I had a very interesting and eventful end of Summer this year. A close friend of mine introduced me to one of her long-time, childhood friends who had been through three different cancer diagnoses; one being breast cancer, another rectal cancer.

She inspired us to get caught up on our check-ups and the screenings recommended for our age, including colonoscopy. I was very remiss in keeping up with my gynecological visits (I’ve always been super healthy and had no issues) and am horrified to admit now that I had not had a mammogram since my first one when I was 40…. that means over 10 years.

That first mammogram screening exam was all clear, although I did have to return for an ultrasound to check some things (that in itself is unnerving) which turned out to be fluid-filled cysts. I got the all clear and I went merrily about my life.

It took a while for the imaging center to retrieve my first mammogram films (amazing that it was even still available). When they finally were able to compare the films (August 2013) with my current mammogram taken in June 2013, I was called back in for an ultrasound.

My Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Paula | mammogram screening | Orange County, CaliforniaThere was a small mass on the right side and, during the ultrasound, the radiologist showed me the difference between how those cysts looked and the dark and shadowy mass. I could tell by their faces – and the look of it – that it was not normal.

“We need to biopsy this.” Here we go.

The hardest part of this whole process, to me, is all of the time between tests and procedures where you are left with your imagination – and the excruciating waiting for results.

A few days later, I returned for the biopsy. That was a Monday – results should be back on Wednesday. Now my anxiety level is rising and I am trying to keep it together, be positive, and just go with the flow. I pulled out all the stops and put into practice everything I knew about meditation, relaxation techniques, affirmations and doing my best to keep my thoughts quiet and in the present moment.

This was probably the hardest three days to get through (in my life). My appointment was early Wednesday morning. I made the drive to the imaging center. Made the walk from the parking structure to the office building. Made the walk down the long hall to the reception area of the office….. I was so early that the door was still locked. Great – so the 3 minutes I waited for the receptionist to open the door seemed like 30.

Still trying to hold it together and just wanting it to be over, I met with the “nurse navigator” and she brought me into a room to wait for the radiologist. The radiologist handed me a sheet of paper with my biopsy results and the diagnosis highlighted in yellow.

I cannot really remember what was said, if anything, as I am now in a fog of adrenaline. I read the words:

Moderately Infiltrating Ductal Carcinoma associated with Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS).

With this shocking and scary news came some good news as well. It was early, small, non-aggressive.

Her2 Negative, Angio-Lymphatic involvement, Negative, Estrogen receptors Positive.

I was a bit numb and overwhelmed by the information and materials provided to me that day: a large “what to expect” binder, an American Cancer Society portfolio of information, etc. I didn’t want to be in this club and I sure didn’t want to read all of the scary details. I just wanted to get out of there.

I was still holding it together pretty well until…. I realized that I would have to make some calls, tell my family, tell my son.

That put me over the edge and the nurse navigator was amazed at how skillful I was at catching the tears from my lower eyelid with tissues (she kept them coming) before they streamed down my face and ruin the makeup I had applied just minutes before. I know, such a prissy priss. Reality came bearing down on me and my mind was racing.

With binders and pamphlets in my arms, sunglasses on, I made the walk through the reception area now filling with women. Made the walk down the hall and out of the building. Made the walk to the parking structure. Made the walk to my car. I tossed the materials into my back seat and the binder popped open and fell apart.

Trying to hold it together and, sitting in my car with my phone, I knew who I needed to call immediately. A close friend of mine works for a naturopath/holistic nutritionist who helps patients going through cancer treatment. I knew that she would understand the biopsy results and diagnosis a lot better than I with all of her experience. She was very calm and supportive and quickly helped me to grasp the situation. It was comforting to hear her confirm the “good news” part of the diagnosis – and that I was a very lucky girl. Classic early-detection story.

My Breast Cancer Treatment

I managed to make it to work later that day and the next few days were pretty emotional and I didn’t want to talk about it. As with any difficult situation with which we are faced in life, acceptance is the first step in coming to grips so that you can move forward with your action plan.

