Writing “My Cancer Journey” of my experience with cancer has been something I have wanted to do for some time now. But I have to be honest sitting down and mentally re-living it all has been difficult to say the least.
In December of 2006 I was mom to five already and pregnant with number six. Kevin (my fiancée) found a small lump in one of my breasts. Of course this raised a red flag and I asked my OB/GYN about it immediately. He told me not to worry about it even though I was a high-risk pregnancy. The doctor was certain it was just breast changes from being pregnant. I reminded him that my mother had breast cancer and he responded that my risk factor was low. When you hear that from your doctor you feel a sort of sense of relief. Dismissed. About a week later Kevin and I both agreed that small lump was now a larger lump. It was almost twice as large as it had been. Again the red flag was raised and as before I contacted my OB/GYN. He said. “We’ll, just watch it, don’t worry.” This again made me feel a little better and I went on my merry way. Days went by and now my small, turned large lump was four times the size it had been when we discovered it. Where do you think I headed…back to the OB/GYN. Finally, he scheduled me for an ultrasound. Did I mention, finally?
Three days later I’m big, fat, pregnant and at the hospital getting my ultrasound. After that I was sent for a mammogram. They fitted me with a makeshift lead shield with the lead aprons to protect the baby. Then they sent me back to ultrasound again. The radiologist came in and told me “I don’t like the look of it at all. I am extremely suspicious and we will need to do a biopsy as soon as possible. I would like to do it myself, how is Friday for you? "
Friday, January 13th I had the biopsy. Oh My, Oh My, Oh My! Ouch! The darn thing was a bit deep! And unfortunately I was alone for the procedure. The poor valet made me sit down and wait awhile to drive because I was so faint. He wanted to call someone for a ride but Kevin was at work and I knew he wouldn’t be able to leave. I took a big breath and began the wild and crazy drive home. I did pull over a couple of times on the way but made it safe and sound. Kevin wasn’t too happy with my decision not to call him.
Monday evening we were just finishing dinner. I’m sure you can imagine how crazy it can get with six kiddies in the house, getting them all fed, clean up dinner and all of them bathes. My phone rings and it is my OB, remember him? No small talk here! Right down to business. “Sorry Tammy, I sure didn’t see this one coming! You have Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. This is an extremely aggressive type of cancer so we really have to attack this head on. You need to get a lumpectomy followed by Chemotherapy and Radiation. I’m going to call a surgeon friend of mine and get you in as soon as possible.” I remember all of this as if it were this morning. More was said after that but my brain seemed to malfunction. So…that was that.
The following week I met with the surgeon. He explained the procedure of the lumpectomy and the extra factors that had to be in place due to the pregnancy. Later that week I had the surgery. I had to have an axillary lymph node biopsy because of the pregnancy and couldn’t have the dye required in the less invasive biopsy. They removed one-quarter of my breast. The surgeon was confident he had removed it all. Whew, relief! The pathology report determined that there were clear margins! This meant that they believe they had removed all the cancerous tissue. My lymph nodes were all clear which means that is probably has not spread; this was very, very good!
I had a vile, disgusting a drain in my side for nearly two weeks. I had to empty the drain, measure the fluid, and re-dress it regularly. It was very difficult to sleep with that nasty thingy! My surgeon did a very good job! He managed to get out 15 lymph nodes and the affected tumor through just the one large scar. Brilliant surgeon! (Insert applause here.) The recovery from the surgery was fair. Lots of pain, some infection but the cancer was gone!
The pathologist confirmed that it was a very aggressive Stage 2 cancer. I only had eight more weeks until Ki could be delivered full term. I met with the Oncologist and Radiation Oncologist that next week. The OB, Surgeon, Pathologist, Oncologist, and Radiation oncologist all had a meeting to “discuss my case”. WOW…I was very impressed…yes, indeedy I was…and a bit nervous! After lengthy discussion they all came to an agreement that we should wait until after the baby came to begin further treatment. They agreed to wait four weeks to induce but my oncologist insisted on six, due to all the other risk factors (Asthma, Premature delivery before, I forgot the term but there is one for five of more children, and oh yes advanced maternal age, yes I was 38!, and be sure not to forget the new risk factor, BCa- Breast Cancer).
Ki matured very, very well. Her scheduled inducement date came and I guess she wasn’t quite ready to meet this big, scary world because she fought it for a while. I chose to have an epidural block. It helped with the pain…way too much. Apparently the anesthesiologist gave me too much medicine and it flowed up toward my head instead of down; virtually hibernating my heart and lungs. Oh, so not good! Finally they got it all straightened out, of course that meant NO MORE PAIN KILLERS!!!! I had made my OB (remember him?) promise when I said it was time for him to come deliver this baby, he would be there. NOPE! He waltzes in when she’s already starting to check out this fine world. An absolutely BEAUTIFUL, six pound 12-ounce baby girl.
