Category Archives: Diagnosis

Cancer Changes Everything


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I saw a meme the other day that said something like “cancer can take away my body parts but it can’t touch my mind, my heart, or my soul.” Lovely words, heroic even, if you don’t think about them too closely.  I thought about them very closely and found I disagreed strongly with the message.
One way to interpret this meme is the superficial positive message of, “I am more than my disease. I am still a real person under the scars and the bald head and the chemo sickness. I am still me in my mind, heart, and soul”.

On that level, I can accept the meme’s message. But when I look at the words as they are written, not searching for a positive hidden meaning, I find myself in total disagreement with them.

I don’t think we can compartmentalize our lives that easily. The physical changes impact the mind, the emotions, and the spirit. It is not just the physical changes that lead to mental and emotional distress. The very process of being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease plays havoc with our minds, emotions, and our spirits. We are more than the sum of our physical parts. Our bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits are all intertwined to make up the whole package of our being.  Our bodies don’t exist in some separate dimension away from the mental and emotional parts of our being.  I do not believe that we come out of the other side of a cancer experience the same person we were when we went in.

Dealing first with the physical changes that cancer brings upon us, they have an enormous impact on the mind, the heart (emotions), and the soul (the very core of our being and our belief system). Breast cancer treatment often strips us of our breast(s), our hair, our fertility, and sometimes our ovaries or even our whole reproductive system. Often times treatment pushes a woman into at least temporary menopause. For others, the menopause is early and is permanent. No matter what kind of treatment is involved, there is physical pain and sickness from surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Our whole body image can change dramatically in only a few months time. Suddenly, all the physical attributes of what makes us female are gone. This plays havoc on our self-esteem and self-confidence. Yes breasts can be reconstructed, hair will grow back, fertility may be regained if we are very young and lucky or if we had the foresight to freeze eggs or embryos in advance of chemotherapy or gynecological surgery.

But breast reconstruction often involves multiple surgeries and for some, the end result is disappointing at best. And a reconstructed breast no longer has any feeling in it, no matter how cosmetically wonderful it may look.

Assisted reproduction techniques are not always successful. Chemotherapy can leave behind a permanent legacy of neuropathy (numbness in the hands and feet), hormonal drugs can lead to chronic joint pains, and surgical or chemically induced menopause symptoms can be more severe than natural menopause and are unlikely to be treated with hormonal supplements as these may reignite cancer.

With all these physical “side-effects” of cancer treatment, is it any wonder that many women feel distressed or depressed or highly anxious? When you look in the mirror and don’t even recognize the person you were 6 months earlier, it is bound to affect you mentally and emotionally. If you are in chronic pain and are suffering hot flashes at 30, it tends to change your outlook on life.

As far as cancer not being able to touch your mind,  I have one word for that. Chemobrain. It is real, it affects your memory, your concentration, and your ability to communicate effectively. It can feel as though you have had a mini-stroke as you dig through the filing cabinets of your mind to find that elusive everyday word you have used a million times before. Other times the right word is in your brain but a totally random word comes out of your mouth as if your brain and mouth were no longer connected. Then there is the disconcerting habit of losing things – your purse, your keys, your phone – only to find them right in front of you the whole time. So yes, cancer treatment can take away the mind for many of us, at least temporarily.

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As far as the heart or the emotions, just the very diagnosis of having a disease that can potentially kill you tends to strike fear and panic into your heart. You wait endlessly for pathology reports and the results of various scans to see if the cancer has spread. You worry about loved ones and how they will cope during treatment, or in the worst case scenario death, particularly if they are young children or aged parents that you normally care for.

Even when the cancer is caught at an early stage and the prognosis is good, most women are still highly anxious about a recurrence or a future diagnosis showing the cancer has spread. Once you have had cancer, you feel your body has betrayed you once and can do so again. Your sense of safety in the world has been irrevocably affected.  You have come face to face with your own mortality, realizing you just might not live to a ripe old age. These factors can bring on depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and in some cases, PTSD. So yes, cancer can and usually does attack the heart (emotions) as well as the body.

Finally, your soul or your very essence of being can be adversely affected as your perspective on life changes. Some of the changes may be for the good in that you start to appreciate the people and things around you more as you feel you came close to losing them. But it can also make you more wary of planning for the future, knowing that cancer could re-enter your life at any time.

You suddenly become aware that many women are dying of this disease, women your age and younger, as well as women whose cancers were also detected early and were given an excellent prognosis.  The world of cancer seems very random, more like a roll of the dice than like the orderly world of the cancer media which says early detection will keep you safe. You may search for ways to put yourself in control of your cancer by completely changing your diet and lifestyle only to hear about organic vegans who ran triathlons and died of cancer anyway. When you realize that the difference between living and dying of this disease seems to be more a matter of luck than anything else, your previously optimistic view of an orderly controlled world is essentially gone for good.

Perhaps I am presenting an overly pessimistic view due to my personal history of having breast cancer 4 times. It is a rarity in the breast cancer world to have cancer strike 4 times and not spread beyond the breast. I am grateful that I have been spared from Stage 4 cancer multiple times, particularly as I also have a BRCA1 mutation to contend with.

But even “good” recurrences like mine come with a huge emotional and spiritual price tag attached. I am constantly looking over my shoulder waiting for cancer to strike again. It is impossible for me to believe that this time I have “beaten” cancer as it keeps coming back for another round. Even if my breast cancer days are over, the BRCA1 mutation means I am susceptible to other forms of cancer that may be waiting in the wings to strike when I least expect it.

I don’t blame cancer for all the problems in my life. But I would be lying if I said that cancer didn’t have a negative impact on all areas of my life. I don’t believe cancer only took physical body parts away from me. It took much more of a toll on my emotions and spirit that I tried my best to cover up for many years. I am still happy with my life but I miss the wide eyed optimist I used to be. I don’t think she is ever coming back again and that makes my mind, heart, and spirit sad.

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A Letter To My 29 Year Old Self


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Dear Sharon,

I am here with you on this February morning of 1988, watching you sleep. I am taken aback not just by your youthful appearance but by a look on your face I haven’t seen in years. Even in sleep, your face shows a look of optimism and blind faith that everything in your life will turn out alright.  You still innocently believe that the universe is a fair and orderly place where good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. I wonder if this is the last time you will ever look like this or if it takes a few more days or weeks for that innocence to disappear forever.                                                   

You think you are going through a rough patch right now due to recent personal losses. By the time this day is over, the break-up with your boyfriend and the lay-off from your job will be the least of your worries

Your big plan for the morning is to get onto the typewriter and prepare cover letters for your resume so you can end this spell of unemployment. But your plans are about to change in four…three…two…one. Good! You are awake. Time to stretch your arms overhead and accidentally touch your left breast. Ah…do you feel it?

You have had lumps and bumps in your breasts before but this one feels somehow different. You touch it again, this time deliberately, and then touch the other breast for comparison’s sake. There is nothing at all similar anywhere else in either breast. Watching your face, I see your eyes grow wider and a mixture of fear and confusion crosses your face.                                                               

I watch you hesitate and then reach for your address book that contains your doctor’s phone number. I watch you talking to the receptionist and see the surprise in your face when she tells you there has been a cancellation and the doctor can see you in an hour.

There is no time to think. You are still telling yourself that you are bothering the doctor over nothing. Everyone knows 29 year olds don’t get breast cancer. They don’t get breast cancer at 29 even if their mother battled both breast and ovarian cancer in the last decade. Breast cancer is for menopausal women not young women in their 20’s. Part of you wants to call the office back to cancel the appointment. I am here to whisper to you that this is one appointment you must keep. Not really knowing why, you find yourself at the doctor’s office waiting to be examined.

The doctor said it will probably just be a cyst but given your family history, it is good that you came to have it checked out. You note the doctor’s smiling face turn into a frown as she feels the lump for herself. There is a hospital across the street from her office and she makes arrangements for you to see a breast surgeon that very afternoon. She explains that he will try to drain the lump with a needle and if it is a fluid filled cyst, it will collapse and that will be the end of the matter.  You notice that she is smiling too brightly and talking a bit too fast.  

I see the shadows of fear and doubt starting to take root on your face. As much as I would like to tell you that everything will be okay, I know how this part of the story ends. I can only whisper to you again that this is yet another appointment you can’t afford to miss.

I can read your thoughts. You feel like time is moving way too fast. The day’s events are hurtling forward like an out of control train on a too short track. You cross the street and wait to see the breast surgeon. You wonder what it feels like to have a needle stuck in your breast.

You don’t have long to wonder. You are disrobing yet again and having your second breast examination of the day. Once again you see the doctor frown when his hand examines your lump. He takes out a needle and thrusts it into your breast. When he withdraws it, you note that it is not filled with fluid. It is not a cyst. It is solid. Just watching you, I can see the anxiety solidifying on your face and I can almost feel your stomach dropping in fear.

You are sent to another floor for your first mammogram. It hurts, particularly after just having been subjected to the needle. When you return to the surgeon’s office, he tells you a surgical biopsy will be required to tell if it is benign or cancerous. There is a deadly silence after the cancer word is spoken. You find yourself asking the doctor what he thinks it is. As soon as you say those words aloud, you want to take them back. You don’t want to hear his answer.

He tells you only a biopsy can truly determine if it is cancerous but then adds that the physical exam and the mammogram are highly suggestive of a malignant tumor. You don’t hear a word he says after that although you do manage to stumble to the receptionist’s desk to book a biopsy appointment in a few days time.

You slowly walk back towards your apartment, unaware of the tears flowing down your cheeks. A random man calls out to you not to cry, no guy is worth your tears. This makes you cry harder and you race home to avoid any further attention. All you want is to talk to your Mom and have her hold you. She lives 500 miles away so a long distance call will have to do. I look closely at your face. Your eyes have the startled look of a deer caught in the headlights. The blind faith optimism has vanished from your face, never to return again.  You know you have breast cancer even though it hasn’t been officially diagnosed yet. You want to know what happens next, how you will ever go on.

I came from the future to answer your questions and reassure you that there will still be good times ahead. But how can I tell you that this won’t be your last cancer? How do I say that it will come back again and again and again? Even I don’t know the final ending to our story. I look at your shattered face and do not think you could handle the news of all the challenges that lie ahead of you. It will be easier for you to just live and survive them one by one the way I did.

