I am fairly confident that a woman never forgets when she first feels a strange lump in her breast. For me, it was January 2012, the night before a vacation with my husband to Cancun. I was giving myself my monthly breast exam in bed, and there it was, a tiny lump at the bottom of my left breast. The next day while waiting at the airport, I decided it was nothing based on the results I found on Google.
Fast forward six months, the lump has become larger and the edges are more pronounced. I decided that it was time to finally get it checked out. On the days leading up to my diagnosis, I had attended countless clinical checkups, mammograms, ultrasounds, and biopsies. Each appointment was laced with smiling nurses and doctors who looked me straight in the eyes and assured me that I had no need to worry because most likely the pea sized lump I had found was “probably nothing and they were just checking further to be safe”. I naively believed them and had no worries that the biopsy results I was waiting for would be anything but clear.
It was July 31, 2012 and I was having a wonderful day. I took the day off work to have a “Rachel day”. This was something I did for myself occasionally when I needed a little break. I went to the pool that day, made myself my lunch staple (a frozen pizza), and was enjoying a chick flick on the couch. At 2:07PM I received the call that would change my life as I know it forever. On the other end it was one of those smiling nurses, Ashley, who had told both me and my husband not to worry the day before. She said she was calling with the biopsy results and then there was “THE PAUSE” that seemed to linger on for eternity. At that moment, I felt my heart stop and I could hardly catch my breath. All I could think was “Why me? How could this be happening to me?”. I immediately called my husband and asked him to come home from work.
We spent the next several weeks at the Cancer Center on a daily basis. Breast Cancer consumed every thought, every word, every action, and I found myself in full crisis mode having to make a lot of life changing decisions that I was not emotionally prepared to make. All my life I have always been a very outspoken and opinionated woman and this disease suddenly turned me into a shriveled up mess that could not vocalize questions or concerns I was feeling. Thankfully I am blessed with a wonderful partner that did not miss a single appointment and acted as my advocate with all of the doctors and nurses that were demanding answers from me on how I wanted to proceed.
The thing most people do not know about cancer is that you really are not aware of how advanced it is for a long time. I was mistakenly told by a nurse on the day after my diagnosis that I was stage 3 Breast Cancer. At that time I had not learned much about the disease except that the higher the stage, the worse the diagnosis. For me, hearing that information was a devastating blow to my already destroyed emotions. Thankfully the Patient Care Coordinator at the Cancer Center where I chose to receive treatment was able to rectify that error immediately in letting me know that it was too soon for me to know what stage I was, but we did know that my tumor grade was 3 (how fast the tumor grows). We also knew that my cancer was ER and PR positive and was driven by my hormones. She explained that because of my young age, 32 at the time, and the aggressiveness of the tumor we would attack this very aggressively, most likely with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone therapy.
Upon the center’s recommendation, I had genetic testing to check for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. I also had an MRI so that they could see if there was any visible cancer outside the tumor already identified. I had to get several more ultrasounds and biopsies of other abnormal looking lumps in the other breast. All tests came back clear and based on this information; it was recommended that I have a lumpectomy and radiation treatment as soon as possible. After which I would be referred to my oncologist to discuss adjunct therapy in the form of chemo and hormonal treatment.
To distract myself during this time, I spent time reading everything I could get my hands on about breast cancer. Through my reading, I was starting to learn that I was not getting the total picture from the Cancer Center. No one was talking to me about anything except the medical intervention they could provide. There was no mention of diet modifications, exercise, nutrient deficiencies I may have, or anything except surgery, radiation, chemo, and drugs. There was also very little discussion of the long term effects that the conventional treatment would have on my body. At that point, I decided that for me, I was going to have to take more responsibility for my health going forward. As I gained more and more knowledge, I found myself feeling much more empowered and prepared to face life as a “cancer patient”.
After putting the brakes on my treatment for two weeks so that I could sort out my emotions and decide how to proceed, I opted to have the lumpectomy with a sentinel node biopsy that my surgeon recommended. Upon waking from surgery, I was informed that my tumor had not spread to the surrounding lymph nodes which meant that I had stage 1 breast cancer. I was informed that the margins were clear during the surgery and that everything looked good. At that point I was referred onto radiology and oncology for the next phases in my treatment.
This was the part where things became very difficult for me. My oncologist recommended 4 chemo treatments at 3 week intervals. The radiologist advised I needed 6 weeks of radiation treatment, five times per week. Last but not least, I was to take Tamoxifen for the next five years. In my research I read about the long term side effects that these next phases of treatment would have on my body. I was concerned about the radiation because of the close proximity to my heart. I was concerned about having chemotherapy because my body is already very sensitive to any drugs I have ever been prescribed and always resulted in many of the possible side effects as the result. I was also concerned about the possibility that hormone therapy would cause other cancers or damage my liver. When I vocalized my concerns to my medical team, I was quickly corrected and advised there was no other option because their recommendations were the current “Standard of Care” at that time.
At this point I decided to seek out second and third opinions outside the Cancer Center that had been treating me. I received other opinions on how I should move forward from there. Ultimately, I decided to receive radiation treatment, but at a different treatment facility that offered a more focused therapy module that utilized a CT scan during treatment to help with the accuracy and help to avoid my heart and lungs. Additionally, my treatment was also only 18 sessions, with one session per day. I decided that chemotherapy and hormone therapy was not for me against the judgment of my medical team. I have also had two rounds of physical therapy to assist with the arm and shoulder problems I have because of the surgery and radiation.
Today I feel better and healthier than ever despite the nightmare I endured just two years ago. I used to be a very ill and fragile person that was always “catching something”. I still have physical problems with my arm and shoulder and have a mild case of lymphedema to deal with on top of it all. Despite all of that, I know I am very blessed to be here today writing this blog. I want to share what I have learned about this horrible disease that will affect so many women in their lives. Through this blog, I will share more details of my experience and the findings on how to better prepare your body to fight cancer if it rears its ugly head, or better yet to prevent cancer before it does. I also want others to realize they are not alone in their struggle with this disease and that there are ways to empower yourself to be a part of your medical care and to make choices that you can believe in. I am a firm believer in placebo and if you believe that the treatment path you choose will make you well, then it will manifest the wellness you seek.
“Cancer is not a death sentence, but rather it is a life sentence; it pushes one to live”