Written by Guest Blogger, Kim Phelps
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look your fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing that you think that you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Christmas was over and it was getting closer to the date of the surgery. One moment I couldn’t wait until the surgery was over so I could be on the road to recovery, and the next moment I was afraid that they would find out that it was worse than they had thought. I was on information overload. The Internet is a great tool. I was like a sponge; learning as much as I could about the cancer that I had. I believe in educating yourself but not to the extent that you become paralyzed in gathering information. The saying, “It is action and not reaction that will make the difference” is the important thing to remember.
It is funny how certain things that people say stand out and stay with you. My daughter and her husband were at my home after the holidays and we were discussing New Year’s Day. I made the comment, “What a way to spend the New Year’s holiday.”
My son-in-law, Brad, looked at me and said, “Yes, it is. You will start the new year out cancer-free.”
I had not thought of it in that manner. I have never forgotten those words that I needed to hear to remind me that feeling sorry for myself will not fight this battle. It is the positive things that family members say and do everyday that help you get up in the morning to try and conquer this intimidating experience.
Lesson 5: Try to keep a positive outlook. It isn’t easy to do, but being around positive people and keeping your outlook positive will help you get through anything.
It was New Year’s Eve and I was scheduled to be at the hospital by 6:30 a.m. I had never had surgery before. Other than having my children, I had never been in the hospital. I was nervous, shocked, angry, numb, irate, furious, speechless and overwhelmed. I was scared to have the IV. I was afraid that I wouldn’t wake up after the anesthetic. I was an emotional roller coaster. I do not know how my husband put up with me through all of my mood swings. He always had a smile on his face and he never made me feel like I shouldn’t be angry. He would let me vent and then he would say, “We are going to beat this. I promise.”
During those moments, I always believed him.
The doctor had explained to my husband and I that the procedure that she would be performing was called a lumpectomy. I had received a book at the doctor’s office and it provided a wealth of information. Here is what I learned from it. A lumpectomy is a surgery that conserves your breast. Breast conservation surgery preserves your body image because it saves the majority of the breast tissue, including the nipple and the areola. She also explained the role of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system serves as a sewage system for cellular waste in the body. The lymph vessels follow closely beside the blood vessels and receive the cells wastes products. This waste is carried by the vessels and filtered through rounded areas of the lymph system, referred to as lymph nodes. Nodes appear as small, round capsules and vary from pinhead to olive size. Lymphocytes and monocytes (cellular component fluid which fight infection) are produced in the nodes, and the nodes act as filters to stop bacteria, cellular waste and cancer cells from entering the blood stream. Lymph nodes may serve as metastic sites-places where cancer has spread from its original site to nodes. The doctor explained that she would make an incision under my arm and would remove the first lymph node. If that lymph node had been attacked with the cancer, she would remove another node and would continue until she reached a node that was cancer free.
I remember the anesthesiologist coming into talk with me and to inject the medicine into my IV. After that, I remember nothing. My husband said that it was only after a few minutes that the nurse asked him to leave and wait in the waiting room. When I woke up, my husband and the rest of my family were in the recovery room. My first words were “Do I get to go home tonight?”
I had remembered the doctor saying that I would be able to go home in they did not have to remove lymph nodes. My husband told me that I would be going home. The doctor had told him that she did remove three of the lymph nodes, but the cancer did not affect them. The lumpectomy was a success. I went home that evening with the knowledge that I was cancer-free. My son-in-law was right. It was a good way to start the New Year.
The recovery to any surgery is difficult. From the time that you learn that you have breast cancer your concentration is so focused on educating yourself on the disease that you do not think ahead to the recovery. I remember going back to my doctor a couple of weeks after the surgery and she said that I was doing great. I was healing well. Then, she started to discuss my treatment options. She said that the majority of women receive some type of additional treatment – radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or hormonal therapy. These treatments are called adjuvant therapy. Adjuvant therapy is given to prevent a recurrence of cancer by killing any undetected cells that may remain in your body.
I wanted to be a good patient. I did not want to be considered non-compliant. But I really wanted to go home and put this whole ordeal behind me. The doctor explained all of my options including a clinical trial that she said that she would like for me to consider. She said that the clinical trial was conducting a study on women between the ages of 40-49 years old that had been diagnosed with estrogen receptive breast cancer. I fit into this category. She explained that they would study the lump that was removed from my breast and by doing this would come back with a plan for treatment. She explained that they would give me a number that would determine if they felt that I should have chemotherapy; the lower the number, the lower the odds that my breast cancer would reoccur. I decided to participate in the clinical trial. It was several weeks after the surgery before I heard back from them. I remember praying that the number would be low so that I would not have to have chemotherapy. I remember thinking that I was not going to have chemo no matter what the number was.
The day finally arrived that I would go in to see my doctor and to discuss the clinical trial results. I was really concerned about the outcome. My doctor said that the number that the clinical trial came up with was 14. She said that they felt that it was a 14 % chance that the cancer would come back. I remember thinking that it was 86% chance that it would not come back. The clinical trial did not suggest that I have chemo but they did suggest radiation and hormone therapy.
I started my radiation therapy in March 2008. It is a long, but pain-free process. I had a job that the hours were 8:00 to 5:00. I would get up every morning and would be at the clinic at 7:00 where I would undress, spend about 15 minutes receiving radiation therapy. Then I would dress and be out the door and at work by 8:00. I did this for 34 days. The radiation was not painful but it made me tired. Every evening I would come home and I would lie on the couch totally exhausted.
I also had started the hormone therapy. The drug I took is called Tamoxifren. The side effects can be vicious if you are one of its victims. It caused me to feel so nervous inside. I was mad and then sad. I was crying over things that would have normally made me laugh. I felt so out of control. I took the medicine for about 6 months before I decided that I needed quality of life as much as I needed quantity. There are many treatment decisions. The decision is yours to make.
Lesson 6: You are the person living this life… you have the choice to make decisions about your care. I don’t recommend going against a doctor’s advice, but it is also very important to educate yourself and remember that you do have options.
I am 49 years old and I feel good. I have a high energy level. I do not require a lot of sleep. I have some excess weight that wasn’t there before. I still cry easier than I used to. I am still going to the doctor every 6 months for exams. I get nervous and sick to my stomach every time that I have to go for a mammogram and exam. I cannot relax until the lady comes out and says that I can get dressed because she doesn’t need another picture of my breast. I cannot relax after the mammogram until I have seen my doctor and she checks me and tells me that everything looks great. I suppose that these are all normal feelings.
Emotional recovery is another part of the healing process. I am thankful that I am alive. I am thankful that I have had such a strong family that has always been there for me. I do feel lucky. Having cancer changes your life and I’m so grateful that my battle was not the same as many others.
I hope that by writing this post, all of you will remember how important it is to do self exams and to schedule your mammograms when needed. It can happen to anyone. I never thought it would be me, but it was.
For more information on breast cancer, please visit Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
Also, remember that if you make a donation to Susan G. Komen for the Cure through Andrea’s Race Page by October 15, you will be entered to win a $25 Visa Gift Card!