So I will rip up this letter I have been writing to you as I think it would do more harm than good. I wish there was some way to let you know that there is happiness ahead as well as pain but I can’t tell you about one without telling you about the other. I would love to restore the unthinking optimism to your face but I know it is gone for good. For us, the universe is a disorderly random place where bad things can happen to good people.  Just know that you are going to live at least 26 more years and that you will get to be a mother to 2 children you will love very much. It is going to take a very long time for you to come to peaceful terms with yourself but I guarantee it will happen.

Good-bye for now old friend. Please forget I ever was here whispering in your ear. Just know my whispers saved your life this time.

Sharon Greene  January 8, 2015
Age 56

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Parenting With Breast Cancer


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When you are a parent, you want to protect your children from all the bad things in life as you love them so fiercely. You feel like this lioness with her cub, trying to shelter them from all impending harm. But when you are diagnosed with cancer, you are the one that sends your children’s world into a chaotic tailspin. Between the shock of diagnosis, the demands of treatment, and the uncertainty of what the future holds for you and your family, your children can’t help but be threatened by this disease that has invaded their lives.

Although I have had breast cancer 4 times, I only had children during the last bout in 2011. At that time, they were 9 and 11, old enough to understand what was going on but young enough that they still needed a parent who could be there for them 24/7. As a single mother with no other family for support, I found the competing demands of parenthood vs the painful realities of illness very overwhelming.

My children knew since a very young age that I had cancer 3 times way back before they were born. They were perversely proud of this fact about me as I guess it made them think I was Wonder Woman, able to beat cancer into submission at a single bound.

When after being cancer free for 16 years I learned it was back, I panicked about how I would explain this to my son and daughter. I had no idea how we would manage as in the past there was always someone around to take care of me. This time I was their caretaker and no one was volunteering to look after me (or them).

The children knew something was wrong before I was ready to have the cancer discussion. There were too many doctor’s appointments, too many whispered phone calls, and a few too many tears shed watching children’s television shows that weren’t particularly sad or sentimental. When your Mom bursts into tears over Sponge Bob’s latest escapade, the children fear the worst is about to happen. When they asked if they had done something to make Mommy so sad all the time, I knew I had to tell them the truth.
 
 

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I did a little research on how to talk to your school age children about a cancer diagnosis. The articles mainly touch on three points which have been called the 3 “c” words. The first point is to call it cancer, not a generic sickness or a boo boo. The reasoning is that if they have a name and explanation of what your condition is, they will be less likely to worry about other more horrendous illnesses (maybe Ebola?) you may have. It helps as well for them to associate a specific term for the disease as they may become overly fearful of the word, “sick” as it applies to them. If they associate the word “sick” with Mommy having major surgery and going bald they may panic when someone calls them sick when they complain of a tummy ache or a sore throat. They may think their sickness may lead to the same extreme consequences that happened to Mommy. So instead of turning your children into hypochondriacs by using the word “sickness”, use the word “cancer” so they can differentiate between the two conditions.

This was the easy part for me. My children knew what cancer was because of my past history. On the other hand, they had never lived through it before and needed some explanations of the possible treatments that might be involved and the consequences of those.

My 11 year old son became fixated on the fact that I would lose my hair and that seemingly was his greatest concern throughout my treatment. Talking to him about my cancer now 4 years later, he admits he was secretly worried sick I would die and leave him. But it was safer for him to worry outwardly about my baldness, wanting me to wear a wig, even to sleep. My little caps and turbans were disturbing to him (let alone my bald head) even in the privacy of our own home.

My 9 year old daughter took my baldness and various head coverings in stride. She loved coming with me to the Cancer Clinic where free donated wigs and head coverings were there to try on and take home. She became my fashion co-ordinator, ensuring my hat matched my outfit.

She showed her discomfort about my cancer in other ways. For example, she would often feign sickness on my chemo days or at times I had oncology appointments. She knew I considered her too young to leave at home alone so she would often accompany me to these appointments. This was her way of exerting control of the situation. She seemed to think that if I went to a hospital alone, they would keep me and I would never return home.

Even though I strongly suspected her vague symptoms of illness were fake, it was clear that her distress levels were real. Taking her along to these appointments reduced her anxiety while insisting she attend school led to huge emotional meltdowns every time. It seemed the lesser of the two evils at the time although in hindsight, it would have been better for her education if I had a back-up person to send her to on those appointment days. My guess is that she would have recovered from her symptoms quickly and attended school to be with her friends. While neither child ever actively worried aloud in my presence that they were afraid I was going to die, 4 years later it is clear that was underlying their behaviour all along.

The second “c” word recommended to be included in any discussion of cancer with children is the word “contagious”. It is important that children know they will not catch cancer from you in the same way they could catch a cold. This encourages continued close contact like hugs and kisses, without the child worrying they too will become sick. My children seemed to readily understand this concept and were not afraid of physical contact with me.

The only times physical contact became a challenge were after the mastectomy and partial reconstruction, when I returned home sore with 3 drains hanging down. They had to be reminded that Mommy loved them but couldn’t tolerate a big bear hug quite yet. The other times physical contact became an issue were during chemo when they had a cold or flu and they were the contagious ones. They had to be reminded that my immune system was weak and if I caught their bug, I could get very sick. They seemed to accept that without question. I was the one who suffered guilt from not being able to care for them as a mother should when some bug got them down.

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The third “c” word is “causation” in that Mommy’s cancer was not caused by anything her children did. The experts say that children under 13 are still in a developmental stage where they may blame themselves when something bad happens in the family. They may think that Mommy got cancer because I always nag her for new toys or because I don’t clean my room when she tells me to. I did reassure my children that they did not cause my cancer in any way. They both looked at me blankly as if the thought had never crossed their minds. That may be explainable by their knowledge that I had breast cancer 3 times before they were born. If they didn’t cause the first 3, why on earth would they think they caused the fourth cancer?

To help my children better understand my illness and their feelings about it, I brought home every age appropriate, “when your parent has cancer” book the Cancer Clinic had available. Although both enjoy reading, neither child showed any interest in the books even when I said we could look at them together. Maybe they thought we have to live with this stuff everyday, why would we want to read about it too?

Some cancer centers have programs specifically for children with parents living with cancer. We attended a half day program which the kids enjoyed very much as they saw others their own age living with a parent like myself. My daughter and I attended a Look Good, Feel Good program where we got to play around with and take home various cosmetics and wigs. My daughter decided I needed a purple wig to liven up my appearance so I would sometimes wear it at home for fun. This drove my son crazy as while he wanted me in a wig at all times, I was only supposed to wear wigs that were of the same color and style as my natural hair.

Trying to be a parent with cancer is challenging at best, although some of the sweetest memories of my life come from that period. Sometimes a simple caring gesture or word from one of my children would be enough to lift my mood for days on end. We did still manage to have birthday parties and a few fun outings during this year. Even at my sickest, when I was hospitalized for 4 days a week after my first chemo, the children got to spend one night with me in a private hospital room, a fun first for both of them.

Unfortunately, between the chemo brain and the PTSD, much of the year of Cancer 4 is a hazy blur to me. My children remember it better than I do. If I had to relive that experience again, I would seek out more support for both myself and the children. I also would have looked into one of the free camps for cancer families as we all needed a vacation after the previous year. They are just starting up in Canada but there are several established places in the US we might have qualified for had I known about them at the time.

While parenting with cancer can be tough going at times, especially for a single parent, it is doable as long as you can let go of your expectations of what perfect family life is supposed to look like. Sometimes a picnic on the floor altogether as a family can be more fun and memorable than a standard dinner at 5:00 gathered around the kitchen table. It’s your cancer, your family, and your lives together that determine how you best muddle through this difficult family time.

Sharon Greene January 3, 2015

Breast Cancer: It Is Going To Be A Bumpy Ride


A breast cancer diagnosis is a life altering event, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Surprisingly, little attention has been devoted to conducting scientific studies that measure anxiety, depression, and PTSD rates in first time breast cancer patients. Even less scientific attention has been paid to these psychological effects in patients who have experienced a recurrence or a metastasis of their cancer. The statistics available are all over the map but it can safely be said that almost all breast cancer patients will suffer from depression and high anxiety levels sometime on their journey from diagnosis to post-treatment.  

These feelings may be short-term for many, disappearing within a few months after treatment ends. A significant percentage of first time breast cancer survivors (US studies say 25% while European and Australian studies say at least 50%) will go on to develop long term post-traumatic stress disorder. There is very little statistical evidence pinpointing the rates of depression and PTSD in women with breast cancer recurrences but an 80% combined severe depression and/or PTSD rate has been cited in some articles. For the stage 4 patient, it is frequently noted that the depression and PTSD rates are “very high,” which really isn’t all that surprising. While the scientific studies are few and far between, it is stated repeatedly in the cancer literature that most of us will have to deal with these negative emotions some time along our journey.

Drs. have long recognized that a cancer diagnosis is a huge emotional blow to their patients. Just the very word “cancer” strikes the fear of disfigurement, a shortened life span, and a slow painful death into the hearts of most of us. Anti-anxiety medications such as Ativan or Xanax are often prescribed to the newly diagnosed and prescriptions are freely refilled during treatment and for a short time thereafter.

The cancer diagnosis may be given in person or over the phone, depending on your doctor.  If it’s over the phone and you have paper and pen ready, you may have some recollection of the finer points of the doctor’s call when you hang up. Or maybe not. My first diagnosis was over the phone and while I wrote notes as a rush of medical jargon came my way, all that was written on my page was “breast cancer” about eleven times, in increasingly larger letters. I didn’t even manage to write down my next appointment and had to call his office back to find out what I was supposed to do next. My mind felt like a sieve in the early days of my first diagnosis as I could not seem to retain anything but the most basic information. At other times, I felt like I was having a weird out of body experience, somehow removed from all that was happening around me.  I guess the shock of having your whole world turned upside down in a moment creates chaos in your brain.

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I strongly recommend taking a tape recorder and/or another person with you to the surgeon’s and oncologist’s office for your visits. The amount of information given is too much to absorb on your own, let alone process and act upon. Some doctors will explain things in plain English while others may use medical terms in a way you don’t understand. Even a diagnosis such as “triple negative breast cancer” will leave you staring blankly if you have never heard the words “triple” and “negative” applied to breast cancer before. It feels as though you have to learn another language just to understand what is going on in your body. The worst part is that before you have even mastered the fundamentals of this new language, doctors are asking you to make many impossible decisions and to make them quickly.