Six days after the birth of our sixth child I began chemotherapy for Breast Cancer. My parents brought their camper here from Texas and parked in our front yard to stay for the majority of the chemo. Mom would watch the newborn in the mornings and let me sleep. She would also watch the baby while I was having my chemo sessions and either Mom or Dad would drive me to them.
The very first chemo session seemed to clash with my medications because I felt so suicidal (which is extremely not me). I was too afraid to tell anyone. My meds combined with the stresses of being a mom to six children, still recovering from childbirth, dealing with a newborn, finances and the fact that I was losing my insurance in five weeks, apparently was too much for me. Jeez! Yuck, even reflecting on it tears my stomach apart. I was completely exhausted!
My hair lasted about 15 days, then it all started coming out. Not just a little here and there, by the handfuls. Weird!!!! I tell you some people are really rude too, you would not believe the stares and snickers I got? Unbelievable!! I received a few wigs from the American Cancer Society but they are HOT! I usually went with a cap. The kids were a little embarrassed but hey at least they had a mom to embarrass them, right?
The remaining three and a half months of chemo went something like this; total exhaustion, weight gain, weakness, absent-mindedness, clumsiness, nausea….Don’t get me wrong, I still did everything I always had done (laundry for eight people, cooking, cleaning, got the kids ready for school, helped with homework, normal stuff). Ya know, life goes on! Mom and Dad went back home the day after my last chemo treatment. I won’t go into any details about the chemo sessions or the radiation. If you are curious just ask me!
As soon as I finished chemo I started radiation. I had forty-three treatments of radiation to my right side. I found that radiation made me even more exhausted than the chemo did. The nurses as the Cancer institute were terrific, almost like family. It was summer vacation so all my children in tow I would go for my treatments and these selfless people would watch them and for me and make sure we got through. This went on everyday, Monday thru Friday for 43-8 minute long sessions.
As soon as radiation treatments were over I began my medication therapy. Tamoxifen, which I am still taking because it is a 5 year drug. I also had an oophorectomy (removal of my ovaries and tubes). This was in hopes of reducing my estrogen. My type of cancer was ER positive (Estrogen responsive) 12%.
You would think the pill popping stage would be a relief, but it gives me night terrors, I hate it! Three more years to go! Unfortunately I have been without insurance for some time now so I haven’t had any of my follow up testing done, but I am still taking my medication and the rest I deal with one day at a time.
You’ve heard about my cancer itself so far but the effects on life and my family in general was a whole other battle.
One of my daughter’s (six at the time) was parading around the house one day in one of my hats and said “When I grow up and get cancer, can I wear this hat?” (sigh) To hear those words come out of your daughter's mouth and then realize that could be a reality for her. Let's not even get into that!
On a separate occasion my step-daughter who was 5 at the time and myself were sitting on the swing talking. We were in the back yard and I asked her what if we saw a snake right now! She said I have an idea Tammy, you could just take off your hat and you head would scare him away! Was this what my reality was becoming? A scary old snake scarer!
Financially, the impact was horrendous and we still haven’t recovered. In order to qualify for Medicaid I had to quit my job, with all the side effects I’m not sure I could have kept up with it anyway, and I would have a newborn in daycare. The loss of my income made and is still making it extremely difficult just to pay for life necessities. Then there is the added expense of travel to appointments, the cost of medication (even if it is discounted), etcetera. And to put the icing on the cake when my ex-husband found out I had cancer he quit paying child support.
Cancer did give me a completely different view of life: I have absolutely no idea what trials and tribulations others are walking through; There is more to life than just getting dinner on the table, the laundry done and all six kids bathed; I want to enjoy every single day (even wiping butts or noses); I want to appreciate the things I consider important.
Through it all I had a beautiful daughter who thank God was not affected by my cancer and Kevin and I got married in February 2007. What a great man to take on a woman with five kids (only one his) and fresh cancer survivor!!!! To think he would want me a girl with hardly a hair on her head…now kinky and wild!
With a wonderful man, six beautiful but silly children I am still kicking and as far as I know cancer free. At the end of the day I must say thank you to everyone who was there. Thank you Mom and Dad, Thank you Kevin, children, medical team and God. As a friendly little reminder from one girl to another…go check yourself ladies. Once a month is good, more won’t hurt either and if there is a family history of breast cancer, please be a little more cautious.
A special “Thank you” to my friend Amber at Come Here Little Bug for helping me get this down. It was a bit difficult rehashing it all!