My Experience with Breast Cancer During a Pandemic
At the beginning of March 2020, just as Calgary was shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I found a lump in my breast that was about the size of a walnut. That was concerning. That weekend, the Alberta government had announced that all schooling would be done online and that everyone should start working from home. It wasn’t really the time when you would want to go sit in a doctor’s office with other people that already think they are sick. On top of everything else, both of my parents had just been diagnosed with different types of cancer at the start of the year. I thought that I was being overly cautious getting my lump checked out just based on that family history. I didn’t really think it would be cancer – I was young and, after doing CrossFit for a couple of years, in the best shape of my life.
After performing a breast exam, my family doctor sent me for a mammogram and an ultrasound. These tests were scheduled one week after I had seen him. I was nervous and had to go by myself because support people weren’t allowed to accompany patients. After the ultrasound, they said I should book in for a biopsy before I left. I had another appointment to come back the next week. Again, I went by myself. My husband waited in the car for me this time as they recommended that I shouldn’t drive myself after the biopsy. It was very stressful and isolating going through these appointments on my own. This was all layered on top of having my three kids home from school and having to help them figure out and get comfortable with online school (grade 9, grade 6 and kindergarten at the time). As a Mother, I struggle sometimes to put myself first, and even though I knew these appointments were important, I felt like I was abandoning my kids. I was trying to be brave, to keep everything as normal as it could be, and trying not to worry them at the same time.
The next week I had a follow-up with my family doctor to get the results. My husband drove me and waited in the car. When I saw the doctor, I told him that if it was bad news I wanted to call my husband and have him on speaker phone so he could hear all the information as well. My heart dropped when the doctor said I should call my husband. It was hard to hear the bad news and not have a hand to hold. I learned that I had invasive ductal carcinoma. The cancer had spread to at least three lymph nodes in my arm pit. My tumour was hormone positive, HER2 negative. I needed to go for a bone scan and a CT scan so they could make sure it hadn’t spread more than that.
There was a lot of waiting to see what to do next, but also so many appointments happening really quickly. The next week, I met with my surgeon. My tumor was about 5cm and he recommended that I have chemo first to try to shrink it and reduce the number of lymph nodes with cancer before I had surgery. In a matter of six weeks, I went from finding a lump to starting chemotherapy.
Throughout this entire process, I’ve felt like things were going smoothly and I trusted the doctors to have my best interests at heart. At every appointment, whether with a doctor, or for a test or scan, there was always screening questions to answer and temperatures being taken. Sometimes, I had to call from the parking lot to be told which room to go to when I went in. I only felt safe at these places. I didn’t want to go anywhere that had lots of people inside. My husband started doing all of the “outside of the house” tasks that our family required, including grocery shopping. It was the only way that we felt I could stay healthy and be able to receive all of my treatments as scheduled. I was scared to get sick and have a delay that could change the effectiveness of my treatments.
The pandemic and its restrictions have been isolating for many people. This was magnified for me as I was going through cancer treatments at the same time. I felt very alone. It is tough to have to be physically apart from the people that have traditionally been your support, right when you need them more than you ever have in your life. On my way to my first round of chemotherapy, my friends set up a surprise parade that we drove through as we left our street to get to the hospital. As my husband drove down the street, I saw approximately 40 of my friends lined up, cheering me on with signs and waving to encourage me. I have never felt so much love and support. It was amazing to know that I wasn’t alone on this journey and there was a whole community supporting me and rooting for me. They set up meal deliveries, dropped off flowers and checked in often throughout my treatments. It was truly inspiring.
For my first two rounds of chemotherapy, I had to go to the cancer centre by myself. It was scary starting chemotherapy but knowing I wouldn’t be able to have my husband there to hold my hand was terrifying. I had to be the strong one for myself. I learned that I can be strong and do hard things on my own. I had six rounds of chemotherapy all together. The restriction rules had changed by the time I went for round three and my husband was able to join me for the rest of those treatments. Before every round of chemotherapy, I had a follow up with my oncologist to see how I had been handling the treatments. Some of my follow ups ended up being over the phone so I didn’t have to go in to the hospital while being immune compromised. I liked the ease of being able to stay home and still being able to ask my doctor questions.
At the end of September, one month after I finished chemotherapy, I had surgery. I opted to have a double mastectomy to have peace of mind. My surgeon was amazing and very supportive of my decision. He made me feel very sure that this was the right decision for me and that it would all go as planned. Everything went as well as I could have hoped.
Luckily my husband was given time off from work for my appointments and after every round of chemotherapy and surgery so he could take care of me and the kids when I couldn’t. It has been so helpful and I couldn’t be more grateful for his help, and for his work allowing him the time to take care of me and our family.
In mid-November I was supposed to start radiation. I had a runny nose the day before I was supposed to start, so I had to go for a COVID-19 test and was forced to postpone my treatment for 10 days. Luckily, my test came back negative and I was able to start radiation the last week of November. I had a total of 16 rounds which meant going to the hospital every business day of the week. Again, I was a bit stressed about having to go to the hospital every day. Luckily, the cancer centre has a separate entrance than the rest of the hospital, but there was a COVID-19 outbreak declared (two positive cases) at the hospital in the middle of my radiation treatments. It was stressful to see the hospital on the news and knowing that I had to be there the next day (and every day). To be extra cautious, the hospital was offering COVID tests to all patients. Again, it came back negative and I successfully finished all active treatments in the middle of December. For the first time in nine months I had a break and was able to spend the holidays with my family without any doctor’s appointments.
Overall, I feel like my care was exceptional, even during a pandemic. I don’t know what a normal timeline would look like, but all of my treatments seemed to happen in a quick and orderly sequence without excessive wait times. It was comforting to know that cancer care wasn’t stopped or delayed because of the pandemic.
If I could give any advice to someone starting this journey, I would say, “Don’t wait!” Waiting can change the severity of the diagnosis. If I had realized my lump was cancer before and caught it earlier, it might not have spread to my lymph nodes and my treatments might not have been as extensive. Early diagnosis and treatment is key to better patient outcomes. There is no history of breast cancer in my family but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. The Rethink Young Women’s Network Facebook group has been so helpful to me. Just knowing I wasn’t the only one going through this and that there are others that I could talk to about the same diagnosis was so reassuring. I hope my experience can help someone reading this and that they know that even though this is a hard road, you can do it! – Rachel Jensen
Breast cancer doesn’t wait, even during a global pandemic. Neither should you. If you notice something contact your healthcare provider, get checked. Head here to find out more.