The diagnostic period and the  treatment planning time are among the most confusing and stressful parts of the cancer process. Not only are you reeling from the shock of learning you have cancer, you are given a huge amount of unpleasant choices to make, any of which have the potential to change the whole course of your life.

Do you want a lumpectomy with radiation, a single mastectomy, or a double mastectomy? Chemotherapy before or after surgery or no chemotherapy at all? If you choose chemotherapy, here are the risks and benefits of each type we could offer you. One can cause long term heart problems and the other increases your risk of uterine and bladder cancer. Which would you prefer?  Do you want immediate reconstruction or do you want skip that and use prostheses or would you rather be fabulously flat? If you choose reconstruction, do you want implants or surgery that uses your stomach, back muscles, or buttocks to create a new breast? Is genetic testing necessary?  If you test positive for a genetic cancer,  do you want your ovaries removed now or later?    

All these decisions and more have to be made in a short period of time while you are still reeling from emotional shock, not fully absorbing all the information being thrown your way. It’s a wonder any of us stick around the doctor’s office long enough to make any decision, informed or otherwise!
 

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The initial diagnostic period also involves further scans and tests to determine if you are one of the 10% of first time patients whose cancer has already spread from the breast to another part of the body. The testing portion of this period can bring on intense feelings of fear, worry, and depression as you have no idea whether the cancer has already travelled past the breast and into your bones, lungs, liver, or brain.    

The whole pre-treatment process takes on an air of unreality as only a short time ago you were blissfully unaware that you were even sick.  Is that really you rejoicing over clear scans and hearing yourself agreeing to amputation of part or all of your breast(s) followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation? I swear cancer never felt real to me until the first moment I would wake up in the recovery room after surgery, moaning for a shot of morphine.  With surgical pain, cancer got real very quickly (and yes I felt this way all 4 times).

Each patient has their own way of coping with the physical realities of surgery and other treatment.  Some women move quickly from shock into fighting mode, telling themselves and their loved ones they will beat cancer and kick it’s butt into the ground. Some women place their faith in God to get them through the hard times. Others adopt a strategy of trying to always find the positive or the humorous side of cancer. Others just get plain angry at the Universe, fate, or God.

All these coping strategies can be helpful during treatment as they may provide the motivation to continue with chemo or radiation even when your body is weary and just wants the treatment to be over with NOW.

Some people can stay in one particular emotional mode throughout the treatment process. Most of us flit in and out of various modes, one day feeling like a tough warrior and the next feeling like a fragile bird with a broken wing.

There are those who struggle with debilitating depression and anxiety throughout the treatment process. They may have to force themselves to continue treatment when the going gets rough. They may question if they are putting themselves through the pain of chemotherapy or radiation for a cancer that may recur or metastisize anyway, regardless of what they do.  They may feel overwhelmed, sad, and stressed most of the time.   

If you are feeling severely depressed, it may be that you are lacking a strong support system. If you can reach out to family, friends, a church or a counsellor for help, it may make life easier to deal with. If the depression is persistent and is interfering with your life, please consider psychiatric intervention and possibly a prescription for antidepressants.

The treatment period can heighten feelings of  depression through a combination of physical and emotional factors.  One of the key features of all the treatment methods is that they bring on severe fatigue which can quickly lead to emotional exhaustion. Getting out of bed, showering, and eating breakfast can feel as exhausting as a full day of physical labour. Throw a couple of children and pets into the mix and you are drained of all energy by 9:00 am. 

There are also the emotional stresses of dealing with a radically changed body from surgery and hair loss from chemotherapy. This plays havoc with your self-image and self-esteem as you wonder where the woman you used to look like a few months ago has gone. With your bald head, lack of eyelashes and eyebrows and whatever surgery was done to your body, you may feel she has no hope of ever coming back. The physical changes are difficult at any age but seem to be harder for young single breast cancer patients to handle. The literature notes that the young, the single, and the poor have the highest rates of depression and PTSD following a breast cancer diagnosis.

Depending on where you live, there may be financial pressures if you don’t have adequate health insurance or if you have to quit your job as paid sick leave is not offered.  If you are a single parent with little support, every day can feel like one long endless challenge.

Coping with cancer treatments and chemobrain simultaneously can leave you feeling helpless as your short term memory fades and you find yourself literally at a loss for words as the connection between the thoughts in your head and what comes out of your mouth seems to be irreparably broken. I remember bursting into tears several times trying unsuccessfully to express a simple sentence. At times I thought the cancer had spread to my brain as I was constantly forgetting where I had left my keys, purse, or phone and I often didn’t have the words to express to others what the problem was. Even though my doctors said it was chemo brain that was responsible for my memory and language problems, at times I thought I was losing my mind. Or that at the very least, I had suffered a stroke or was experiencing early onset Alzheimer’s symptoms.

A very vulnerable time for breast cancer survivors is when treatment ends and they stop being patients who see their medical team on a regular basis. Some of the women who spent their time in treatment being fighters or being angry or being positive come crashing down the hardest when treatment ends. I have heard women describing themselves as feeling lost and not knowing what to do next once that last chemotherapy or radiology session they were so looking forward to has come to an end. After all these months of anticipating the end of treatment, the actual ending seems anti-climatic yet frightening at the same time.

For many women, the end of treatment is when depression truly hits them. Their pre-cancer life is gone forever as they have faced their own mortality head on. There is no turning back the clock and regaining the innocence they have lost. At the same time, their identity as a cancer patient has come to an abrupt end and they must face their inner fears of a recurrence or a Stage 4 diagnosis alone, without the support of their medical team.

This transition time is very hard for many women. They reached their goal to finish treatment but they don’t have a new tangible goal to strive towards. Others around them impatiently wonder when they are going to resume their old activities and lifestyle. Their family and friends may begin to withdraw the emotional and physical support they offered during treatment as they expect the woman to bounce back to normal in a week or two, or maybe a month tops. The survivor may feel misunderstood by everyone, including herself. She may wonder how she could stay so positive through treatment and then be hit hard with depression when the treatment ends.

Cancer treatment is a physically and emotionally draining experience and it is unrealistic to think that everything will be back to normal as soon as the last treatment session ends. It takes a long time for your body and mind to recover from the trauma of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.  As doctors tell their patients to find their new normal, it may be impossible to return to the days of the old normal. Priorities may have changed significantly in the year or so that has passed since they were first diagnosed with cancer. Returning to the old normal may not be an appealing option anymore.

The emotional trauma experienced after a cancer recurrence or a Stage 4 diagnosis takes even longer to process than a first time diagnosis.  When cancer spreads or comes back, you can no longer tell yourself that if I make it 5 years, I will be cured. It becomes clear that cancer doesn’t play by the rules, at least not for everyone. 

When the 5 year magic cure rule is broken, many illusions that gave hope the first time are shattered forever. You no longer believe that medical science has all the answers, especially if your cancer was caught early and your prognosis was excellent. You become aware that cancer can come back again at any time or can continue to spread throughout your body even when it has been aggressively treated. You will never feel safe that this time it is gone for good, no matter how much you change your diet or make other changes to your lifestyle. You will probably continue to do everything in your power to extend your life span but you will know in the back of your mind that cancer can change the rules of the game at any time. These realizations help explain why so many women in these situations suffer severe anxiety, depression, and PTSD. The universe is not unfolding as it should. It is unfolding in a way that makes little sense to us mere mortals.

This is not to say that all is doom and gloom for any breast cancer patient or survivor. Most patients do recover their emotional equilibrium relatively quickly. Cancer may have made them aware of their own mortality sooner than they expected but there is still plenty of joy to be found in day to day living. There may be a greater appreciation for family and good friends. We may feel more grateful for the little pleasures in life that we once took for granted.  The little things that used to drive us crazy may no longer even make a dent on our emotional radar. They say don’t sweat the small stuff. After cancer, most of our minor annoyances definitely turn out to be small stuff.  
 
Those of us who suffer from PTSD may face a tougher road back to regain our positive psychological health. We may look fine on the outside, return to full- time employment, and make every effort to get on with our lives but the emotional quality of our lives may still be wounded and damaged. Some of the signs that you may be suffering from PTSD are: flashbacks or nightmares about cancer or treatment, blanking out and forgetting important parts of the cancer process, feeling emotionally numb, feeling continually hopeless and helpless, loss of enjoyment in activities that used to bring you pleasure, suicidal thoughts, and being hyper-sensitive to anything that reminds you of your cancer or its treatment. The advice given by the Mayo Clinic is that if these feelings persist and are interfering with your life, you should seek professional help at the earliest opportunity before the symptoms become further entrenched and harder to treat.

To minimize psychological distress no matter where you are in your cancer journey, using self care techniques will make the process easier. Activities that promote relaxation such as meditation, yoga, or massage can help you deal with stress. Having someone to talk to, whether it is a friend, family member, or a professional will help with sorting through the difficult feelings you may be experiencing. Finally, an in person or online support group with other women going through cancer can help you to see you are not alone and that there are others who understand exactly what you are feeling. Sometimes just knowing that your feelings are shared by many other women across the world can help you feel normal in the very unnormal world of cancer.

Sharon Greene  December 16, 2014

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Happy Holidays From Cancerland


It is almost that time of year again. The shopping malls have been decorated for Christmas since Halloween. Almost every radio station is playing Christmas music around the clock. If you have young children, they are excitedly waiting for Santa to come and visit. If you have preteens or teenagers, they are preparing their holiday wish lists and fully expecting Mom to buy them every item, no matter how high the cost.

Christmas movies paint a serene picture of the family hanging stockings together, opening the perfect presents (no socks or underwear) under a magnificent Christmas tree, and gathering together at a table groaning under the weight of every food imaginable. Some families probably do have Disney worthy Christmases but for most of us, there are some less than picture perfect moments.

