Cancer is a life-changing event, but it does not have to define you.
April 11, 2008 is a day I will never forget. On this day, at the age of 45, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was shocked. My family was shocked. My friends were shocked. I am a normal healthy person who was never in hospital other than to give birth to my children. I play tennis 3 times a week, go to the gym a couple times a week, run and lead a very active lifestyle. I eat a balanced diet. I don’t drink to excess. I don’t smoke. I am not overweight. How could this happen?
Everyone thought and asked, why you? I actually thought and asked “Why Not Me”? I knew of many women who had breast cancer that would not be considered high-risk cases. However, cancer is an indiscriminate enemy and it is not clear why people get it. Is it hereditary, hormonal, diet, cosmetics, antiperspirants, parabens, pesticides, plastics, radiation, environmental? There is not yet a clear cause and effect.
I found my tumor by chance. I had my first mammogram a year earlier and a physical exam by my gynecologist just that January without result. However, while on holiday in March, I had a bit of sunburn on my chest that was sensitive and when I was scratching my skin I felt a lump like a pea underneath. From finding that lump to diagnosis was 2 of the longest weeks of my life.
My initial needle biopsy was negative. The tumor was not cancerous. Great news!!! However, because of the results of the ultrasound, the doctors were still suspicious, and I was lucky to have a good team who were not satisfied to stop there. Because of differences between the ultrasound and the needle biopsy they thought it best to do another biopsy. I chose to do a surgical biopsy or lumpectomy because I felt cancerous or not, I wanted that mass out of my breast.
In the end, my left breast mass was Infiltrating Ductal Carcinoma. My breast cancer was 1 cm, Stage 1, Grade 3, no lymphatic or venous invasion, Triple Negative, a whole new vocabulary to learn in my new world as a cancer patient.
The lumpectomy was an outpatient procedure with minimal side effects. It was after this surgery that I was told conclusively that indeed my tumor was cancerous. I also learned that they removed the tumor with clear margins. This meant that the surgeon was able to remove enough so that there was a margin of tissue that the cancer had not infiltrated, a good sign.
After the lumpectomy was a sentinel node biopsy. This procedure is done to determine whether or not the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. The procedure involves the injection of a radioactive isotope into the breast nipple with a needle. I strongly suggest if you ever have to do have this procedure to take the numbing cream. My surgeon’s nurse said she would hear me screaming from the hospital if I did not do apply the cream. I listened and did not feel a thing other than a cool sensation as the liquid was injected. I have heard stories of women who were told the numbing cream does not work and endured excruciating pain. If the cancer had travelled from the tumor site to the nodes, the tracer would have followed its trail. Thank goodness there was no invasion of the cancer to ANY of my nodes. More good news!
Normally, with this situation, one would have only followed up with radiation treatment. However, they are now able to test the cancer cells to see if they are receptor positive for hormones and HER2 proteins. My outcome from this test is what is called Triple Negative breast cancer. This meant that my cancer was not hormonal or protein receptor positive. There are no therapies I could take that would impact my cancer if any tiny cell had escaped somewhere else in my body. This meant that in my case, to decrease the risk of recurrence….CHEMO.
In my mind, there was no choice but to do the chemo. I had 4 treatments every other week and then 8 once every week. Each treatment takes anywhere from 3-5 hours. First you are given a blood test to check white and red blood cell counts as well as platelet counts. If all is at a sufficient level, than you can proceed with the treatment.
I did my chemotherapy at the Centre Hospitalier. The chemo suite is in the basement but it is nice and bright with lots of windows. I was able to have friends join me during the treatment and I found their presence a pleasant distraction from what was happening. I think I would have suffered from chemo’s side-effects more dramatically if I did not have this support. This was the time in my life that I truly realized that help is there when you need it. I did not even have to ask my friends for help, they took control and were just there…. Chemotherapy would have been even worse to do it alone.
I was lucky in unluckiness….I did not suffer the main horrible side-effect of terrible sickness. No one knows why but I never got sick. With the encouragement of my oncologist, I continued to do sport and tennis is my passion. I normally played twice a week and continued to do so while I was having treatment. Plus after each chemo, the next day I played golf. It was great for my mind to get outdoors and walk and be distracted. My friend Audra understood this and she was with me for the golf. Towards the end of chemo, I probably played tennis and golf at about 60% of my normal capability, but it kept me in a positive frame of mind. Cancer was not going to control my life and I was still going to be as normal as possible.
Of course we all know that most chemo causes hair loss and I lost mine everywhere. I went to the hairdresser about 2 weeks into treatment and had my head shaved. Although I had short hair for years, I thought it would be too distressing to see it falling out in clumps. A few friends joined me and we had champagne to “celebrate” the occasion. It was easier for me to do it this way rather than be sad about something that was unavoidable. In some ways it was liberating and after everything else it was not so difficult to do. Plus, I had a wig similar to my regular style. Even though some knew that I was having chemotherapy, they never realized that I was indeed wearing a wig until they saw me with just a scarf.
In Luxembourg the caisse maladie reimburses cancer patients a significant part of the cost of a wig. Additionally, my friend Ivana, who runs Indigo makeup, showed me how to apply false eyelashes and pencil in my eyebrows. It was not easy to look at myself without so I cannot imagine what it would have been like for others.
This was the greatest fear expressed by my 2 children who were 9 and 11 at the time of diagnosis, for their mother to be seen without hair. In fact at first, they told me that I must wear the wig at all times even in our home. Eventually, they got used to seeing me without hair and on some occasions if one of their friends was sleeping over they saw as well.
Our philosophy with our children was complete honesty because we felt that they would worry more and think things were worse if we did not tell them the truth throughout my treatment. Sadly, a part of their youthful innocence was lost because their mother had breast cancer, but other than the initial shock and fear, they were remarkably resilient. They managed to lead their lives normally, and they could learn what they wanted by asking or researching themselves on the internet. We found the truth more reassuring than the scare tactics from TV programs who make all cancers appear dire.
After chemotherapy, I had 30 radiation treatments. This is done 5 days a week for six weeks and each session takes about 10 minutes. Prior to starting the treatment, you must get marks or tattoos (small dots) so that each time with the assistance of laser lights, the radiation can be administered in the exact same spot. Chemotherapy is done to kill any cancer cells that may have escaped to other parts of the body and radiation is done to kill any lingering cancerous cells at the original tumor site. For me, radiation was a walk in the park after chemo. The hardest part was the time involved each day for 6 weeks. My skin did darken, but I did not experience other side effects.
Most of us see the glamorous side of breast cancer, the campaign to find a cure, to promote awareness, pretty pink ribbons, women uniting, families uniting, but there is an ugly side that only a few who are intimate to those suffering with or receiving treatment for cancer. Whether you are the survivor or a co-survivor, it is a life-changing event but it does not have to define you.
My cancer journey altered my life and set me on a new path. Part of that new road became what is now Think Pink Lux. Most definitely, the first event we organized in October 2009 was closely intertwined with my journey. Plus, I was lucky to know women who were involved with my journey or who shared the same passion to increase awareness about breast cancer in Luxembourg who helped to create Think Pink Lux. I am privileged to use my breast cancer experience as an opportunity to promote awareness in the community.