A routine mammogram surely saved my life!      

Neither my doctor, the surgeon I consulted when calcifications showed up on my yearly mammogram, nor myself, could ever feel a lump in my breast. I was reassured, by both the doctors and the reading that I did, that these very small points on my x-ray were not likely to be cancer. A biopsy proved otherwise and subsequent surgery in July 1996 found an area of multiple tumors with some node involvement already taking place. Even though the outcome was not as we had hoped, I cannot help being grateful for finding the cancer when I did. It is hard to imagine how much more advanced my disease might have been by the time a lump could be felt.

Each of the people in this picture, my daughter — JoJean, my granddaughter — Amanda, and myself now share a greater risk for breast cancer. This fact is one of the hardest things I have had to face since my diagnosis. I find it hard dealing with the thought that something I have may also cause problems for these people I love. My hope lies in the fact that there have been great strides in the awareness of this disease in the last 10 years. The increased monies for research and studies are helping to improve treatment and giving us more weapons every year.

The pathology report showed I had a stage II cancer, it also determined the cancer was estrogen/progesterone receptive and that there were ‘clean margins’ on the tumor specimens. These facts helped us decide on the course of adjuvant therapy to follow after the surgery. I began a series of chemotherapy treatments which were part of a clinical trial being conducted by the Mayo Clinic. I was placed in the ‘second arm’ of the trial, which means I received a standard dose of Cytoxan but a higher dose of Adriamycin than the usual treatment. I was given a new anti-nausea medication before each session and am happy to say I made it through the treatments without any of the nausea and vomiting I had read about. I did not need radiation therapy because the tissue surrounding the tumor was free of cancer. Then in January of 1997 I started a five year regimen of taking an oral drug called Tamoxifen, this is referred to as hormonal therapy. Tamoxifen is thought of as an ‘estrogen blocker’ — however, it not only blocks estrogen from feeding cancer cells, it kills some of those cells as well.

The biggest side effect from the chemotherapy, other than the expected hair loss, was fatigue. That effect seemed to be cumulative and I still need more sleep than I used too, but my eyelashes were back and long enough for mascara by Christmas, my hair was back by Spring — short but very curly — and I was back to working eight hours a day before May. At my four year post chemo check-up last October I was told I was very healthy and I am happy to say that I do feel great. My surgeon told me I was ‘surgically cured’ the day of my mastectomy. After I finished the series of chemotherapy treatments, my oncologist wrote me a letter and told me he considered me cured. I admit to saving that letter and rereading it every now and then — it seems like proof that I am an official survivor!

I have become active in starting a Breast Cancer Support Group in our area. I feel this is important because it has been shown in specific breast cancer related research that the immune system’s weapons are higher in patients who were part of a support group. Our meetings have been encouraging and we have a wide age range of women attending. One of our main goals is to provide timely information to newly diagnosed patients — something that is not always easy to do in our relatively remote location.
The support group is active  in promoting ‘Breast Cancer Awareness Month’ each October — speaking at club meetings, handing out information and we were the subject of a well received newspaper article. In October, 1998 we sponsored a women’s wellness workshop at our local community college called Take Charge – It’s Your Life! The workshop was so successful that we have made it an annual event. Last year I  received training from the American Cancer Society on how to be a ‘Reach to Recovery’ volunteer so I now make visits to newly diagnosed patients to offer help, support and encouragement. I also had fun using my desktop publishing program to produce both the brochure about the support group that is distributed at various sites around our town and the brochures, flyers, banners and posters related to the workshop.