I recall Christmases where my daughter was so excited, she threw up under the Christmas tree. Then there were the Christmases of my youth where people would start drinking too early and by dinnertime would be rude and belligerent. (This was also usually accompanied by someone throwing up). The presents were often bought during the peak of the holiday shopping season in understaffed stores filled with testy shoppers, creating huge amounts of stress. The feast on the table was often prepared by one woman, usually Mom, who baked cookies for weeks and was up at the crack of dawn preparing the turkey and side dishes. The poor woman was so exhausted by dinnertime that she couldn’t even enjoy the food she had so painstakingly prepared.

These less than perfect holiday moments can be enough to throw a healthy person into a tizzy. Now throw breast cancer into the mix and it is easy to understand why many patients and survivors dread the winter holiday season.

It isn’t just Christmas or Hanukkah that bring forth these feelings of anxiety and dread. Thanksgiving, children’s birthday parties, New Year’s Eve, and anniversaries can also be difficult times for patients, survivors, and their families. Although this post focuses on Christmas, it is called “happy holidays” for non-politically correct reasons. The issues outlined below can surface on any special event where people are supposed to be celebrating with others and the expectation is that everyone is filled with happiness and joy.

If life was fair, cancer would be diagnosed or treated on a calendar system in which these events would only occur at the least stressful times of the year.  I was going to say they would only occur at a convenient time but there is no convenient time of the year to have cancer.

Unfortunately, people receive cancer diagnoses or news of recurrences or metastases year round, including right before the Christmas season (or other important events). The shock of receiving this kind of news makes it difficult to want to celebrate and be festive with distant relatives or friends. As well as trying to process the bad news, there is often a sense of guilt about ruining everyone else’s Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza if you talk about cancer. Somehow rushing around the mall for presents or cooking a major meal seems trivial and pointless in the larger sense of the life and death issues you are facing. You may not be ready to share your news with the extended family, yet at the same time, cancer is all you think about. New Year’s Day with its emphasis on making resolutions for the year aheadwpid-christmas-pug-cute-little-gog-in-santa-hat_fj-oqt_u-1.jpg

can bring on depression if you are worried that this may be your last year alive. Even if you don’t anticipate dying, it is hard to make positive resolutions when you know you will be spending much of the new year facing surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation treatments.

For those already in treatment or recovering from surgery, there are even more challenges to face. You feel unwell. You ARE unwell. All the preparations for the holidays are too overwhelming to cope with. There is no way you will be baking, cooking, and cleaning, to prepare a feast for a crowd of people. Even preparing a simple Christmas meal with only your immediate family may be enough to knock you out for the next few days.

If you are having chemotherapy, the smell of certain foods may make you feel nauseous. Chemotherapy often affects the taste buds making even favourite foods taste unpleasant. Painful mouth sores can make any kind of eating feel like torture. Fatigue and loss of appetite are also common side effects of chemotherapy. Finally, you may be warned by your oncologist to avoid crowds as your immune system is weakened. Shopping malls and large family gatherings may be more than just exhausting. They may make you so sick, you end up hospitalized. This happened to me 3 years ago and I spent the entire 4 day Thanksgiving holiday in the hospital with a fever and a white blood count of zero.

Radiation treatment and surgery bring on their own challenges. As well as feeling exhausted, you may be in pain from radiation burns or in all the places where the surgeon cut into your body. You may be taking heavy duty painkillers that wreak havoc with your mind, appetite, and digestive system. You may not have the energy to sit up for long periods of time socializing and making small talk with people you are not especially close with the rest of the year.

Even when active treatment has come to an end, the depression and anxiety associated with losing your medical safety net can leave you feeling less than merry or jolly. The holidays are difficult for most depression sufferers as the rest of the world looks so happy while you feel hopeless and miserable inside. Your fears of a recurrence or metastasis may be heightened right after treatment has ended and the oncologist says, “see you in 3 months”. It’s a scary time as you try to transition from full-time cancer patient to finding your “new normal”. People may be expecting you to bounce right back to your old life once treatment ends. You may feel like you still have one foot in the cancer world and the other foot in mid-air, looking for a safe landing spot in the post-treatment land.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 families have their own special problems with family celebrations. They may be grieving the loss of those relatives who were taken from the world too soon because of cancer. Those who are previvors may worry about their own upcoming surgeries or question their decision to opt for surveillance. Watching the young children and teenagers of their extended families, they may worry as to what lays ahead for them in the future.

For some people, the holidays may still be fun and joyous as it is a welcome distraction from thinking about cancer. You may welcome the break from the trudgery of treatment. Depending on the type of gathering, you may only be surrounded by the people you love most in the world and find their company soothing and comforting. Particularly if you have children, you may make an all out effort to give them great Christmas (or birthday) memories just in case things go terribly wrong and you want them to remember you as something other than a sick Mom.

With my 4 cancers, I have been in diagnosis, treatment, or recovery mode on every major holiday and special event over the years. During Cancer 4, there was Thanksgiving in the hospital, my then 11 year old son’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, and my then 9 year old daughter’s birthday party at a go cart track on a very windy day, while clutching onto my wig for dear life! It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always fun, but I’m glad we made some good memories on those occasions. Christmas and my birthday also fell during chemotherapy but both of those events were very low key affairs as that was all I was capable of doing at the time.

The truth is nobody actually lives in a Disney movie, not the healthy and not the sick. Christmas or Thanksgiving or your birthday can be whatever you want it to be and whatever you are capable of doing. If you want company and all the trappings of Christmas, see if someone else can do the heavy lifting for you. Instead of you making the dinner, see if someone else can host Christmas this year. Or choose to celebrate more casually with your immediate family at home or at a Christmas buffet in some fancy restaurant where you won’t be forced to make small talk with a relative you barely know.

To cut down on holiday stress, avoid the shopping malls and make all your purchases online. Spring the extra few dollars for them to be gift wrapped. Let your children decorate the tree however they want, no matter how untraditional the results may be. Do everything you can to pamper yourself, whatever that may look like to you. Get a lot of rest, take deep breaths, and don’t be afraid to reach out to someone, anyone, for help. Create a holiday that brings you peace instead of stress, joy instead of anxiety, even if it means abandoning all your former ideas of what a traditional holiday should be. Happy Holidays to everyone in Cancerland and to all the people who love them!

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Sharon Greene December 11, 2014

My Breast Cancer Came Back


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I heard the whispers, words I wasn’t meant to hear. “Did you know her cancer came back?” whispered a colleague I had known for 20 years. “Is she going to die?” was the new colleague’s response. The first colleague replied, “Not likely. She just gets cancer whenever she wants time off work. She never dies.” The words cut me to the bone, leaving me hurting yet strangely numb at the same time.

There really was no need to whisper about my diagnosis at work. I never hid the fact that I had breast cancer in the past. I was surprised the gossip mill had started so soon as very few people knew I had been diagnosed with breast cancer for the fourth time. I had only just received the news myself and had told those in management I would be taking extended sick leave once again once I had a surgery date.

The comments confused me. I get cancer whenever I want time off work? Surely there are easier ways to take time off then having another mastectomy and more chemotherapy. I never die when I am diagnosed with cancer? Well that has been true so far but at that point I had not had any scans or tests to see if the cancer had spread. At that point, all I knew was the cancer was back after a 16 year reprieve since cancer number 3.

“She never dies” rang in my head the rest of the day. Do they really want me to die to prove I actually was sick? Do they not understand the physical and emotional toll breast cancer and its recurrences take on an individual? Would having a funeral make everything better for people so they could recast me as a heroic figure battling cancer to the bitter end instead of just a physically and emotionally battered woman trudging through treatment over and over again? The one thing I have learned about recurrences is that their negative effects are cumulative over time. Each recurrence is emotionally harder than the one before. Each time your recurrence is contained before it spreads throughout your body makes you feel you are living on borrowed time and that your luck will run out eventually.

The message that is repeated over and over is that once you reach the 5 year cancer free mark, you are “cured” of cancer. This may be true for many people but it is not universally true for everyone. Many people have local recurrences of cancer in the same breast where they had it the first time. They may develop new primary breast cancer in the other breast or more rarely like me, develop a new primary cancer in the same breast. The pathologists decide if it is a recurrence or a new primary cancer based on how closely the second tumour resembles the first. If the second one is markedly different than the first, or if it occurs in the other breast, it is considered a new primary breast cancer. If it is a recurrence, it is thought that surgery/radiation/chemotherapy left some cancer cells behind that grew and multiplied to form a new tumour. As long as the recurrence or new primary is confined to the breast, it cannot kill you. It is only when it spreads beyond the breast(s) or mestastisizes to another body part, that it becomes lethal. Once that happens, there is no longer any talk of curing the cancer, only treating it until the treatments stop working.

Recurrences/new primaries produce interesting responses in people. With my first breast cancer at 29, my divorced parents who hadn’t talked to each other in 8 years, rallied together and stayed with me for weeks during surgery and radiation.

When my second cancer in the same breast was diagnosed at my 5 year “cure” mammogram, my mother had died 6 months earlier and my father made many excuses why he could not make the trip a second time. This was the first cancer that happened while at work and most of my colleagues rallied around this scared 34 year old facing a mastectomy and chemotherapy. They treated me as though this was my first breast cancer. I know that the night of my mastectomy, numerous work colleagues were gathered around my hospital bed. I was groggy and in pain but was aware enough to know that they were there and they cared. In the weeks that followed, many workmates dropped off food and accompanied me to my chemotherapy appointments. I felt supported, cared for, and loved.

I felt a litle less love from the local breast cancer community. The first time around, doctors and social workers went out of their way to hook me up with other breast cancer survivors. Granted most of these women were 40 – 50 years older than me who had lived long and full lives, but I appreciated the effort. With the first cancer, I had a very proactive medical social worker who hooked me up with relaxation groups, guided meditation groups, and the only support group they had at the time for patients battling all kinds of cancer.

By the time of my second cancer, I was pretty much left on my own. No volunteers, no social worker, and I had to beg to see a real live person who had reconstruction surgery. One finally showed up the night before my mastectomy but had a completely different surgery than I was having. I had the same breast cancer surgeon as I had for the first cancer. I couldn’t help but feel he was less interested in answering my questions this time around. I guess I was one of his failures for not quite making it to the 5 year
cure mark. He just kept drumming into my head that I would have to wait an additional 5 years to get pregnant or my baby could very well be left without a Mommy. Sometimes during that experience, I felt like the medical professionals viewed me as just another Dead Woman Walking.

