Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Five years of “How you doin’?”
**The opinions expressed here are mine alone and should not be viewed as medical advice.**

Five years ago, I was sitting on a gurney waiting to head into surgery for bilateral mastectomies.  It was a long day for those that were waiting with me.  The longer they had to wait, the less positive the outcome. 

Two procedures turned into four.  The hours ticked by.  Late that afternoon, I was finally wheeled from the recovery room into my patient room.  Joe was sitting by the window.  The show Friends was on the television, but I doubt that Joe was watching it.  As he turned to look at me, I quipped in my very hoarse, best Joey Tribiani voice, “How you doin’?”.  Joe smiled in relief.  I think in that moment, he realized that I was going to be okay. 

Fast-forward five years.  A lot has changed in five years. Despite our best intentions, our cancer adventure did cause a fair bit of upheaval to our friends and family.  Not having to go through all of that might have been easier on us all, but then again, that little adventure of ours did bring about many positive things – deeper relationships, stronger bonds, mental toughness, laughter, love, knowledge, appreciation. 

Five surgeries, and fifteen months of chemo have come and gone.  We both have lost weight, gained weight and lost weight.  My hair has fallen out, grown back in, grown out, and gotten chopped off.  We’ve moved to another state.  Joe has changed jobs and gotten a promotion.   The oldest is now learning to drive and taking college level classes.  The middle child is working on his Eagle project in Scouts and running cross-country with the high school.  The baby has now doubled her age and is turning out to be a pretty good little baker.  Our beloved Sneakers and Tessa have both crossed over the Rainbow Bridge and we’ve welcomed two new furbabies into our home.  Our Golden Boys are sweet and loving, but they have big paws to fill.  We’ve lost friends and family members and gained some new ones.  Some people have walked into our lives and settled right in and some have walked out.  For all of the people that have chosen not to share part of our crazy chaotic life, so many more have jumped in and joined the ride.  I remain forever thankful.

Five years ago, I was on the every woman should get an annual mammogram after age forty bandwagon.  I remember thinking that women were nuts if they didn’t get their mammograms or, if diagnosed with BC, declined chemo, surgery, or radiation.  Five years and a lot of reading later, I’m a bit more understanding of individual choices. 

It appears that the tide is once again shifting with regards to breast cancer treatment.  More and more literature is surfacing that indicates not all women need to have such aggressive treatment for early stage cancer and that maybe all of that radiation isn’t such a good idea.  Is the literature correct? 

Five years ago, I was initially diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer.  I chose to have bilateral mastectomies instead of the offered lumpectomy, radiation, and chemo.  I thought since it was such an early stage cancer, removing my breasts would remove any doubt that the cancer would return or, worse, spread.  Little did we know before I headed into surgery that my cancer had spread and was already at Stage III, less than a few short months after a mammogram indicated something to keep an eye on. 

If I had not been diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer until today, would I want to be the one who was told to “wait and see”?  I doubt it.  What if I was told that not all cancers react the same way or grow at the same rate?  I like to think that maybe I’d be rational enough to try a wait and see.  I think that, like I usually do, I would have whipped out my handy dandy notebook and researched the heck out of it!

In the long run, I didn’t have much of a choice; the type of cancer that I had was aggressive and quick moving.   It needed to be treated equally quickly and aggressively to save my life.  Having my breasts removed probably did no good whatsoever; the cancer was already out of the breast tissue long before they were removed.  At the time, however, it seemed like the best option with the information we had at hand. 

Do I think that every woman should be getting an annual mammogram today?  I don’t know.  I’m not sure if the benefits outweigh the risks.  I do think that women should get baseline mammograms at some point in the their middle years when they are most healthy.  After that, I would hesitate to recommend annual mammograms to women unless there was a family history of cancer.  I say cancer because, while I didn’t have a close family history of breast cancer, I do have a family history of other types of cancer on both sides of my family.  I think that relying on one’s own intuition or that of a spouse, partner or significant other is a good alternative to annual mammograms. 

I hope that cancer diagnosis and treatments are going to continue to change and evolve so that they are more individualized.  One size does not fit all.   October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  It’s hard to not get swept up in the pink-out of education and awareness that we are bombarded with from every retailer, television station and athletic team, but I think that by now most of us are at least a little bit aware and educated about breast cancer.   Instead, I wish we’d funnel more money towards organizations that are figuring out how to cure metastatic breast cancer or to improve ways to treat and detect all cancers.

I’m excited to see what the next five years brings about.  Until then… “How you doin’?”  

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