By Jeanne Charters
So, last month, Sandi told you about my breast cancer. And she was right. I did have breast cancer. Please note the past tense.
Also, please notice that last month I ran a column about meeting angels during tough times. Very appropriate. I met so many angels during the month from discovery to surgery that I feel blessed beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. Chief among them, of course, is my own personal archangel, Matt, who never fails to wrap his big wings around me when my own are feeling a bit clipped.
Breast cancer isn’t fun. Oh no, not even a teensy bit fun. Cancer is one mean mother. But, trust me, elements of her are very funny. I choose to call it a her because I don’t think men are capable of such sneakiness. Well, maybe some are … but we got rid of them years ago, right?
Here’s the rundown:
Wednesday, October 17: Went to bed early, decided to do a self examination (something that I, like most women, say they do but forget about most of the time.) Lying on my left side and examining the outer side of my right breast, I thought, “Hmmm…is that different? Nah, just a muscle. That’s been there before. Hasn’t it??”
Friday, October 19: Checked in at doctor’s office for annual physical. Mentioned the little nothing I felt two evenings earlier. She checked. Said, “Hmmm … I think that deserves a mammogram and ultrasound exam.” Okay, I was due for my annual mammogram anyway.
Wednesday, October 24: Got squished at Asheville Radiation a couple of times, then spent an hour with two women and then a male doctor going over my “little nothing” on ultrasound. He said it looked “slightly suspicious.” That I should have a biopsy. Yikes! Then got squished again. Strange thing, nothing showed on mammogram — only on ultrasound. It seems that 10% of breast cancers are not shown on the mammogram. MORAL: Do that self exam thing you always plan to do tomorrow. Do it tonight! Please don’t forget.
Note: When my daughter was diagnosed back in February, hers was detected by mammogram, but not by self exam or ultrasound. MORAL: Be sure to get an annual mammogram. Please don’t forget.
October 29: Back to Asheville Radiology for the biopsy. Kinda yucky. This thing was beginning to feel serious. And I’m not a particularly serious-illness kind of person. Oh well, the biopsy will probably be negative.
November 2: My primary care doctor’s nurse called in the morning. “Dr. Warren would like to see you this afternoon,” I said, “Uh oh,” She answered “Un huh.”
Matt went with me that afternoon. When my doctor walked in the office, she said, “I wish I had better news.”
She really didn’t need to say more. I got it. But she wanted to explain. “It’s ductal carcinoma.” That shocked me. My daughter’s had been lobular. Lobular is supposedly more difficult to see on mammogram.
See, here’s the deal—cancer makes her own rules. You just have to be vigilant enough to outsmart the little bitch!
November 5: Met with my oncologist, Dr. Chand. My friend, Myra, refuses to use the word oncologist. We call Dr. Chand my okee-dokey doctor. And she is. Definitely an angel in disguise. As are my friends Susan and Carol and Myra and Liz and Suzy and Nita and Barbara and Valerie and Sallie and Beth, as well as our kids and grandkids and so many other neighbors and folks who have shown care and concern for me. I had no idea I was so well loved.
Dr. Chand discussed my options — basically mastectomy or lumpectomy with radiation. My daughter had opted for bi-lateral mastectomy and had to deal with chemotherapy because of a positive lymph node.
Because I’m older, Dr. Chand felt that lumpectomy was a safer option for me.
Oh, by the way, Dr. Chand loves my columns!
November 9: Matt and I went to see Dr. Soosar, the surgeon to whom my primary doctor assigned me. He concurred with Dr. Chand’s recommendation. One thing you need to know—no one ever told me what to do. It was all my choice. Which I suppose is a good thing, considering it’s my boob we’re talking about here. Surgery was scheduled for November 19.
November 16: Immediately upon learning of my diagnosis, my friend Suzy said, “You will meet with Denise Steuber.” My surgeon had already arranged the meeting. Denise is a Nurse Navigator for the new breast cancer center at Mission and one of the greatest angels in this whole process. She’s like an instant girlfriend who just happens to have 30 years of experience in oncology nursing and takes you through the ropes of every step along your way.
Denise loves my columns, too. And has a wicked crush on Daniel Craig. If you meet her, she’ll show you a picture of her taken with him at a Broadway show. More on Denise later. She deserves and will receive an entire column of her own in a later issue.
Also, November 16: Denise accompanied me to my next meeting in the new cancer center with Dr. Sesalie Smathers, my radiation oncologist. Another angel for sure, pretty, curly haired, and so sweet you wonder why in the name of God she ever chose her specialty.
Funny, isn’t it—I had given my primary care doctor an article Sesalie Smathers had written in our local newspaper about breast cancer at my annual checkup less than one month before. Serendipitous? I should say so.
November 17: The MRI. Now, this is where things get really funny. You’re put into this metal coffin-like tube—flat on your belly. There’s a hole where your breast hangs through. The tech who looks not a day over 14 says, “Now, don’t move for the next 30 minutes. If you do, we’ll have to do the whole thing over.”
Have you ever had an MRI? It sounds like Star Wars is happening all round you. More explosions and bangs than any boy movie I’ve ever seen. Thank God I’ve been practicing Transcendental Meditation since Stacia was diagnosed. I’d never have been able to remain still without meditating.
November 19: Day of surgery! But the MRI had detected something not previously seen on the mammogram or ultrasound so, before going to St. Joseph’s, I had to check in at Asheville Radiation one last time so that a doctor could put in an “indicator” where the fuzzy thing had been seen on the MRI. The only way to describe this process is that you feel like a car raised high up in the air on one of those hydraulic lifts for an oil change. Again, you’re on your belly with your boob hanging through a hole. The doctor is under you on a little stool, rolling round while he studies the MRI and puts markers into the suspicious area. You’re numb through all this stuff, but it is scary. Thanks to the angel nurse who continued to pat me on the back through this whole process.
Finally, surgery! After an injection of some radioactive stuff to mark the path of the lymph nodes, they knock you out with the stuff that killed Michael Jackson and cut out the little f—– who’s been messing up your life for the past month. They also take out the sentinal lymph node which showed up on the radioactivity chart.
My lymph node was negative! Halleluiah. That means no chemotherapy. I count myself as the most blessed of women. I’d have gone through that if necessary. Even had checked out some wigs. I will have radiation five days a week through January and then be on some hormone-repressing pills for five years.
But here’s the good news—MY CANCER IS GONE!! The beast is dead.
In honor of all this, I want your promise. Self exam and annual mammogram, please. With early detection, we’ll kill this heinous dame called cancer before she kills us.
Jeanne Charters, a transplant from New York, is a writer living in Asheville with her
husband, Matt Restivo. Her collection of columns, “Funny, isn’t it?” is available at
Malaprops, Mountain Made in the Grove Arcade, or at jeannecharters.com.
She has written three novels and has acquired an agent for her young adult novel,
“Shanty Gold.” Jeanne is working on edits, per that agent, and hopes to have a publisher
next year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.