The cancer struck my other breast 2 years later. I had barely returned to work and then was off again for surgery and radiation. By now, I was quick to pick up the signals that something was wrong with my mammogram. The technician would call me back into the room for a few more mammograms. Then she would disappear, returning with one or more people, who would whisper among themselves. At one point, I swear a whole group of student trainees crowded into the mammogram room, looking intently at the pictures. I would say “what are you seeing?” and the original technician would tell me there was nothing to worry about, this was just routine. I’d had enough mammograms by then to know this was anything but routine. When I got the official news from a doctor a couple of days later, it wasn’t exactly an overwhelming surprise.

My Dad was too busy to come visit once ago. I had a new boyfriend who I would eventually marry (and divorce) who took good care of me. We even bought a puppy to aid in the healing process. Again, this was his first time dealing with my breast cancer so he was supportive.

By this time, my colleagues were suffering battle fatigue dealing with my illnesses. There were a few meals, a lot less visitors, and more people who felt I should bounce right back. This was my third new primary breast cancer in 7 years and I was feeling beaten down and not terribly bouncy. Cancer surgery in the late 80s and the mid 90s involved removing all the lymph nodes under the arm on the side of the cancerous breast. This procedure is not the routine anymore but at that time it was and it made even a lumpectomy a gruelling operation with an extended recovery period.

Also, each time there is a recurrence/new primary, there are a battery of scans of the liver, brain, lungs, and bones and numerous blood tests to see if the cancer has spread. Each new test is nerve wracking as you never know what may turn up. I have been very lucky so far that the cancers have been caught before they spread beyond the breast.

I noticed when I started radiation treatments after Cancer 3, the other women would be friendly while we waited our turns. If however I said this was my second time doing radiation or that this was breast cancer number 3 at age 36, the women would clutch their floral housecoats tighter around themselves and would instinctively move a little farther away from me, as if my repeated cancers were contagious.

I lucked out for the next 16 years. No cancer. I went for a routine mammogram and was called back for more pictures. The technologist told me to wait in the mammogram room while she went to check something. When she said more pictures were needed, I demanded to speak to the radiologist as I knew something was wrong. To my surprise, the radiologist did enter the mammography room. He stared at his shoes the whole conversation. He obviously didn’t talk to patients very often. He said there were calcifications on the mammograms that were highly suspicious for a malignancy. He had reviewed my prior mammograms and what he was seeing was new. I pushed him harder on what “highly suspicious” meant until he said he was almost 100% certain it was cancer again, but only a biopsy could provide the absolute truth. I was immediately sent for an ultrasound where no tumour could be found. Even after referring to the mammogram, no lump or bump could be felt. The surgeon thought this meant it was a tiny cancer caught extremely early. She was in no rush to schedule a biopsy or a surgical date.

Things started going off the rails at the biopsy. Even with the mammogram, they weren’t sure they were hitting the right spot so the needle went in over and over again. When it was confirmed to be triple negative cancer again, the scans started. My sternum lit up on the bone scan. It had been broken 4 years earlier and they couldn’t be sure if they were seeing the break or cancer. The CT scan showed a web of tiny blood clot embolisms at the bottom of my lungs. As I had a spontaneous pulmonary embolism in one lung five years before, they immediately started me on blood thinners and debated delaying the surgery. The surgery went ahead as planned and to everyone’s surprise, it was 2.7 cm in size, making it a Stage 2 cancer. The reason it couldn’t be felt was that it was deep inside, close to my chest wall. The pathologists are evenly divided as to whether this was a new primary or a recurrence that had been hiding in my body for 16 years.

By this time, my father was in a nursing home and I didn’t even tell him about the new cancer. I was a single Mom with 2 children, then aged 9 and 11. Some of my work colleagues did get together and raise money for flowers and groceries. 2 of them would visit me at least once per month while the rest kept their distance. One friend brought over her husband and brother-in-law and they and my kids did a good job housecleaning. I had a medical social worker again and she helped with getting me free rides to chemo and getting me into 2 healing touch sessions.

This month marks 3 years since I finished my last chemo. After numerous CT scans, the radiologists have concluded that the bright light on my sternum during bone scans comes from trauma not cancer. The blood clots on my lungs disappeared after 6 monthes of daily injections in my stomach with blood thinners.

Having multiple recurrences has taken a huge emotional toll on me. I no longer have faith in my body. It has betrayed me too many times. I no longer believe in an orderly universe where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. The universe seems pretty random to me. Cancer survival seems especially random to me. Every day on Facebook, I read about another woman with breast cancer who has died. Very often they are young and leave small children and a grieving partner behind. These were women who ate organic foods, ran marathons, and looked after their bodies. They did everything right and yet were struck down in the prime of their lives.

Although I have had a double mastectomy, there is no guarantee I won’t get another recurrence/new primary breast cancer again. No matter how close they cut, it is impossible to remove every single breast cancer cell during surgery. I could probably summon the emotional strength to battle a recurrence/new primary for the fifth time, if only for the sake of watching my children grow up. But what worries me is that I have been playing Russian Roulette with breast cancer for 26 years now. I have been wounded but am still sitting at the table, waiting for my turn to press the gun to my head. How many times can you stare death in the eye and walk away still alive? One of these times, a new recurrence/new primary won’t be caught and treated in time. Or like 30% of women initially diagnosed with Stage 1-3 breast cancer, there will be no recurrence, just the dreaded metastasis to brain, bone, lungs, or liver from cancer cells still lurking in my body even after the last surgery and chemotherapy.

I read in so many forums how women are terrified of having a recurrence. Please remember if it is local to the breast, it can be treated and life will go on. It is metastasis that you need to worry about as for that there is no cure.

Have you had a recurrence/new primary since your initial treatment? Did you have early stage cancer that you thought was cured but it metastisized elsewhere? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

What the Media Doesn’t Tell Us About Breast Cancer


Over the past 2 decades, the media
has painted a picture of the ideal breast cancer survivor. We see a smiling white middle aged woman telling the world how she beat breast cancer with her positive attitude and her unwillingness to ever give up the fight. She doesn’t just stop with the lessons of how she beat breast cancer. She continues her story with how having conquered cancer, her whole life has changed for the better. To her, cancer was the greatest gift she ever received from the benevolent universe.

We sometimes hear that her reconstructed breasts look better than
they did pre-cancer. How lucky she was to have gotten a free boob job! The hair loss was a bit of a drag but it grew back better than before. She speaks of how breast cancer has brought her closer to  her friends and family.  Breast cancer was a tiny blip in her life, no more annoying or life threatening than a root canal. Breast cancer has been described as the “good” cancer to get as everyone wears pink, races around a lot, and nobody ever dies.

I have no doubt that this does represent reality for some breast cancer survivors. It is also possible that some of these smiling women have repressed the worst aspects of their breast cancer experience and are choosing to only publicize the positive things that happened along the way. They present their stories through a gauzy pink veil that filters out the bad memories leaving only the good. We don’t see pictures of the very young or the pregnant or the Stage 4 breast cancer patients. We don’t see many pictures of women as they are trudging through treatment, pale and bald.  We don’t hear about the single mothers who go through treatment with little family support. We don’t see the black faces or the Asian, or the Hispanic ones. The media has painted a simplified and unrealistic picture that doesn’t accurately reflect the many faces or feelings of breast cancer.

The problems with this stereotype are many and they are troubling. Most survivors I”ve met in person or online do not relate to breast cancer being the greatest experience of their life. They remember the fear they felt when first diagnosed. Until they had the tumour removed and all the tests done, they didn’t know if the cancer had spread and if they were already dying. They remember the pain of their treatment, whether it was surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or some combination of all  three. They may have received a lot of emotional and practical support during the diagnostic and the early treatment phases of their cancer only to find people slipping away the more time passes.
 
        
If they had reconstruction on one or both breasts, there may have been multiple painful surgeries involved with tissue expanders, implants, or the removal of another body part (skin and muscle from the stomach, back, or buttocks) to create the new breast(s). The end result of this surgery may still leave them with body image issues with the reconstructed breast not matching the natural one, the implant becoming hard and encapsulated with scar tissue, or even the body rejecting the transplanted body part and the person being left with no breast(s) at all, either temporarily or permanently. And what is never mentioned is that even if the reconstructed breasts look cosmetically wonderful, almost all feeling and sensation is gone. Forever.

Women are often fearful of the cancer recurring again or it spreading and metastisizing to their bones, lungs, liver, or brain. They may fear leaving young children behind should their cancer spread and they die.  They may find their shaky marriages dissolving from the extra weight of a cancer diagnosis. They will soon learn who their true friends are and will watch others in their life simply disappear as news of their breast cancer becomes known.

About 10% of breast cancer patients will learn that they are already Stage 4 at the time of the initial diagnosis. Another 30% will reach this stage eventually even if their initial cancers were caught at an early stage. There is no Stage 5. Stage 4 means the cancer has already spread elsewhere in the body. It can only be treated, not cured. Stage 4 is the only kind of cancer that kills although medical advances have allowed women to live longer with Stage 4 cancer than ever before. But for these women, chemotherapy and other treatments may go on for the rest of their lives, to keep the cancer from spreading even further.  They will never “beat cancer”. Their stories aren’t popular in the media.

Other women like myself will have cancer recurrences or grow new primary breast cancers in the same or the other breast. We do not die from local recurrences but the fear is even greater the second (or third or fourth time around). We know we are pushing our luck on the cancer wheel of fortune. How often can we keep catching recurrences in time before they spread into distant body parts? You don’t see many women in commercials saying I thought I beat cancer once but then it came back and I am in treatment again. This doesn’t fit with the storyline that if it is caught early and you survive 5 years, you have beaten cancer.

Stage 1 – 3 patients may be strong and full of fighting spirit while going through treatment but then fall apart when treatment ends. This is a fairly common occurrence as it feels that
your medical safety net is gone without the constant monitoring of your health by medical professionals. While active treatment can be very tough, there is still something reassuring about being seen by a medical team on a regular basis. Also, cancer treatment is like a full-time job with numerous appointments to see oncologists, plastic surgeons, and lab technicians. It is easy to set milestones and goals – 1 chemo down, 5 more to go. Treatment gives structure to your days and a final goal to keep working towards – the end of treatment. When that abruptly comes to an end, many survivors are left wondering, “what happens now?”

