First Baby, Then Breast Cancer: Sarah’s Story
The night before my January trip to Aruba, I felt like an eight-year-old on Christmas Eve. For me, this wasn’t just an all-inclusive oasis to a tropical paradise, it was a new mom’s first vacation away from her nine-and-a-half-month-old son. Sure, I knew I would miss that toe headed little angel, but seven nights of uninterrupted sleep was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was determined to relish every fleeting moment (particularly since my husband was eager to get started on baby number two, and trips like this were unlikely to be an annual occurrence). On our first night on One Happy Island, I couldn’t wait to wear one of the new dresses I had brought, excited that, barring any margarita mayhem, it would remain throw-up free. After my leisurely shower, I admired the double sinks (a.k.a marriage savers) in our oversized hotel bathroom. Standing there shimmying into my one-shouldered sundress, I noticed that the right side of my chest looked a bit off. Hotel bathroom lighting really allows for thorough body inspection. My right breast looked visibly bumpy at the top. I shrugged it off as probable plugged milk ducts (I had just finished breastfeeding and all sorts of weird stuff happens when you stop lactating), and didn’t give it another thought, enjoying my time away immune to any real world cares or concerns. However, back in Toronto a few weeks later while rekindling my Grey’s Anatomy addiction, I examined the area of concern more closely. It felt very unfamiliar and hard and this time I knew something was definitely amiss. But breast cancer didn’t run in my family and I had always heard breastfeeding actually decreased your chances of developing breast cancer. Yet just to be safe I called my doctor and got an appointment for that week.
The uneasy look that came over my physician’s face as her fingertips traveled over the palpable mass said it all. “Okay, so in a case like this we suggest a mammogram and a breast ultrasound. I will also look into getting you an appointment with a breast surgeon.” She handed me the requisition for the tests, the word Urgent underlined. What was happening? It was the Friday before Family Day and I knew getting in for these tests would be hard. Luckily, my tear filled I-am-totally-freaking-out-and have-a-10-month-old-son-and-won’t-be-able-to-sleep-all-weekend-if-I don’t-get-this-done-immediately explanation and got me in for an appointment an hour later. The mammogram was first and then the ultrasound. The mammogram tech was very perfunctory, and I couldn’t get any insights out of her. Damn her professionalism. I tried to make small talk with the ultrasound tech, as if I somehow made her laugh it would mean I was fine. She smiled and all I got is, “Just give them a few days, they will have some answers.” Oh god, what did she know? I headed downtown for a commercial audition. (I work in marketing and am also an actor.) It was for an insurance company and my line was “If I get sick and can’t work, will I get my full salary?” Yeah, the irony. After the audition I see a missed call from my doctor but no message. I tried to call the office back, but it was after 5p.m. so I went back to my apartment and attempted to relax. Needless to say, I slept a whole three hours that night. The next morning, Saturday, I called my doctor’s office and the receptionist said she had the results from my tests but couldn’t give them to me. I hung up and 10 minutes later I get a call from my doctor who’s at home. “Hi Sarah, unfortunately the news is not good. They found lots of micro-calcifications in your right breast which they feel is indicative of a breast malignancy.” I can barely breathe. “Well is there any chance they’re wrong? I mean tests are wrong all the time?” I asked, mentally referencing the latest episode of Grey’s. “Unfortunately, they are 90 percent sure that this is some form of malignancy.” What. The. F*ck. How is this happening? My doctor confirmed that I have an appointment at the CIBC Breast Centre the following Wednesday where they will most likely do a biopsy. It’s Saturday, I have to wait till Wednesday for more answers? The next four days are torture. I can’t go to work. I can’t sleep. I can’t even exercise which is my go-to for all stressful situations. My only comfort is FRIENDS reruns. My husband and I arrive at the appointment at the Breast Centre on Wednesday an hour early, which is insane because they’re running almost an hour behind. Finally, I go into the examination room and wait some more for the doctor, while a resident gives me a quick exam. Eventually, the doctor arrives. He’s kind and has this young Michael