A decade after my breast cancer diagnosis, I'm grateful to be here


LEXINGTON - When a nurse told me that I had Stage II invasive breast cancer, I was in the restroom at the Lexington Herald-Leader.

It was January 20, 2009 -- Barack Obama's inauguration day.

Statistics from the American Cancer Society say that 2,370 Kentucky women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year; 580 of them will die from the disease.

As the nurse told me I had joined the statistics, I tried to lower myself to the floor to faint, but my knees wouldn't bend. I held onto the sink for balance.

"Am I going to die?" I whispered hoarsely.

"I sense that you are unable to process any additional information now," the nurse said.

Cold as that was, she had a point.

I was a 50-year-old single mother with a daughter who was a junior in high school and a son who was a junior at Transylvania University. Would I die before I could see them graduate? Would I meet my daughter-in-law, my son-in-law, my grandchildren?

My children took the news surprisingly well. They could not imagine me dying, or so they told me. But they were shaken in ways they never said. I remember my son at a much-later oncologist's appointment pressing the doctor: "So she has no cancer in her body? No cancer at all? Anywhere? You're sure?"

I had gone in for a routine mammogram and been summoned pack for additional images. The images showed some suspicious spots that the radiologist wanted to see in a biopsy. But I almost certainly didn't have cancer, he assured me. Nine times out of 10, he said, this kind of image was totally benign.

I was the one in 10.

I opted for a double mastectomy because I never wanted to go through this trauma again. I remember the morning it happened. A male minister was praying with me; as he held my hand and invoked the Lord, he insistently scratched my palm. I was uncomfortable and distressed by his action.

Just before I was wheeled into the operating room, my father, a man who rarely showed emotion, kissed my cheek. I immediately broke down, and then I was sent off into anesthesia.

When I woke up in recovery, a nurse immediately started murmuring to me: "You're out in 23 hours. Your insurance says you're out in 23 hours. We need to get you ready."

I was so groggy I was having trouble putting together sentences, and the first thing I was told is that I was costing my insurance too damn much money.

That night about 3 a.m., rigged up with drains for my absent breasts and an assortment of other tubing, I tried summoning a nurse to help me go to the bathroom. No one came. I stood there, with my tubes in knots and my breasts gone and my shrieking pain just awakened, and I cried.

Then I got on the phone and called my insurer and told them there was no way I could leave the hospital in the next few hours. To my surprise, the insurance company agreed.

After the mastectomy, I had a port surgically embedded in my chest to deliver chemotherapy. I received treatment from a plastic surgeon to ready my body for reconstruction, to take place after chemotherapy; the cage embedded in my chest was tight, and I never again drew a full satisfying breath until my breast reconstruction. Breast reconstruction was done with tissue harvested from my groin, which yielded a remarkable scalding sensation on awakening after surgery.

I began chemotherapy. The quick guide to chemotherapy delivered by the nurse in charge told me that if I had thrown up while in early pregnancy with my children, I was likely to throw up in chemotherapy: That part turned out to be true. I wound up keeping a trash can by my couch.

After my double mastectomy, I got a great diagnosis that quickly turned sour: My lymph nodes were clear. The cancer had not spread. Then the pathology report came back: They had a found a single calcified lymph node in my breast tissue.

I was going to have chemotherapy. I wasn't going back to work in just a few weeks. A nurse assigned by my insurance company to walk me through the process told me morbid things: "Cheryl, you may not even been able to wipe when you go to the bathroom. That's how bad this is."

I reported her for her attitude. It seems I spent a lot of time reporting people during my breast cancer experience. If someone says something inappropriate or touches you inappropriately, report them immediately. Breast cancer is bad enough without harassment and demeaning counseling. Also, talk back to your insurance company. Your insurance is there to serve you. You are not there to make an insurance company's life cheap and easy.

My chemotherapy consisted of Doxyrubicin, nicknamed "Red Devil" for good reason, and Taxotere. I tell people to beware when you ask doctors for the strongest possible anti-cancer regimen. They will give it to you.

In my case, the drugs left me a nauseated half-conscious mass negotiating with myself on when I would have enough energy to walk from the couch to the mailbox: "Fifteen minutes, and I'Il get a drink." "A half-hour, and I'Il walk to the bathroom."