Friends and family may not be as supportive now that treatment is over. They feel that the worst is over now that you have completed surgery , chemotherapy, and/or radiation. They move on to other people and things, leaving you alone at a time when you might need their emotional support the most.                      

You may feel pushed and rushed by others to immediately resume your pre-cancer life once treatment ends and to put all that negative cancer stuff behind you. You may question yourself as to why you aren’t bouncing back from treatment more quickly like your friends, family, and the pink media ladies say you should. Your doctors may tell you to find your “new normal” before you even have had time to reflect on the very abnormal process that you have just experienced. 

Once you have had cancer, every follow- up oncologist appointment and every new scan, mammogram, or blood test brings anxiety levels up sky high again. Every new headache could be a brain tumour and every new ache and pain could be a sign that the cancer has spread to your bones.

You may wonder to yourself what you are doing wrong – why you didn’t find your pot of gold at the end of the pink rainbow.   

It does a disservice to those newly diagnosed and those just starting their cancer treatment process to portray breast cancer survivors as a uniformly brave, strong, courageous, and positive group of women. We survivors are all those things and more. But we are also scared, anxious, in pain, confused, disoriented, and angry at times. And that is normal. And that is okay.

Doctors have known for decades that a cancer diagnosis is an extremely stressful event and freely hand out anti-anxiety medication throughout the treatment process. They have heard their chemotherapy patients complain for years about “chemo brain” where forgetfulness and short term memory loss are common features that linger on after chemotherapy ends. They know many women suffer from the shock of a completely altered body with their breasts removed by mastectomy, their hair lost to chemotherapy, and their reproductive systems pushed into early menopause, either temporarily or permanently, by chemotherapy. New American studies have shown that approximately 25% of breast cancer patients will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder sometime between diagnosis and the end of treatment. European studies have placed that number at closer to 50% of patients.

Many of these newly diagnosed women are in their 20’s and 30’s, just starting careers or families. Many received their breast cancer diagnosis while pregnant or while still breast feeding shortly after giving birth. Others are encouraged to undergo fertility treatment before starting chemotherapy so that their eggs can be frozen in the event that premature ovarian failure or permanent menopause prevents a future pregnancy.

More women each year are being tested for genetic defects that can hugely increase their risk of breast and ovarian cancers. If they test positive for a mutation, they will be strongly encouraged to have a double mastectomy and to have their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed by age 35. If they test positive for a mutation, this becomes a family affair with the whole immediate and extended family having to decide if they too should be tested to see if they also have the same genetic mutation. If a woman already has children, she will learn that each of her children, male and female, have a 50% chance of also inheriting this mutated gene. As genetic testing is not carried out on children, she will have to wait until they turn 18 and decide whether to get tested to see if she has passed her mutated gene onto her children.

It can be encouraging to read stories of women who have survived for many years after a cancer diagnosis without a recurrence or without the cancer spreading. All the memes on the internet urging you “to fight like a girl” or “to beat cancer’s ass” or even the more blunt and to the point, “Fuck cancer”, can be very empowering for both the woman undergoing treatment and the long term survivor. But I know for myself that it is difficult to stay in fighter mode 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Again, speaking only for myself, I can’t live on a constant diet of positivity messages when I read or talk about cancer. It is like living on a high sugar diet. After awhile, the sugar buzz fades and I come crashing down. Hard.

Cancer has definitely changed my life, not always for the better. I need to read about the struggles of the newly diagnosed, the stories of women going through treatment, and especially the stories of the women with Stage 4 cancer. I need the grit of painful reality so I don’t forget where I came from and what I went through. I need these stories so I don’t sugar coat my story for the next person struggling with some of breast cancer’s less positive realities, thinking to myself that cancer or treatment or facing multiple new primaries wasn’t all that bad. It was that bad and some days still is. What is your cancer story? Do you prefer only to read positive stories or can you make room for some less positive ones as well?

Sharon Greene November 23, 2014

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How the BRCA1 Gene Devastated a Small Family (Mine)


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My mother, Lily Koval Brown, died exactly 22 years ago today of metastatic cancer. Her sister Joyce Koval Lamb died of metastatic cancer July 4, 1984. Their stories are completely different as mine is from theirs, but the one thing we all had in common was a mutation in our BRCA1 gene. Of course at the time of their deaths, the BRCA genes had not been discovered so it seemed like a sad coincidence that both died of cancer and that I, my parent’s only child, had breast cancer at 29.

One of my earliest memories of discussing breast cancer with my mother was watching an old 60’s movie on tv called “Valley of the Dolls”. In that movie, one of the characters played by the actress Sharon Tate (later to be infamously murdered by Charles Manson) learned she had breast cancer. Her solution to dealing with this disease? Suicide.

I remember my mother commenting that there was no way anyone would ever remove her breast. This was in the mid-70’s when breast cancer was firmly in the closet. It was also easy for my mother to make this comment as cancer didn’t seem to run in our family. With only her parents in Canada and the rest of the extended family still in Russia, we had no real idea if cancer did or didn’t run in our family.

I am not sure when my aunt first noticed the lump in her breast. It had to have been before 1979 as that year, at the age of 19, I moved to the city where she lived, not knowing a soul. My mother asked if I could stay with her for a short time or if she could at least help me find a place of my own. I gather the answer to both requests was a panicked no but she would be happy to talk to me by phone whenever I wanted.

Two years later, my parents split up and my mother moved to the same city where my aunt and I lived. She could never get my aunt to meet her in person although they did have long friendly telephone conversations. We didn’t suspect anything sinister about my aunt’s refusal to meeting us in person. We speculated she had grown eccentric and reclusive over the years although she was only 50.

Things came to a head when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980. She never did have to make the decision about choosing her breast or choosing her life. The doctors recommended a lumpectomy, a new operation that spared the majority of her breast. This procedure was so new that radiation was not part of the treatment program. While my aunt sent a bouquet of flowers, she still wouldn’t make the effort to visit in person which hurt my mom deeply. The telephone conversations became fewer and shorter until they ceased completely.

The next news we had of my aunt came from her husband 2 years later. She was in the hospital as she had stopped breathing. My mother rushed to the hospital without any forewarning of what to expect. She found a skeletal woman in a hospital bed who appeared to be about 10 months pregnant.

My mother pieced the story together as best she could. It started with a breast lump that my aunt refused to get checked out by a doctor. Somehow over time, the cancer became physically apparent which was when she became a recluse. She had no medical diagnosis or treatment whatsoever until the time of her hospitalization. I still don’t know exactly what her cancer status was. It’s safe to assume she started with breast cancer but whether the huge abdomen was from metastatic breast cancer that had spread or if she developed another primary cancer or 2 along the way, no one knows for sure. The medical staff wanted to start chemotherapy but she refused as she didn’t want to lose her long hair. It wouldn’t have made much of a difference at that stage as her cancer was too advanced. She died a few days later in the hospital, long hair still intact.

My mother was flourishing in her new single life. She was always very upbeat and made friends quickly wherever she went. She reached the 5 year “cure” rate for breast cancer and we talked about how she made a much better decision about her cancer than her sister did. There was no thought of the cancer striking another part of her body, despite my aunt’s swollen abdomen, as we assumed this was just what untreated breast cancer looked like.

Fast forward a year and I got a call from my Mom that she would be having surgery for suspected ovarian cancer. They found her cancer had metastisized throughout her whole reproductive system and there was a further inoperable tumour behind her heart. She spent a year in a very aggressive chemotherapy program that resulted in long term side effects such as loss of hearing in one ear. She was determined to beat cancer and had the support of her many friends and work colleagues. Her hospital rooms always seemed like party central with people packed into the small room. If a positive attitude and social support could cure cancer, my Mom would still be alive today.

I had my first breast cancer two years later at 29. She flew to the city where I was now living and stayed with me through my lumpectomy and 6 weeks of radiation. The only time she was less than supportive of me was when she learned I had signed up for a clinical trial that would compare patients given one round of chemotherapy before surgery to those that had surgery alone. She did not want me taking chemotherapy under any circumstances. As it turned out, I was in the surgery alone group, so much to her relief I escaped chemotherapy that time around.

My Mother made it to 4 years past surgery for ovarian cancer only to learn she had developed a third primary cancer in her colon. The cancer was surgically removed and she had a temporary colostomy bag that she would have to wear for a year. Coming home from the hospital, she broke down crying tears of frustration and anger. It was one of the few times she ever showed me what an emotional and physical toll all these cancers had on her mind, body, and spirit.

A year passed and she had the reversal surgery for her colon cancer so she no longer needed to use the colostomy bag. She had now passed the 5 year mark for metastic ovarian cancer and the 10 year mark for breast cancer.

She had about 10 more good months of life. The best thing I did was spontaneously make the 12 hour drive to visit her in the summer of 1992. Everything seemed to be going great and we planned a side trip to a national park in Montana. On the day we were to leave, my mother sheepishly asked if I would mind cancelling our trip as she wasn’t feeling well. She strongly encouraged me to drive back home even though I had planned on staying a few days longer.

Reluctantly, I returned home. Within a week she called to tell me she would be having colon surgery again as another mass had been found. I talked to her surgeon after the operation who confirmed that it was colon cancer again but a completely different type than she had the first time. He also said they found metastic disease throughout her liver and there was nothing left to do that would prolong her quality of life. I asked how much time she had left to live and he paused, looked at me, and said maybe 6 – 9 months. He was either being overly optimistic or he found it easier to lie to me to give me hope. He said my mother was a remarkable woman having fought so valiantly against 4 unrelated cancers, hitting the 5 year “cure” rate on 2 of them. Maybe he wasn’t lying about the time she had left. Maybe he thought she would beat the odds one more time despite the grimness of the prognosis. In any event, I made plans with my mother for a trip we would take as soon as she got better. She gave me a sad smile but nodded along with all my dreams and plans.

About 6 weeks later, I received a phone message at work telling me to come quickly as my Mom only had 2 days left to live. I basically lived in the hospital room with her for the next 17 days until her body finally gave out. Her appearance was shocking as she had lost so much weight in the top half of her body that she barely resembled the woman I had seen 6 weeks prior. Her legs had become enormous from fluid build-up from her cancerous liver. I believe the cancer had spread to her brain as she became increasingly paranoid and suspicious of her food being poisoned and medical staff planning to kill her. She would have lucid moments – she planned her own funeral from her hospital bed – but near the end, she had seemingly lost all her words, communicating only in guttural sounds. The last semi-lucid conversation I had with her was that she had something important to tell me but she couldn’t do it in the hospital. She wanted me to meet her downtown. As that was impossible, I never learned what her important message to me was all about. I still wish I knew.