I really did switch to “auto pilot” and, in the coming weeks, had a “let’s do this!” attitude and was very composed. I felt strong and ready to do what I had to do. I made the calls to my family … and my son. I did my best to present the “best possible situation” with the “sunniest of dispositions” to keep everyone from being too alarmed.

The “C” word sure can instill panic and I wanted to spare them as much as possible. It’s all in the delivery of the message and I felt I had great news going in. My friends and family followed my lead and, if I was strong, positive and ready to “rock & roll”, so were they. I really felt the outpouring of love and support and was very grateful for the people in my life.

For someone who is very independent and likes to think of herself as self-sufficient and rock solid, it wasn’t easy for me to relinquish control and allow others to support me.

I met with two surgeons and, after two consultations with Dr. Lisa Curcio, my choice was easy. With her calm, direct, compassionate manner I quickly felt the comfort and trust you need to have with your doctor. When I heard her story of being a breast cancer survivor herself, well, that was all I needed to hear.

I really wanted to get the surgery over with as soon as possible and I had a family camping trip at the beach planned in September that I didn’t want to miss. Dr. Curcio eased my concern and assured me that I could take my trip and have the surgery the following Monday morning. That would be about two months from diagnosis – all that waiting. She told me that this thing has been there a while and was not “angry.”

I also consulted with Dr. Mark Gaon regarding the option of oncological reconstruction immediately following my lumpectomy surgery. I was a little overwhelmed with all of this as I have never had any real health issues or surgery before – and I was nervous about the surgery and the additional recovery time.

Dr. Gaon was so straightforward, confident and professional and gave me everything I needed to make an informed decision. After learning about the possible effects of the lumpectomy and radiation, it was clear to me that I needed to opt for the reconstruction as well.

I felt I was in good hands. It turns out that, in the surgical pathology report, there were signs of “Lobular Neoplasia” which is cell changes in the lobe.

Having the reconstruction/reduction/lift (basically a partial mastectomy) not only gave me a fantastic cosmetic result, but also provided a good amount of margin area for pathology/analysis, good information about the neoplasia, my posture has greatly improved, the neck bump on my back between my shoulders disappeared and I just feel fantastic, healthy and “lighter.”

I am very grateful for having this option available and feel it was a good decision to have it done. It truly is a gift and has been a “lemonade from lemons” experience for me.

I’ve since consulted with the medical oncologist, Dr. John Link, to review all of the scientific/statistical data. I was very impressed that the first words out of his mouth when we sat down together were, “So, how do you think you got this cancer?”

I think this is a brilliant approach and great way to start “drilling down” into the life of the patient to gather clues. My response? “I think it’s because I was in an unhappy, toxic relationship for 9 years.”

That was my gut reaction. I am a big believer in the mind-body connection. It was a very informative meeting and Dr. Link answered all my questions and it looks like our mission is complete. I am now reading his book The Breast Cancer Survival Manual, which is very thorough and well done.

My grandmother on my mother’s side had breast cancer in the 1970’s (radical mastectomy) and she survived. My great-grandmother on my father’s side had the same thing and survived. Other than that, I didn’t have any experience with cancer among my siblings, my mother, aunts, cousins, etc.

I was the first in my generation. Putting off my health screenings and neglecting getting regular mammograms was a huge mistake.

I can’t believe how lucky I was to find the tumor in the “nick of time.” I thought I was invincible. Now I am the biggest cheerleader for regular check-ups and mammogram screenings– and I pester every woman in my family and in my life that I can (and I’m very grateful for the little angel on earth who inspired me to get my screenings – thank you, Shannon.)

I’ve always been an introspective person and live my life with spiritual practice. This experience reinforced that for me.

I feel like I’ve come through this stronger, wiser and a better version of myself. Above all, I think the most important thing I have learned is that it’s OK to allow your loved ones (and doctors) to support and take care of you.

It is a gift; be willing to receive it. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable does not mean you are weak; it means you are brave. I still feel invincible – but now I think I really understand what that means. My new year’s slogan: 53 is the New Me.

I feel so fortunate and grateful to have found Dr. Curcio and Dr. Gaon. Underneath those white Breastlink coats…… they wear capes. They are my heroes.

Published in January 2014.

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