The first time I was diagnosed with breast cancer was in September 2006, at age 48. I'm fairly health conscious, so I've been getting annual mammograms since I was 40. Still, it was a total shock. My maternal grandmother had breast cancer, but that's it.
It was lucky for me that it was caught very early. I had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is considered non-invasive, and that's when you want to catch it. But it was very scary. For treatment, I had lumpectomy and radiation followed by daily Tamoxifen medication, which can reduce the risk of recurrence.
But four years later, this past September, I was diagnosed with breast cancer again. I got MRIs every year following the first diagnosis, alternating with a mammogram every six months. Luckily because the doctors were following me closely, we again discovered it in the DCIS stage. They're now testing for a new protein, HER-2/neu, and if the cancer is positive for that, the chance of recurrence is higher. Mine happened to be very, very aggressive. So I made the decision to get a bilateral mastectomy and just be done with this whole thing. I had the surgery at the end of September, and I'm still "under construction"—I'll have my last reconstructive surgery this week.
It's a tough decision, whether to have a mastectomy. For me, because this was the second time, it was easier. It's traumatic and difficult, and very emotional, but I had already decided early on what I would do if it recurred. Every woman wants to preserve her breasts if she can, but after my first diagnosis, I didn't realize what I would be facing down the road in terms of all the extra tests and oncologist visits. And for a person who's had cancer, every time you go it's a reminder that you're a cancer patient. Now that I've had the mastectomy, that's pretty much all over. In a strange way, it's a relief that I don't have to be looking over my shoulder as to when the breast cancer might come back.
Now I tell everyone I know, "Don't skip your mammograms. Get them every year from the time you're 40." My cancer was very aggressive, and it was within one year from the last mammogram that it cropped up. And I would say if I had waited another year, I would have been facing chemotherapy. My insurance always covered my annual mammograms, but the Susan G. Komen For the Cure foundation can also assist women who can't afford them. Self-exams are important, too.
I also think you have to realize that cancer can't be prevented just by having healthy habits. I've been healthy for years: I exercise, I maintain my weight, I watch what I eat, and here we are. This realization is the only time I feel it isn't fair.
That said, my recovery was much faster than it would have been had I not been so healthy. As soon as the surgeons OK'd it, I got back into my exercise routine. Moving is better than not moving after surgery, and exercise has always helped me emotionally. The more back to normal you can get after cancer, the better.
I don'ít know if it's fear that keeps women from getting their screenings, or just the busyness of life. I know it is anxiety-provoking for a lot of women, but I wish they would realize that breast cancer doesn't have to be a horrific thing if they catch it early. It's a hassle, and a bump in the road, but it's not the life-altering experience of chemotherapy or metastatic cancer, when it's already invasive upon detection.
The best test result that came back for me was the one that said it hadn't spread to my lymph nodes. I just breathed a sigh of relief. I think among my family, the cancer was hardest on my husband. He felt helpless. I have a son and two daughters, and it affected them, too, but we tried to keep a sense of humor about it. My daughter was recently telling me she was embarrassed about nudity in a movie, and I said, "Why? Everyone has breasts—except me!" We laughed and laughed.