Although I spent 17 days bedside in the hospital, my mother clung onto life. Finally, I asked the nurses if I could leave for an hour to shower and bring new clothes. Of course, it was in that hour abscence that she finally let go of life and passed away. I saw her before anyone had time to pretty her up and she had the most incredible expression on her face. I can only describe it as a look of awe, as if she was seeing something perfect and wonderful. My mother’s final gift to me was to remove the fear of death. I have a lot of fear of the dying process but never again would I fear actual death.

It took until 2011, after an initial false negative on the first BRCA test I took, to learn that I was BRCA positive. By extension, so were my mother and my aunt. Unlike my aunt, I found my first breast lump myself and was checked out and treated immediately. Like my mother, I have had 4 primary cancers but mine have so far all been confined to the breast. My mother’s first breast cancer was at 50 while mine was at 29. She had 4 primary cancers in a 12 year period while I had 4 primary cancers in a 22 year period. 3 of my primary cancers occurred over a 7 year period.

My family was small to begin with and the BRCA1 gene cut a devastating path of destruction across my family tree. I have felt like an orphan since my mother died when I was 32. She has missed so much in the last 22 years. I have been roughed up by life quite a bit which has humbled me. I am no longer the spoiled brat only child I still was when she left me. She missed my marriage (and divorce), the adoption of my 2 wonderful children that she would have spoiled and adored, and any number of wonderful and terrible things that have happened through the years. I wonder what she would think of my double mastectomy, my 2 courses of chemotherapy, and the fact I had my ovaries removed as a preventive measure. Given her fighting spirit, I think she would have approved, despite her fears of mastectomy and chemotherapy.

There were so many times I thought that I have heard her voice in a crowd or smelled a perfume that made me think of her. It took a few years before I stopped automatically dialing her number on the phone to tell her some big news. Even 22 years later, I still miss my Mom so much it’s like a physical ache in my heart. I hope someday we will make that trip downtown together so she can finally tell me the important thing she wanted me to know.

Sharon Greene November 17, 2014

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Am I Doing Breast Cancer Right?


I have been reading about breast cancer prevention and cures since my mother was diagnosed with the disease in 1980. I picked up the pace with my own first diagnosis in 1988. Some “facts” and some trends have come and gone while others are repackaged with new names 20 years later. If you believed and tried to follow all the advice floating around the internet, you would soon drive yourself crazy. Even the experts get it wrong sometimes.

In the 70’s to the mid 80’s, the alternative cure of the day was laetrile, a compound made from apricot pits. People travelled to Mexico for this wonder cure that wasn’t available in Canada or the US. It went out of fashion as it didn’t seem to actually cure anyone and led to their early death if they were not using traditional medicine alongside it.

The next big wave of prevention and cure methods focused on the mind. Guided visualization was the rage in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Basically it was a type of meditation where you listened to a tape that encouraged you to picture your cancer as weak disorganized blobs while the strong army of chemotherapy warriors came down and slaughtered them all. The premise was that your mind could cure your cancer through these vivid images. Unfortunately for me, these images were anything but calming and empowering. I began having nightmares of raging armies chasing after me, trying to kill me. I stopped going to these “healing” sessions and felt much better for it. This was cancer failure number 1. I was a guided visualization student drop-out.

The other component to preventing or curing cancer with your mind was developing a uniformly positive attitude towards life. There was some research being cited that said optimistic cancer patients lived longer and had less recurrences and metastisies than pessimistic patients. Further research has not been able to duplicate those results.  It is now thought that a positive outlook may increase your quality of life but it won’t prevent further disease or lengthen your stay here on Earth. But at the time of my
first cancer in 1988, the positive thinking rule was firmly in place.

I wasn’t a uniformly positive person.  I was sad, angry, scared, confused and frustrated with both the disease and the effects it had on my life. Hearing that I had to remain positive at all costs did nothing but add another layer of guilt to my emotions when I found I did not always feel happy.  Now I was suddenly responsible for causing my cancer in the first place by thinking negative thoughts and would be responsible for any recurrences or metastasis that later arose.  I did not find that knowledge particularly empowering or encouraging.  That was cancer failure number 2, being more of an Anxious Annie than a Perky Penny.

My mother battled 4 types of cancer in 12 years and managed to remain optimistic under the most dire of  circumstances. She died after that 12 year battle, still visualizing until the end.  I thought that if the most positive person I have ever known could get 4 different cancers and die from the disease, what hope is there for someone like me? But at the same time, I started to get the nagging feeling that maybe, just maybe, it was the theory that was wrong and that the experts didn’t always know as much as they thought they did.

I tested this theory on my breast cancer surgeon. He had told me at age 29 (first cancer) and 34 (second cancer found at my 5 year “cure” appointment), that I would have to wait 5 years to get pregnant from the time of each new diagnosis. I asked him why this was given that my cancers were not affected by hormones. He did not give me a scientific answer but he did get me to stop asking him the question. His less than tactful answer was that if I got pregnant now, “Baby may not have a Mommy in 5 years time”. Somewhere in the back of my mind I realized that he didn’t really have an answer to the specific question I posed. His answer told me science knew very little about 29 year old or 34 year old women with hormone negative breast cancer. That made sense as most breast cancer patients are diagnosed with the disease at a much older age when pregnancy isn’t an issue and their cancers are more likely to be hormone positive. That realization was freeing as it taught me to at least question the expert advice I had been given, to do my own research, to ask tough questions, and to make my own decisions. Now that was empowering knowledge!

My suspicions about my surgeon’s lack of answers to the pregnancy question were confirmed 2 years later with cancer number 3. I had a new surgeon and posed the pregnancy question to her.  She said that doctors no longer applied the 5 year pregnancy rule. She said I was 36, had 9 months of chemotherapy, and would likely have early ovarian failure and early menopause. She said if I wanted to get pregnant, I had better do it now before it was too late. Shortly afterwards my then-husband and I found ourselves in a local fertility clinic that had never dealt with women with a past history of breast cancer before. They consulted with my Cancer Clinic about the advisability of my taking fertility hormones. The initial response from the Cancer Clinic was they had never dealt with this situation before and they would have to consult with other oncologists in other areas of the country. The end result was that I had 2 courses of IVF treatment but I didn’t get pregnant. At least I got to try and it all worked out in the end with the adoption of 2 children. Even more importantly, the mega doses of hormones I took during each IVF treatment did not kill me as my first surgeon seemed to think pregnancy hormones would do. Medical science does not know everything. You have to do your own research and make the decisions that are right for you, even if they are not popular at the time.

I have had many more cancer fails over the years. I don’t identify much with what the media seems to portray as the ideal breast cancer survivor. You know the one dressed in pink who talks about how breast cancer changed her life for the better, how treatment was just a small dip in her otherwise perfect life, and how she is now happy, happy, happy that all that bad stuff is behind her because SHE BEAT CANCER. While this may accurately represent some survivors’ realities, it doesn’t represent mine.

I was frightened at each diagnosis. I found surgery painful, radiation exhausting, and chemotherapy nauseating. I haven’t beaten cancer although I hit the 5 year “cure” mark with cancers 1 and 3 only to have it return again. I won’t have beaten breast cancer until I die from some other cause. I worry about leaving my children behind at too young of an age as my mother left me. Cancer failure number 3 – cancer was not the best thing that ever happened to me. And once again, I am not Happy, Happy, Happy all the time. It is the think positive movement all over again, except this time it is wearing a pink track suit and is “running for the cure”.

Many of these examples I have given were from the pre-internet days where you were exposed to a limited number of medical opinions from the Drs. you dealt with and the books or magazine articles you read. Now with a few minutes of googling, you can find a mountain of research and websites giving information on everything from miracle cures by diet and supplements, to using the law of attraction to bring you good health, to the latest advances in medical technology, and to lists of all the clinical trials across the world.

Trends in cancer prevention and cure come and go in the blink of an eye. One day we are supposed to take shark cartilage supplements because sharks don’t get cancer and the next day we are told that logic is just bad science. Last year seemed to be all about not letting your water bottles get warm in the sun and not wearing a cell phone in your bra. This year, it’s all about avoiding sugar, alcohol, and dairy products. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, lumpectomy with radiation was the popular treatment of the day. Now the tide has turned and double mastectomy is all the rage. The guided visualization sessions of the 80’s and 90’s are now mindful meditation groups. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Are you doing breast cancer right?
Is there even a right way to do breast cancer? With so much information available about advances in traditional medicine and on the other side, complementary or alternative treatments, how can a person know what is the right thing to do?  I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but these are some suggestions for sorting the good ideas from the bad.

First, get a copy of all the records and reports that relate to your cancer. The pathology reports will provide information about the kind of tumour you have, it’s hormone status, it’s size, it’s grade and it’s stage. As the treatment varies depending on the kind of breast cancer you have and the stage it was detected at, you need this information to do any meaningful research on your particular cancer. If there are terms in the pathology report you don’t understand, an online medical dictionary is only a click away.

Secondly, ask your doctor lots of questions, even the ones you think are too dumb to say out loud. Write your questions out in advance so you don’t forget to ask something important. Bring a friend, a notebook and a pen, or a tape recorder as you may forget the information you receive, especially if it is in the early days of a cancer diagnosis when you are already feeling overwhelmed.

If you are interested in complementary holistic treatments, ask your doctor if there are any that are available to you at your hospital or clinic. If you are taking holistic supplements, tell your oncologist as some types can interfere with traditional treatments, especially chemotherapy. Contrary to popular belief, there are many oncologists who will support the use of some forms of complementary treatments.  On the other hand, you probably will not find a medical doctor who supports you taking a completely alternative approach instead of one of the traditional forms of medical treatment. Think of Steve Jobs and Farrah Fawcett, two celebrities who tried to cure their cancer in non-traditional ways. What else do they have in common besides their cancer and their celebrity status? They are both dead. Medical science may not have all the answers but it does have ways to prolong life and halt the progression of this deadly disease, at least for awhile.

