Christine’s Survivor Story
I always look forward to, and dread, the month of October. The dread is because it reminds me of my scary brush with the “C” word. I look forward to it because the reminder is a huge part of my survivor story.
Ultimately, I turned my journey into an opportunity to encourage women to be more proactive about their breast health, and also to support women who were beginning the same journey that I went on.
In October of 2006, I felt a lump in my right breast. I thought it was the same harmless cyst I had several years earlier. I wasn’t worried. I mentioned the lump to my BFF and she said, “Why don’t you go see Dr. Joe?” Oh right, she’s married to a doctor! I went to see Dr. Joe and his dad, Dr. Perez. The senior Dr. Perez examined me and did not like the way the lump felt. He immediately scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound. A week later, still not worried, I went to get my mammogram, where they proceeded to take picture after picture after picture after picture. The doctor there said that I needed to come back for a biopsy. They are seeing suspicious clusters of calcifications. I’m still thinking, dumb cysts, but a biopsy? That seems serious. (Side note: All women have calcifications in our breasts, but they are usually spread out – not in clusters. The calcifications themselves are not the cancer, but they are attracted to tumors, so when the calcifications are in clusters, that’s when the doctors want to do more tests.)
A few days later the biopsy confirmed that I did indeed have breast cancer. WHAT? WHO? ME? Repeat. First step: More tests to be sure there are no other tumors anywhere else in either breast. Check! Clear. Phew. Step two: Surgery. My tumor was small so they did a lumpectomy and a lymph node biopsy. Check! No lymph nodes involved. Phew! The lymph node thing, was a huge relief for me AND my doctors. Moving on. (Dear God, please don’t make me have to do chemo.) Step three: Chemo. WHAT!? I just said don’t make me have to do chemo! Is anyone listening? Hello? Then Drs. Perez told me the tumor I had was just big enough to fit within the standard protocol for chemo after surgery. The chemo is going to kill any micro cancer cells that could have slipped undetected through the lymph nodes. I’m still thinking, “Are you talking to me?” I SAID, JUST AS LONG AS I DON”T HAVE TO DO CHEMO! Remember?
I started Chemo in January of 2007. The first thing that popped into my mind when I heard I should do chemo was, “Oh great, I’m going to live on my bathroom floor because I’ll be too sick from vomiting all day to make back to my bed. I’ll get dark circles under my eyes, and I’ll probably die soon looking like a bald, sick cancer patient”. I hadn’t learned yet that today’s chemo experience is not the same as it was as little as 10 years ago. I was given cutting edge drugs to combat the side effects of chemo. No vomiting – Check! Energy level – Check! Dark circles – Well, a little, but not so bad! White blood count – Great, with daily booster shots! Hair loss – CHECK! Me. Out. I loved my bald head and embraced it. I used it as my badge of courage. I wore a wig once. I looked ridiculous. If I was going to have to go through cancer treatment, I wanted EVERYONE to know. And trust me, they did.
My 38 rounds of radiation shortly followed after the chemo. I went to the hospital every day during my lunch hour to have my breast radiated. My radiation oncologist gave me 6, pin-sized tattoos on my torso so the radiation techs knew where to set me up on the bed exactly the same way every time they blasted me. Each radiation treatment took literally 25 seconds to do. It took me longer to get undressed for the treatment than it did for the treatment itself!
I tell people now, if I could get through chemo, anyone could! I was the biggest scaredy cat on the planet! (Emphasis on the word WAS). There were times when it definitely was not a walk in the park, but I managed to go to work almost every day during the five months of my entire treatment. I continued to go to yoga regularly (pre Zumba!) and knew that if I stayed active there was no way that I was “sick” or a “patient”. I was just Christine dealing with a curve ball.
Speed bump, curve ball, fork in the road, whatever you call it, the experience has added another layer to what has shaped me into me. I now have follow-up exams as often as humanly possible. Breast cancer isn’t a death sentence. I can’t stress enough the importance of early detection. It was my life-saver.