My Shocking Breast Cancer Diagnosis Left Me Wondering What I Did Wrong

breast cancer pink flowerI sit in the doctor’s office in a boxy blue paper gown, waiting. My heart is bouncing in my chest. What I find out today will shape my life for months -- years, even. I’m here to learn more about the breast cancer that wormed its way into my body when I wasn’t looking.

"Were my margins clear?" I ask the oncologist when he finally appears and explains that he’ll be sending my tumor cells to a lab in California for a test that will measure the chance of a recurrence.

"We wouldn’t be having this conversation if they weren’t," he says.

My margins were clear! I sigh in relief.

A month ago, I would have seen clear margins as a sign of a feeble mind. As a retired college professor, I still find it impossible to read without a pencil. My book margins are littered with notes.

A month ago, I belonged to the land of the healthy. I was on the giving end of sympathy, a much easier place to be than where I am now. 

A month ago, just 120 days after my last (negative) mammogram, I felt a twinge in my right breast and detected a tiny lump. "Whatever it is, it’s not cancer," my gynecologist said, and I felt every muscle in my body relax. But "just to be sure," she sent me for a second opinion. I submitted to more mammograms that were clear and an ultrasound that wasn’t. A biopsy confirmed the cancer the following week.

No fair! I wanted to scream. I ate spinach and broccoli. I took fish oil and drank green tea. I exercised regularly, didn’t smoke, wasn’t overweight, had no family history. There must have been some mistake -- or ...

Maybe it was the nightly glass of wine with dinner.

Maybe it was the estrogen cream that sustained my waning sex life.

Maybe it was chalk dust from all those words scribbled on blackboards.

Endless thoughts ran through my head.

The surgeon had been the one to deliver the news. "It’s curable," he said. "Think of this as a glitch. I suggest a lumpectomy. Unless you’re mad at your breast, in which case I could remove it completely."

I thought at first that this was an attempt at levity, but he was unsmiling. Why would I be mad at my breast? I don’t get mad at my brain when I have a headache, do I? I quickly agreed to the lumpectomy and a date was set. This was one area of my life I had no desire to downsize.

Five days later, the 0.6 cm lump was snipped out, and with it some 15 lymph nodes. Cancer had been found only in the Sentinel node.

Fast forward another two weeks to today, my first appointment with the oncologist, the one where I'd hoped to learn which of the barbaric treatments I'd have to endure. I knew that radiation targeted the breast itself, in case any cancer cells were still floating around, whereas chemotherapy and hormone therapy were "systemic meds," the first out on a search-and-destroy mission in the whole body, the second out to starve my cells of cancer-causing estrogen.

"Were the cells differentiated or undifferentiated?" I ask.


I know that’s the good answer, because it means the cells hadn’t gone totally crazy. But if they were differentiated, i.e., more or less well-behaved, and the margins were clear, how did those little devils get out of the tumor and into the Sentinel node? And had they stayed put once they got there?

Not necessarily, I’m told. The cells could get out through tiny blood vessels. Even as we’re speaking, I imagine a whole school of those feisty things swimming through my blood vessels, exploring other body parts to infect.   

"It’ll take two weeks for the results to come back," the doctor is saying. "Then we’ll know whether you’re a candidate for chemo." 

Seeing the fear in my eyes, he says sympathetically, "We hate putting patients on chemo."

I observe sadly that he doesn’t seem to have the same hesitation in putting patients on estrogen-blocking drugs for five years, drugs that turn your bones to mush and give you hot flashes. Handing me the prescription, he asks, "Do you have any more questions?"

Do I! My mind is flooded with all sorts of things I can’t articulate. They’re actually sending my tumor across the country -- they didn’t flush it down the toilet? Are the cells still dividing? Do they give it a number? A name? My name? The thought of a blob of cancer cells with my name rankles me. I picture the UPS man in his khakis delivering a box packed with ice to a lab. Inside, a slide. On the slide an expanding gelatinous mass with the name I’ve answered to since I was married in 1968. What if the lab technician knows me? I have lots of friends in California. "So that’s what became of her after she retired," the technician would think.

"No," I reply. "No questions."

Have you or anyone close to you ever had to deal with a breast cancer diagnosis, even though you were otherwise very healthy? How did you handle it?

Image via spakattacks/Flickr

This post was written by Mary Donaldson-Evans

breasts, cancer, doctors, drugs, general health, healthy habits, illness, medical tests, medicine


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bills... billsfan1104

I went to work, in shock. My friends cried harder than I did. I was in survivor mode. I went to the doctors and told them to fix me and I will do anything that they ask. I have had a single mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. I had 4 rounds of chemo. I can tell you that I would rather have ten more surgeries than go through chemo again. Cancer is tough and hard. Its tough and hard on everyone. But somehow we manage and work our way through it with grace and poise. I never thought I would be in this special club, but I am glad I am, because I would of never met the beautiful people I have met through my treatments.

bills... billsfan1104

I will say a prayer for you and prayers that the treatment will be minimal.

Kzint... KzintiFeline

I have stage IV colon cancer and am about to have my 14th chemo.  Each cancer has different types of chemo.  The chemo that I'm on makes me tired for a few days (and I have to carry an infusion pump around for two days after I get the chemo at the hospital), but it is not nearly as bad as the breast cancer chemo seems to be.  I will continue with this chemo as long as it is working, until hopefully it eradicates the tumors in my abdomen and liver, so that I can then have a colon resection to remove the tumor in my colon.

Ellen Bay

I was diagnosed with breast cancer on 2010. I couldn't talk when the doctor was on the phone. I didn't feel like I was there. It was hard to feel anything after I hung up. I don't remember telling my husband. The first question that came to mind was,"Where did I get it"? How did I get it and what was I doing to get? Maybe it's just like the flu, I will take a Nyquil and go to bed. One goes to questions, anger and despair. Living without a breast is not living to a woman. You're merely existing and waiting what is next. That's just how it is......

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