Third, when doing research, consider the source you are consulting to see if it is reliable and respected. Medical research should be based on controlled scientific studies that can be duplicated by others who will get the same results. “Research” that consists solely of testimonials and celebrity endorsements is not research at all but is usually a scam to get your money. Also be wary of bold statements made in the popular press saying that scientists found this substance causes cancer or that scientists have found using this substance will cure cancer. These headlines are often misleading as the actual studies may have been done on mice or rats and human trials, if they ever get that far, are a decade or more away.

Finally, I would suggest you join a support group, especially a large online one, to pose questions and learn the different approaches being taken across the continent by others living with the same kind of cancer as you. A support group is a great place to find people who can answer your questions of what chemotherapy or radiation are really like from a patient’s perspective rather than from a doctor’s point of view. It is the kind of place where others understand your fears and concerns, having lived them too. It can be a great place for emotional support on the bad days and for congratulations on the good days when you have cleared a treatment hurdle or reached a milestone of any kind.

I no longer think there is a right way or a wrong way to live with, prevent, or treat breast cancer. There are many decisions to be made at every step along the way. You sometimes choose treatments you don’t really want to do because they will prolong your life a little or a lot, but not every decision is of the life and death variety. As so much cancer advice has a very short shelf life, it is really not necessary to jump on every new band wagon that rolls into town. Until science has more definite answers as to why 40% of us die from breast cancer while the other 60% of us do not, follow the tips that make sense to you and leave the rest behind. They will all be forgotten anyway when the next hot tip of the day comes around.

Sharon Greene November 11, 2014

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Why I Chose Not to Have a Double Mastectomy


Ok, I’ll admit that the title of this article is slightly misleading. But only slightly. I now have a double mastectomy but it took 22 years from first diagnosis and 4 bouts of breast cancer to get there. I never did choose a double mastectomy. It just kind of happened when I had exhausted all other treatment options.

When people hear that I am a 4 time survivor, they shake their heads and wonder why I didn’t have a double mastectomy when I was first diagnosed with cancer. The reasons for the decisions I made were partly historical, partly personal choice, and partly based on the medical advice I received at the time.

Historical and Medical Reasons

My first diagnosis of breast cancer was in 1988. This was at a time where women’s health advocates had been fighting for years to provide women with breast conserving options after many decades of the standard treatment being the Halstead radical mastectomy. This operation bears little resemblance to today’s mastectomies as all the chest muscles and structure were removed along with the breast, leaving a large hollow on that side of the chest. By all accounts, this was a horribly disfiguring surgery that almost guaranteed the patient life long problems with the arm on the side where the breast had been removed. The 1980’s brought in a new surgery – the lumpectomy – which removed the tumour and a wide area around it which allowed women to keep part or most of their breast, depending on the size of the tumour and the size of the breast. The removal of a big tumour in a small breast would be much more disfiguring than the removal of a small tumour in a big breast. Lumpectomy combined with 6 weeks of radiation treatment was found to have comparable results for mortality and reoccurrence as a full mastectomy (removal of breast with chest muscles left intact). These same statistics hold true today, except for women like me who have a genetically based cancer. The prevailing mood of the times was that the lumpectomy and radiation regime was a huge step forward for women taking back control of their bodies from the male dominated medical profession.

The knowledge base in the 1980’s was much more limited than it is today. Today we recognize at least 5 major types of cancer: lobular, inflammatory, hormone positive, herceptin positive, and triple negative, the type that I have. In 1988, herceptin had not been discovered and without knowledge of its existence, there was no category for triple negative cancer as the triple means the cancer is not fueled by the hormones estrogen and progesterone nor by herceptin. It is now often said that triple negative cancer is the most aggressive cancer but in 1988, all that could be said was that my cancer was not caused by hormones. We now know that the prescence of triple negative cancer in a young person often leads to the conclusion that the cancer is hereditary in nature. I was diagnosed at 29. The average age for breast cancer patients is 55-60.                
             
There was no genetic testing for breast cancer as there is today. There was the knowledge that having a family history of the disease was a risk factor but there was as yet no proof that some cancers were due to a genetic mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. A family history was just one of many risk factors that could make a person more likely to get breast cancer, no more or less significant than failing to have a pregnancy before 20, failing to have breast fed a baby, or having an early start to menstruation. I had all of these factors working against me so while the doctors noted my young age as being unusual for this disease, the combination of all my risk factors provided some explanation. My young age in itself did not set off any warning bells as it would today.

I was given the option of either a single mastectomy or a lumpectomy with radiation. No one would have even considered suggesting a double mastectomy as the other breast was seemingly healthy. Why cut off a perfectly healthy body part in a 29 year old woman? It was pretty much assumed by the doctors that I would go the lumpectomy route as I was a young unmarried woman with no significant other and no children. I did agree to meet with a plastic surgeon to see how they could reconstruct my breast if I chose a single mastectomy. Let’s just say reconstruction surgery has progressed tremendously in the last 25 years. Looking through the book of photos that the plastic surgeon proudly showed me,  I was appalled and horrified at the results. Thanks but no thanks! I”ll have the lumpectomy if you don’t mind. Doctors, family, and friends all assured me I’d made the right decision.

I stayed healthy and was cancer free until I went in for my 5 year check-up. I always thought that if you made it to 5 years, your cancer was cured. Unfortunately, another lump was found in the same breast. Lumpectomy was no longer an option as you can only have radiation treatment on the same breast once. My only option this time was a mastectomy and 9 months of chemotherapy. I was 34 when I had a mastectomy on my left breast. The pathology report again said I had hormone negative cancer but it was much more aggressive than the first tumour had been. The pathogists concluded that this wasn’t a recurrence of the first cancer but was a brand new primary cancer. I was told that even if I’d had a mastectomy at 29, I still would have gotten cancer again 5 years later. Again, no one suggested a double mastectomy as triple negative cancer still hadn’t been discovered and genetic testing wasn’t available.

Two years later at 36, a mammogram of my right breast showed a tiny cancer that was too small to be felt. Having breast cancer 3 times in 7 years at my age was highly unusual but my family doctor was the only one to push me towards a second mastectomy. Genetic testing was now just becoming available so I agreed to having a lumpectomy immediately and would have a second operation for a mastectomy if I was found to have a genetic cancer. The type of genetic testing that was available at the time only looked for the wrong “lettering” in the parts of the BRCA 1 and 2 genes that had been decoded to date. In other words, if the code was supposed to be ” “abcd” and your code read “abcf”, the test would catch it and would compare your code with others with the same lettering to see if it had been linked with breast cancer. They did find one wrong letter in my coding but it was of “unknown significance” (and still is 18 years later) as there weren’t enough people with this particular variation to determine if it was associated with breast cancer or not. I was basically told that unless I heard otherwise, to assume I did not have a hereditary cancer. The doctors called it a new primary cancer as it was in the other breast but assured me that as it was caught so early, the likelihood of recurrence or metastisis was miniscule.   (We now know that early detection doesn’t always work that way and many people do have recurrences and metastasis even when caught at such an early stage). So the breast stayed after a lumpectomy and another 6 week stint of radiation.

I was cancer free for the next 16 years, only going for yearly mammograms. I felt pretty damn safe after all that time. Cancer was a thing of the past, something I had seemingly outgrown. But in 2011, the mammogram
picked up some calcifications in my right breast that were highly suspicious for cancer. I had my second mastectomy in 2011 followed by a different type of chemotherapy than I had when I was 34. It was at this time that I learned I was having my fourth battle with triple negative cancer. The pathologists had retested the old tumours to come up with this finding. They saw that each cancer was progressively more aggressive than the one before. The pathologists are divided as to whether this was my fourth new primary cancer or if this was a recurrence with the previous cancer cells hiding and evolving in my body for 16 years. I was urged to be genetically retested as the tests could now also look for things other than rearrangement of the coding letters. The retest showed that I was missing a large portion of genetic material at the end of my BRCA1 gene. The genetic counsellor described it as being like a book with the last 4 chapters ripped out. It took 22 years to learn I had genetic triple negative breast cancer. The deletion in my BRCA1 gene also put me at a high risk of getting ovarian cancer so after chemotherapy was over, I had my ovaries and tubes removed as a preventive measure. Just as having a mastectomy does not guarantee you won’t get breast cancer again either in the scar tissue or metastisized to some other organ, ovary removal does not mean you can’t get cancer where your ovaries used to be. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that 4 bouts of cancer are enough for one person!

Personal Reasons

My first three cancers occurred in my 20’s and 30’s. While there were support groups available, I never met anyone who was even remotely close to me in age. I thought I was the only one my age going through this. I was single, trying to re-enter the dating market, and couldn’t imagine doing so without a breast. (After all, who wants to date the only 29 year old woman in the world without a breast?) The reconstruction pictures I saw at 29 were frightening and the actual reconstruction I got at 34 was even worse. I was not anxious to do the whole thing over again at 36 when it was such a tiny cancer that had been caught early. And by 36, I had done my due diligence, gone for genetic testing, and had been cleared for hereditary cancer. Coupled with that, my mother had a lumpectomy without radiation in 1980 and her breast cancer never came back. By the time of my first cancer diagnosis, she had not only survived breast cancer, but she had also battled ovarian cancer 3 years earlier. By the time of my second cancer, she was dead from her second bout of colon cancer but her breast cancer never came back.

Call me vain and shallow for wanting to keep my breasts as long as I could. That’s okay. It was a different world then. Breast cancer was still stigmatized, I was insecure, I was scared, and I had no idea my genetic make-up predisposed me to having cancer after cancer. My present oncologist believes I still would have had multiple breast cancers even if I had double mastectomies back in 1988 as like my mother, I get new primaries not recurrences.

I try to imagine what I would have done had medical science been more advanced, had complete genetic testing been available, and had I been living in a world of online support groups for young women. A world like today where breast cancer is fully mainstream and there is a whole month of the year dedicated to raising awareness of the disease. Would I have done things differently? Maybe, but I don’t know for sure. Even if all my choices were wrong, breast cancer is such a crap shoot that I find myself still alive and kicking 25 years later while so many others who did everything right are dead. Breast cancer isn’t just or fair. I carry my fair share of survivor’s guilt but that is a topic for a whole other post.

Sharon Greene November 5, 2014

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