This blog of Steve's and his fundraising ride mean a lot to me. I'm Steve's youngest sister (that's me, next to Mom in the above photo), and in September 2008 I was diagnosed with breast cancer - I was 52. My regular mammogram had picked up an 'irregularity' - probably nothing - and would I come in for another one, just to make sure. A week later and I'm sitting in the surgeon's office with my husband listening to the diagnosis - DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ). You know how they talk about that punched in the gut feeling?
So here's the bad news / good news bit. The bad news - I've got breast cancer. The good news - this is New Zealand, where we've got publicly funded health care and I've drawn a great surgeon. I like Erica straight away - she has great shoes, and she's an onco-plastic surgeon specializing in breast conservation techniques.
More bad news / good news - although the DCIS is over quite a big area, I've got such a big bust I can have a partial mastectomy combined with a bilateral reduction or 'boob job' rather than the old style radical mastectomy followed by reconstruction. We agree that this is by far the best option. And then comes the really hard thing - telling my family.
The next few weeks are pretty blurry.
I meet with Erica again to have all the processes explained. I meet with another plastic surgeon who will do the surgery along with Erica. Here too I am really fortunate - Dr.C trained here in NZ, then did clinical fellowships at Toronto General Hospital and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York. My surgery gets scheduled then relocated, then rescheduled then relocated and rescheduled again - this sucks, big time. Thank god for sleeping pills.
Finally D-day is just around the corner - November 11th. The day before I have some radioactive dye injected into the breast so they can track and trace my sentinel node - this will be removed and biopsied during surgery to determine whether the cancer has progressed beyond the breast tissue. The day of surgery I have a 'hook wire procedure' - tiny wires are inserted either side of the DCIS to mark it clearly for the surgeon. And then some more waiting - getting two surgeons from opposite sides of Auckland to the hospital in a third location is an exercise in logistics - lucky for me there's a nurse with a sedative.
And then it's all over - I'm awake - sort of, and John's there and Joe and Ems and Ethan, and there's a nurse with morphine.
Two weeks later (336 hours / 20,160 minutes ), we meet with Erica for the pathology report - there's more bad news / good news. They have found a few spots of invasive cancer outside of the DCIS - but they are tiny, the biggest one is only 2.5 mm (about the size of a headphone jack - less than 1/10th of an inch) and the sentinel node biopsy is clear. 'Just in time' Erica tells me. Now it's the turn of the oncologist.
I'm beginning to sound like a medical groupie here, but I can't say enough about the team of people who I've met in the last 18 months. Dr M (the oncologist) is great - he draws diagrams, explains how my type of cancer works and how different chemo treatments might affect the outcome. He also tells us that the choice of treatments is completely up to us. They've identified the invasive cancer as Stage 1 Grade 3 - and it is positive for the hormone receptors Estrogen and Progesterone and for Herceptin as well. With everything considered, Dr M recommends radiation treatment followed by Tamoxifen for two years, then aromatase inhibitors for another 3 years. We go away to think about it, but I don't think either John or I ever doubted that this was the option we were going to choose.
In my case, radiation treatment is pretty straightforward and easy to handle. I get tattoos! Three little blue dots for the GPS system on the radiation machine. The thing that I find most difficult about the treatment is driving into Auckland every day and trying to find a place to park at the hospital. Good news - halfway through the 20 treatments, my sister Wendy arrives, and she drives in with me every day.
And then the treatments are all over, the surgery has healed really well, and I'm free - sort of. I take the little green pill every night, and I get on with things. Life carries on as it does, and some days I don't even think about the cancer.
There's lots of talk in the Breast Cancer world about cancer being a journey (read Barbara Ehrenreich's great article 'Welcome to Cancerland'), and I know people who say that it's been a blessing in their lives. Not for me. I haven't had any great spiritual insights and I haven't drastically altered the way I live, I'm not living in the moment any more than I did before, even though I try. I know that I've had a lot of luck since the diagnosis - early detection, great specialists, government provided health care, and wonderful wonderful (to the power of 10) family and friends who helped every step of the way - but I'm still pissed off that I got cancer.
Pissed off , but not too surprised - here in NZ there are 18,500 new registrations of cancer each year and over a lifetime one in three New Zealanders will have some experience of cancer, either personally or through a relative or friend. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. I'll bet the numbers are just as scary where you live. It really does make you want to do something - help out somehow.
Here's something you can do - make a donation to the Ride to Conquer Cancer - do it for someone you love.
That's a photo of Jane taken in March of this year. Fifty-four and still going strong.
Thank you Jane.