LEXINGTON – When a nurse told me I had stage II invasive breast cancer, I was in the Lexington Herold Leader's lavatory.
It was January 20, 2009 – the inauguration day of Barack Obama.
Statistics from the American Cancer Society predict that 2,370 women in Kentucky are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. 580 of them will die from the disease.
When the nurse told me that I had joined the statistics, I tried to lie down on the floor to faint, but my knees did not bend. I held the sink to keep my balance.
"Will I die?" I whispered hoarsely.
"I feel like you can not process any additional information now," the nurse said.
As cold as it was, she was right.
I was a 50-year-old single mother with a daughter who was younger in high school and a son who was younger at Transylvania University. Would I die before I could see her? Would I meet my daughter-in-law, my son-in-law, my grandchildren?
My children took the news surprisingly well. They could not imagine me dying or they told me. But they were shaken in ways they never said. I remember my son at a much later appointment with the oncologist who urged the doctor: "So she has no cancer in her body? No cancer at all? Anywhere? You're sure?"
I opted for routine mammography and was summoned for more pictures. The images showed some suspicious spots that the radiologist wanted to see in a biopsy. But I almost had no cancer, he assured me. He said, nine times out of ten, that kind of picture was completely harmless.
I opted for a double mastectomy because I never wanted to do that trauma again. I remember the morning when it happened. A male minister prayed with me. When he held my hand and called the Lord, he persistently scratched my palm. I felt uncomfortable and desperate with his action.
Just before I was rolled into the operating room, my father, a man who rarely showed emotion, kissed my cheek. I immediately collapsed and was sent to anesthesia.
When I woke up, a nurse immediately muttered to me, "You're out in 23 hours, your insurance company says you're out in 23 hours, we need to get you ready."
I was so dizzy that I had trouble catching sentences, and the first thing I was told was that I'd cost my insurance too damned much money.
That night, about three o'clock in the afternoon, with drainpipes for my absent breasts and a selection of other hoses, I tried to call a nurse to help me go to the bathroom. Nobody came. I stood there, my hoses were knotted and my breasts were gone and my screeching pain just woke and I cried.
Then I answered the phone and called my insurer and told them that I could not leave the hospital in the next few hours. To my surprise, the insurance company agreed.
After the mastectomy, I had a surgical port embedded in the chest to deliver chemo. I received treatment from a plastic surgeon to prepare my body for rebuilding after chemo. The cage in my chest was tight, and I never pulled a satisfying breath until the breast reconstruction. The breast reconstruction was done with tissue from my groin, which caused a remarkable scalding sensation when waking up after surgery.
I started chemotherapy. The quick reference guide to the chemo given by the responsible nurse told me that if I had my children in early pregnancy, I would probably list in chemo: this part turned out to be true. At the end I kept a trashcan by my couch.
After my double mastectomy, I got a great diagnosis that quickly turned sour: My lymph nodes were clear. The cancer had not spread. Then the pathology report came back: They had found a single calcified lymph node in my breast tissue.
I would have chemotherapy. I could only work again after a few weeks. A nurse who was hired by my insurance company to take me through the process told me morbid things: "Cheryl, you may not even be able to wipe if you go to the bathroom, that's so bad."
I reported her because of her attitude. It seems that I spent a lot of time reporting people during my breast cancer experience. If someone addresses something inappropriate or inappropriately touches you, report it immediately. Breast cancer is bad enough without harassment and humiliation of advice. Talk to your insurance company. Your insurance is available to you. They are not there to make the life of an insurance company cheap and easy.
My chemotherapy consisted of doxyrubicin, with good reason, nicknamed "Red Devil" and Taxotere. I tell people to watch out for doctors calling for the strongest possible cancer treatment. They will give it to you.
In my case, the drugs left me a half-grown, reluctant crowd who would negotiate with me if I had enough energy to run from the couch into the mailbox: "Fifteen minutes, and I'll get me something to drink." "Half an hour, and I'm going to the bathroom."