I read Anthony Trollope, whose measured cadence and arch observations made me a lifelong fan. I watched "Battlestar Galactica." President Laura Roslin also had breast cancer. She died at the end.

I returned to work in June, having made an unsteady path through my daughter's high school graduation.

But I returned too early. I realized too late that I needed at least another six months off, but didn't feel I could afford to live on disability pay.

I had started receiving weekly transfusions of Herceptin, a targeted therapy for my type of breast cancer. Herceptin is highly thought of in the breast cancer community and at the University of Kentucky's Markey Cancer Center, and I would have let them feed my port with WD30 infused with garlic if I thought it would improve my chances. But Herceptin made me feel as if I had the flu, all day every day.

I was terribly weak, and faking any ability to do actual reporting. One day I sunk to the floor in the Herald-Leader elevator and sobbed because I needed to buy cat food and I did not have enough energy to walk into Kroger.

One workday I heard an editor across the partition saying, "If only we had someone to go to Event "X"!" This was my cue to stand up and say, certainly, I'd go anywhere. What was the deadline? How long should the article be?

Instead I hung my head at my desk. I was sitting upright eight hours a day and dragging myself into the office just to keep a job and insurance, and even that was too hard. On several days, I snuck off into unoccupied parts of the building, curled up in a ball and fell asleep. I have never been that tired before or since.

In the end I fell victim to one of Herceptin's pitfalls: heart damage. The damage is real but temporary.

My heart ejection fraction, a measure of how well your heart works, had fallen to a level that led my oncologist to remove me from the drug. We'd just pray that I had received the optimum benefit from the amount of Herceptin I had received, he said, and that my heart would recover.

Meanwhile, lack of exercise had led me to start putting on the weight that would lead me to soar to a weight 55 pounds heavier than I was before diagnosis. That weight I have more or less maintained for the next decade until my doctor warned me I was destined for diabetes. Now, I'm on a Keto low-carb diet and I have a treadmill in my living room.

Some days I appreciated just how good people can be. P.G. Peeples, the longtime president of the Urban League of Lexington and a fellow breast cancer survivor, called me every few weeks to check in. A neighbor arrived in record time one day when I had fallen in the bathroom and lost consciousness, awakening to a pool of blood around my head. People sent flowers and brought meals.

You don't want to go through breast cancer. But if you are due for a mammogram, don't be in denial. After I started feeling better, I would stop employees at Kroger and urge them to get a mammogram. Any time I was in a group, I would run a usually unwelcome survey of who was up to date on their mammograms. I became a mammogram maniac.

About one in eight American women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in their lifetimes. In 2018, 266,120 will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, and another 63,690 with non-invasive breast cancer.

Maybe those who don't get mammograms have read that mammograms are unreliable in detecting breast cancer, or they don't like the very brief squish of breast between glass plates a mammogram requires. To women who complain that mammograms hurt I say: Try waking up after a double mastectomy with draining tubes where you breasts used to be, trying to overcome the agony to speak and having a nurse whisper to you that your insurance says you're getting out of the hospital in 23 hours.

That's real pain. A mammogram is a few moments of inconvenience. During my biopsy, I had some pain. My fingernails may have left marks in the nurse who was holding my hand during the procedure, which felt like having your breast penetrated by a drill.

The morning I went in for my double mastectomy, I felt great. In reality I was on a path that, if not stopped, would kill me.

Here I am, 10 years later. My daughter is a Peace Corps volunteer in China. My son is a 747 pilot married to a high school teacher with the most generous of spirits.

I wonder what happened to some of the women I met during my journey. I wonder about a woman from Clay City at a "Look Good Feel Better" cosmetics course for breast cancer patients who was on her third round of cancer. And a striking woman I saw at chemotherapy gazing out a window after receiving her chemotherapy, wearing a tan tunic sweater and matching hat. I bought the hat for my bald head -- I still have it -- but never located the source for that sweater. Did these ladies make it? Did they survive long enough to make their goals?

Sometimes I will stop a moment and touch a flower, look for an extra few seconds at the farm view from my deck, brag about how the kids turned out. I am here to do that, and it has made all the difference. Part of it is medicine, part luck.

The first part was scheduling the mammogram.

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