I mean, how could you have cancer and not have any symptoms whatsoever?

But I did.

My cancer was detected by a routine 3D mammogram - and this is why it upsets me when Those In Power suggest that yearly mammograms aren't necessary. My mammogram in April 2017 was perfectly normal. My mammogram in August 2018 was not. And I consider it fate that I'd neglected to schedule my 2018 mammogram until February of that year, because my local mammogram facility books six months out, and I couldn't get in until August. My cancer was caught so early that it likely wouldn't have even shown up if I'd had that mammogram in April, which would have given it that much of a head start. I'm so thankful I was lazy!

I had no pain or discomfort. No matter how I moved or positioned my arms, both girls looked identical. My gynecologist felt no lumps. My surgical oncologist felt no lumps - in fact, HE suspected what showed up on the films was nothing more than scar tissue, and he ordered a biopsy "just to cover our bases." But lo and behold, it wasn't scar tissue. It was cancer.

The moral of the story, of course, is GET A YEARLY MAMMOGRAM. Even if everything in there feels normal to you. Even if you feel fine. Don't put it off. Don't say you're too busy. Don't say you'd rather not know. Don't say you don't need to because you have no family history of it (I honestly didn't know it was in my family history - turns out it is!). Don't say you don't want to get it done because the squish hurts. That squish could save your life. It saved mine.

I was lucky: my cancer was caught early, and it was very treatable. And I was blown away by how far research has come and how much they now know. Way back when, a breast cancer diagnosis automatically meant a mastectomy. And even just 20 years ago, every single breast cancer patient was ordered to undergo chemotherapy and radiation. Research now shows that a mastectomy is no longer a given - my own cancer was removed with a simple lumpectomy. And research also shows that a significant number of breast cancer patients gain absolutely nothing by undergoing chemo. I would have been one of them. They conducted genome testing on my cancer and determined that it was NOT a kind that could be treated with chemo - if I'd gone through it, it would have harmed me without doing a single bit of good.

Instead, two months after my lumpectomy, I underwent 20 sessions of radiation, and in June, I began taking a medication called an "aromatase inhibitor," which I'll take daily until June 2029 (only nine years and two months to go!!!). My cancer was/is a kind that sustains itself on hormones, so my medication blocks the hormone receptors in any bits of cancer that may still be floating around in my body and prevents it from being able to feed on my hormones, should there still be any of those, either (that's another story for another Wednesday). In other words, the medication starves whatever cancer I may still have.

And THAT was another hard lesson learned - "whatever cancer I may still have." I don't know if this applies to everyone or only to survivors of my type of breast cancer, but when I'd asked my medical oncologist exactly what date I could celebrate as my "cancer free" anniversary, she gently explained that they can't ever say with 100% certainty that I'm completely cancer free. I'd always thought that once you were done with treatment and they didn't find further evidence of cancer, that you were completely, totally healed and healthy. But that's not always true. It's not true for me, at least, hence my needing to take my medication for ten years.

Fortunately, with the meds, my prognosis is excellent - after a full ten years, my chance for recurrence is less than 1%. But that's not to say that I'm not susceptible to a secondary cancer, something totally different. The fact that I've developed cancer once means I'm more likely to develop it again. It could be a biproduct of my breast cancer, or a different type of breast cancer itself, or a cancer all its own. However, even though that thought does lurk in the back of my mind, I try to keep from thinking about it too much. The fact is that anything can happen to anyone, regardless of your personal medical history. Even if I hadn't had breast cancer, I could've developed something else entirely later in life with no warning at all.

I could go on for pages and pages about this whole thing - there is SO much to share and discuss. For now, I'll leave it here. My objective for today was to make it clear how crucial it is to GET A MAMMOGRAM EACH AND EVERY YEAR! Hopefully I've done that. Yes, it can absolutely be terrifying - but as weird as it sounds to say this, it's worth it. It used to be that breast cancer was a guaranteed death sentence. It's doesn't always have to be that way anymore.