I read Anthony Trollope, whose measured cadence and bow observations have made me a lifelong fan. I saw "Battlestar Galactica". President Laura Roslin also had breast cancer. She died in the end.
I returned to work in June after taking a restless path with my daughter's high school diploma.
But I came back too soon. It was too late for me to realize that I needed a break of at least six months, but I did not feel that I could afford to live on disability benefits.
I started receiving weekly Herceptin transfusions, a targeted therapy for my breast cancer. Herceptin is highly regarded in the University of Kentucky breast cancer community and the Markey Cancer Center, and I would have infused my port with WD30 with garlic if I thought it would improve my chances. But Herceptin made me feel like I had the flu every day.
I was terribly weak and faked every opportunity to really report. One day I sank to the ground in the Herald Leader elevator and sobbed because I had to buy cat food and I did not have enough energy to get to Kroger.
One working day I heard an editor on the partition saying, "If only we had someone to go to Event X!" This was my cue to get up and say I would certainly go somewhere. What was the appointment? How long should the article be?
Instead, I hung my head against my desk. I sat upright for eight hours a day, dragging myself into the office just to get a job and insurance, and even that was too hard. For several days, I slipped into unoccupied parts of the building, rolled myself up and fell asleep. I have never been so tired before or since.
In the end, I fell victim to a case of Herceptin: heart damage. The damage is real, but only temporary.
My cardiac ejection fraction, a measure of how well your heart works, had fallen to a level that caused my oncologist to remove me from the drug. We simply prayed that I would get the most benefit from the amount of Herceptin I received, he said, and that my heart would recover.
In the meantime, for lack of exercise, I had begun to accept the weight that would cause me to reach a weight of 55 pounds, which was heavier than before the diagnosis. Over the next ten years, I kept that weight more or less until my doctor warned me that I was on diabetes. Now I'm doing a keto-low-carb diet and have a treadmill in my living room.
Some days I appreciated how good people can be. P. G. Peeples, the longtime president of the Lexington Urban League and a breast cancer survivor, called me to check in every few weeks. One day a neighbor arrived in record time, when I fell into the bathroom and lost consciousness and awoke from a pool of blood around my head. The people sent flowers and brought food.
You do not want to go through breast cancer. But if you're due for a mammogram, do not refuse. After feeling better, I stopped the staff at Kroger and asked them to do a mammogram. Every time I was in a group, I conducted a normally unwelcome survey of who was up to date on their mammograms. I became a mammogram maniac.
About one in eight American women is diagnosed with invasive breast cancer during their lifetime. In 2018, 266,120 will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and 63,690 with non-invasive breast cancer.
Perhaps those who do not receive mammograms have read that mammograms are unreliable in detecting breast cancer, or they do not like the very short squeezing of the breast between the glass plates that requires mammography. Women who complain of having mammograms hurt, I say: Try to wake up after a double mastectomy with drainage tubes where your breasts used to be, try to overcome the agony, and talk to a nurse who tells you You would get off the hospital in 23 hours.
That's real pain. A mammogram is a few moments of inconvenience. During my biopsy I had some pain. My fingernails may have left a mark on the nurse who held my hand during the procedure, which felt like your breast was being pierced by a drill.
In the morning, when I went to double mastectomy, I felt great. In fact, I was on a path that would kill me if it did not stop me.
Here I am, 10 years later. My daughter is a Peace Corps volunteer in China. My son is a 747 pilot who is married to a university professor with most ghosts.
I wonder what happened to the women I met on my trip. I'm wondering about a Clay City woman on a "Look Good Feel Better" breast cancer patient course that was in her third round of cancer. And a flashy woman I saw on a chemo looking out of a window after receiving her chemo, she wore a brown tunic pullover and matching hat. I bought the hat for my bald head – I still have it – but I never found the source for this sweater. Did these ladies make it? Did they survive long enough to reach their goals?
Sometimes I stop for a moment and pick up a flower, look at the yard view from my deck for a few seconds and watch the children come out. I'm here to do that and it made the difference. Part of it is medicine, part happiness.
The first part was the planning of mammography.