Breast Cancer and Me

My apologies for going silent for the past few months. It’s been an adventure of sorts.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer on March 28, 2011. The tumor was in my left breast and was an invasive ductal carcinoma that was 3.5cm long, Estrogen, Progesterone and HER positive. Stage IIb. The only reason I even knew something wrong was that I had pain in my left breast. I went to the doctor who referred me to a radiologist. I was given a mammogram, an ultrasound and a very, very painful biopsy. After a very, very long weekend, I was told (by phone) that I had cancer. I was flummoxed and floored. This couldn’t be happening to me.

With a recommendation from Dr. Tammy Leopold, my primary care doctor, I then went to see an amazing breast surgeon, Dr. Sharon Rosenbaum-Smith, a beautiful firecracker of a woman who let me cry in her office. Through the tears, however, we were able to make a plan. I was presented with 3 options – a lumpectomy, a single mastectomy or double mastectomy. The deciding factor would be a test for the BRCA gene mutation, but this would delay any action by at least 2 weeks. After careful consideration that day, I opted for a double mastectomy. I joked that had wanted a breast reduction anyway and that it should be a matching pair, but honestly, I had a strong suspicion about how the test would turn out since Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Jews, of which I am one, have the highest risk of being a carrier. And as it turned out, I was right.

The surgery was scheduled for April 21, 2011. Dr. Rosenbaum-Smith performed the mastectomy and Dr. William Samson performed the reconstruction. I opted for simple implants, so tissue expanders were put in to create a capsule for the permanent implants to later be exchanged at a second surgery. I must say, Dr. Samson is a brilliant surgeon and I’m really pleased with the results so far.

Recovery was hard, but didn’t take too long – maybe a week or two and then I was back to work.

May 23, 2011 was my first day of chemo. I opted for the TCH regimen, however chemo is chemo and it sucked. Once every 3 weeks for 18 weeks. It was the longest 18 weeks of my life. And I lost all of my beautiful hair. And I continued to work full-time throughout the process.

The chemo beat the hell out of me. Luckily it finally ended on September 12, 2011. When I recovered from the ravages of chemo, I started radiation on October 12, 2011 under the guidance of Dr. Andrew Evans and went every day for 28 days straight.

And if going through radiation was bad enough, the company I was working for did massive layoffs and finally, shut down – sputtering and coughing the whole way. And, yes, I was the only HR person around to make sure everyone got paid (and remained to be even after the company was gone). There was no COBRA being offered, so there was no COBRA to administer, but that’s a whole other story. I did, however, ask that the company stay open through November 1 so that employees (myself included) had benefits for an additional month. And then I got let go.

I also had a bit of difficulty with the TSA. Some of you may have read about it as a number of news sources picked it up. It was a really stressful situation, but in the end, the Director of JFK Airport security and the TSA personally apologized to me. Go figure. At least some good came out of it. At least I hope so.

Needless to say, 2011 was a really crappy year.

Yet it got better in December. I got an amazing new job at as the Senior Director of HR. It’s an incredible company. And the worst of the treatment is behind me.

My second surgery is now scheduled for February 6 – two weeks away. 2 days after my Dad’s birthday and 1 day after my brother’s. The surgery is a combination exchange (expanders for permanent implants) and ovary/fallopian tube removal. As I stated above, I’m BRCA positive, specifically BRCA1+ which carries an 88% chance of breast cancer (duh) and 44% chance of ovarian cancer.

This time I’m not waiting around for the cancer to come to me.

Both are out-patient procedures, so I don’t expect that I’ll be down for long. But I’m still a little nervous about the anesthesia . I’m told that’s normal.

I guess in a way I was lucky that my tumor was HER+ because there are so many things to throw at it. So I still have Herceptin treatments through the end of May. It’s an infusion, like chemo, but it’s not chemo. And I also have a pill that I will have to swallow for the next 5 years. Even so, I’m more hopeful than I’ve ever been.

In other words, not done yet. But what have I learned so far?

  • I should have known about the BRCA test long before this. I want to spread the word as much as possible. Ashkenazic Jews, like myself, are at extremely high risk. And there are laws in place that help protect people from genetic discrimination should they test positive.
  • That breast cancer is the gift that keeps giving. Lymphedema in my left arm. No, not the yucky kind -just some slight swelling due to the removal of 7 auxiliary lymph nodes. Luckily I have the best Occupational Therapist in the world, Cynthia Shechter . She specializes in Breast Cancer/Lymphedema Rehab and has been an amazing friend to me through this whole process.
  • The only thing I wish chemo upon is cancer.
  • Radiation isn’t as scary as it sounds. It’s just incredibly inconvenient.
  • You know who your friends are when something like this happens.
  • I’ll never again have to wonder how I would look if I were bald.
  • Be careful what you wish for. It may come true.