Keaton quality circa 1990. He feels the suspicious area on my breast and then does a quick check of my underarm nodes. He’s concerned. Starts talking to the resident and nurse about a PET and CT scans and how he thinks there might be a secondary cancer somewhere. He then does a core needle biopsy on my breast and a fine needle one on a node under my arm. After he’s completed the biopsy, he reassesses and decides we will wait for the biopsy results and also order an MRI before we go forward with exposing me to any unnecessary radiation from PET scans. “We’ll see you back here in a week. We should have the results by then,” he says as he exits the room. A week? Are you kidding me? I won’t make it. I feel nauseated. I wait for someone to call for the MRI appointment, but no one does so I follow-up, getting an appt for that Friday at 9pm. It’s Wednesday. Thursday is a bust. I’m a zombie. Friday comes and I know that I won’t make it to 9p.m. I will have a breakdown. This is super apparent when I almost lose it on the cashier at Shopper’s Drug Mart as she mistakenly rings up my gum and Fresca. I call the woman who does MRI scheduling and tell her I will give her an amazing bottle of vodka if she gets me in early. She says that’s not necessary but will see what she can do. By some miracle there’s a cancellation and I get in for 5 p.m. I take the Ativan they gave me for the claustrophobia in the MRI machine. It does nothing, but I probably didn’t need it anyway. The banging noises during the test remind me of city living and are the first bit of comfort I feel in days. After the MRI I feel upbeat. Who knew I could be soothed by lying face down, my boobs in two little cone-shaped moulds, as magnets pounded away. However, that quickly passes, and the next four days are undoubtedly the hardest I have ever experienced. I Google every second of every day. I’m a mess. I can barely breathe. Every pain I felt, every cough or little ache somehow was linked to the breast cancer. In my mind it was everywhere, and this was it. I pictured every scenario the doctor could present from good to horrible. By the time that next appointment with the surgeon came around I didn’t even care what the results were I just wanted to know them. The waiting and not knowing was literally eating me from the inside out.
Sitting on the tissue paper as the doctor read off the biopsy results gave me some relief. It didn’t look like anything had spread and there was no node involvement. But they wouldn’t know anything for sure until after surgery, a double mastectomy and sentinel node biopsy. So I wait six more weeks. SIX FREAKIN’ WEEKS!!! The plastic surgeon and breast surgeon both needed to both be there, as they were doing a reconstruction, and that date was the first one where that scenario was possible. “You won’t find an earlier date anywhere in the city,” my surgeon said. I waited and waited and waited…oh…and waited some more until my surgery date came. Never had I been so excited to have surgery and get these squatter tumour cells out of my otherwise healthy body. After the surgery, which went well, I waited another two weeks for the final results. The results confirm multifocal invasive ductal carcinoma, the largest being 1.2cm but no node involvement. Then another two weeks of waiting for the appointment with the oncologist and radiologist. No radiation but they want to shut down my ovaries, putting me in menopause and have me also take some hormonal therapy as my tumour was highly estrogen positive. What about chemotherapy? Oh, there is another test to determine if I would need that. I waited another two weeks for those results. The day of that appointment, where I find out about the chemo, I waited in the all too aptly named waiting room for over an hour and twenty minutes. When I finally see my oncologist, who is very lovely and looks like a young Mariel Hemingway, (cheekbones for days) it’s revealed that my test results put me in an intermediate category where it’s unclear how effective chemo would be on my type of tumour cells. I cry, a lot. I’m exhausted, annoyed and so darn irritated. We decide not to do chemo.
Now, here I am today, waiting, yet again, to see how it all unfolds. But when I look into the ridiculously blue eyes of my 13-month-old son, I have hope it’s all going to work out. I make a promise not to Google anymore and remind myself that there is a silver lining of sorts; I’m getting a new set of boobs. A perennially perky chest will be my lifelong fate, which is not bad. Although right now, as I sit here waiting for my body to officially enter menopause, that breast-y boon is not really at the top of my mind. https://youtu.be/5rlfkKJ8M2I