The One Thing I Wish I Had Done Differently While Battling Breast Cancer

breast coveredThe day after Christmas in 2001, I sat on an exam table in a paper gown waiting for a surgical oncologist to give me the results of my breast lump biopsy. The last two weeks had been a whirlwind of tests, and I was overwhelmed and scared. That day, being told I had cancer, was the worst day of my life.

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As we discussed next steps, the doctor said he'd start with a lumpectomy and sentinel node dissection (basically, inject radioactive dye into the lump and watch the dye travel through my lymph system and take any nodes the dye encountered along the way to my armpit; there, he would scoop out the remaining lymph nodes).

Two weeks later, I was back in that same exam room waiting for my doctor to remove my bandages and give me the news: what stage of cancer (Stage 2B, for the record). By then, I was mentally prepared to fight, sure that I would be facing chemo soon and just wanting to get on with it.

"I've got some bad news," the doctor said. "Your lumpectomy margins were unclear, and we need to do a full mastectomy." I had been so ready to move on, and a second surgery less than a month after the first sent me into a tailspin.

More from The Stir: I Survived Breast Cancer Because I Disagreed With My Doctor

"You should think about whether or not you want to have your healthy breast removed at the same time," the doctor noted. I was a 30-year-old diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer and no family history of the disease; if I kept my remaining breast, the likelihood was that, whether two years down the road or 10, I would eventually be facing breast cancer again.

That day, I could barely wrap my head around the fact that I had to go through another surgery. How could I possibly make such a major decision? I opted to deal with only what I had to right then: a single mastectomy. After I healed from that mastectomy, I started six months of grueling chemotherapy followed by a month and a half of radiation.

It wasn't until after I finished treatment that I started really paying attention to my body again. I noticed that, well, the world is not made for one-breasted women.

Not only did my clothes not fit properly, but also my imbalance was starting to affect my posture. I tried using a breast form, even having pockets sewn into one side of all my bras, but it wasn't the same. Half the time, the unanchored side where my breast form was wound up somewhere near my clavicle. I did NOT survive breast cancer only to be strangled by my own bra!

Also, nothing changed the fact that I still had a scar on one side and a breast on the other -- a breast that I began to view as a ticking time bomb.

I had to get a mammogram shortly after I finished radiation, which included much pre- and post-mammogram anxiety. Would they find something? Even worse, would they miss something? Not to mention that, as a 31-year-old, I faced mammograms at least annually for the next 30 to 40 years (if I was lucky).

So, in early 2003, about a year and a half after I was diagnosed with breast cancer and about six months after I finished all treatment, I elected to have my healthy breast removed.

If I could change anything about my breast cancer fight, I would have agreed to have both of my breasts removed simultaneously.

Whenever I'm asked my opinion regarding breast cancer survival tips, I always say that, if faced with the prospect of a single mastectomy, opt for the double instead -- if not for the peace of mind, then at least for symmetry's sake.

 

Image via doram/iStock

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