"Bug"-Her Story of Triumph Over Breast Cancer

by GregP_WN

"Bug" is our WhatNexter of The Week. She shares her story of beating a breast cancer diagnosis, going on to enjoy life, and giving back through volunteering to help others through their own diagnosis. Take a look below, and drop by her page and thank her for sharing.  

Nose For Wn

Bug on Halloween at Treatment

Leading up to my 50th birthday, several friends told me how I’d love my 50s. They said they felt more comfortable in their own skin in their 50s, freer to be themselves, life settled down more, etc. I turned 50 on July 8, 2010. On July 21, 2010, I was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer. I thought, “Hmmm, what a way to start my 50s.”

I have always had regular mammograms and have had about six breast biopsies over the years. I have dense breasts and benign cysts and calcium deposits have been found. After two sisters were diagnosed with DCIS, my doctor suggested having breast MRIs as well. A few years after that suggestion it was indeed a breast MRI that found a cancerous tumor.

A day after the MRI the radiologist at the imaging center called me at home. It’s interesting how many thoughts can fly through your head in a few short moments. After he identified himself I thought, “Oh, that’s nice. The doctor is calling me himself.” Then I thought, “Wait. Why is the doctor calling me himself? Something must be wrong.”

The radiologist said the MRI results showed a very small, early stage cancer and he was confident that a lumpectomy and radiation would be all that was needed. I felt disoriented as he spoke and knew I wouldn’t remember what he was telling me so I grabbed the nearest thing I could find to write on which was a 3 X 3 yellow Post-it pad. I scribbled notes as fast as I could as the radiologist spoke and ended up with about ten slips of paper.

My husband had left town earlier that morning on a business trip. I wanted to call him when I hung up the phone but he was still flying to his destination at that time so I called one of my sisters. She asked me if I wanted her to come over and I said, no, I was okay. I hung up the phone and called my boss and told her the news. Then I called my sister back and said I would, in fact, like her to come if that was possible. She lived three hours away but happened to be only an hour and a half away on a business trip of her own that day. She arrived at our home later that afternoon. She had nothing – no change of clothes, no toothbrush, nothing – but she came. Later that morning I finally reached my husband who was, needless to say, as shocked as I was. My sister spent the night and left the next day. I was still feeling shaky so a girlfriend spent the second night with me. My husband came home the following day.

My husband and I met with a surgeon that our family doctor recommended. I didn’t like her AT ALL. She didn’t know anything about me when she entered the exam room. I realize doctors don’t always have a chance to review a patient’s file before meeting them but she knew NOTHING. She was also very unorganized. She kept shuffling papers and jumped around from topic to topic. When she talked about scheduling surgery she said, “Well, my kids are out of school but I could probably find a babysitter and do the surgery.” Gee, thanks.

The surgeon then did a manual breast exam. I find breast exams uncomfortable but this one HURT. She pressed really hard and squeezed my nipples. I was just about to tell her to stop when she finished. She decided that there were lumps that needed to be investigated. I told her I had had thorough examinations already. She insisted. I already had an appointment scheduled for the next day to go over the MRI results with the radiologist. The surgeon took a purple marker and drew circles around areas on my breasts where she said there were lumps and said to have the radiologist check out those areas again when I saw him the following day.

When my husband and I were walking to our car I told him that she was never going to touch me – that I wouldn’t let her take a wart off my foot. Ever the cool headed one, he said, “Well, her bedside manner isn’t good but she could be a great surgeon.” I told him I didn’t care – she wasn’t going to do my surgery.

When we got home I had my husband take a photo of my bare chest so the radiologist could see where the surgeon had drawn circles and then I washed my chest. I couldn’t get the purple ink off fast enough. I don’t use words like “traumatized” lightly – but I was traumatized by that appointment. That was nine years ago and I still feel disgusted when I think of it.

Valentine's 2019 For Wn

"Bug" Valentine's Day 2019

The next day my husband and I met with the radiologist and went over the MRI results. I love that doctor! He is still the head of that imaging center. He is very calm and reassuring and instills complete confidence when talking to him. I relayed what happened with the surgeon. He also felt that thorough exams had already been done but said he’d take a look. My husband showed the doctor the photo. The doctor did a manual exam and also did an ultrasound on the “suspicious” areas. He found no other worrisome issues.

I told the radiologist I didn’t like that surgeon and wanted to see someone else. He recommended a surgeon he thought I would like. I set up an appointment with the second surgeon and, indeed, I loved her! Within five minutes I knew she’d be doing the surgery. She entered the room, introduced herself and said, “You have quite a history.” She actually looked at my file!! She clearly and concisely explained the situation and the game plan. I had been looking to my husband for support and his opinion along the way but I didn’t even ask this time - I just scheduled the surgery.

I had a lumpectomy on August 16. They also removed two lymph nodes which, thankfully, were clear. I get very sick from general anesthesia and discussed this issue with the anesthesiologist who met with me before the surgery. He was a young, hotshot type who stood at the foot of the bed and pretty much blew me off. He said, “Don’t worry about it. I do this for a living.” I was sicker than a dog after that surgery.

The lumpectomy was on a Monday. At 5:00 on Friday the surgeon called and said the margins were very narrow. She said that normally they like to have wider margins but that it was up to me as to whether or not to have a re-excision to get wider margins. She said if I could live with things as is then fine but that if I was the type to sit up at night worrying about it then I should have a re-excision.

I was so disappointed to hear this news. I am a huge worrier so had a re-excision. A different anesthesiologist was working that day – thank heavens. When he met with me prior to the surgery I told him what happened after the first surgery and tried to impress upon him how sick I get with general anesthesia. He was great! He came to the side of the bed and looked me in the eyes and LISTENED. He loaded me up with anti-nausea drugs. I was barely sick after surgery! I even had soup and crackers for dinner that evening. (It happened to be our wedding anniversary – August 30. Happy Anniversary, Babe!)

Maui 2019 For Wn

"Bug" and Her Husband in Maui 

Shortly after the re-excision I met with the oncologist – another doctor whom I loved. She seemed to be up on the current literature and therapies. She is very smart and straightforward yet kind. It wasn’t until my husband and I were sitting in the waiting room that I even thought about the possibility of her recommending chemotherapy. Neither of my sisters had it and the radiologist had told me on the phone that he felt radiation would be the appropriate course of action. But suddenly I felt intensely nervous that the oncologist could disagree and recommend chemotherapy. Fortunately, she agreed with the radiologist and recommended radiation. She also mentioned Tamoxifen. My husband (who is a research scientist) and I had done research on Tamoxifen and also talked to a colleague of his who is familiar with the drug, how it works, its efficacy, etc. (his opinion was negative). Given all of the info (i.e., the stage of the cancer, my oncogene testing, the fact that Tamoxifen would only change the risk of reoccurrence slightly, the possible side effects of the drug, etc.) I decided against taking it. I did ask the oncologist, “Am I signing my own death certificate if I don’t take it?” She said, “No, not at all.” That confirmed it for me. I said, “Then, no, I’m not taking it.”

Next step… I had 33 radiation treatments. The staff at the radiation facility was terrific. Everyone was very kind and helpful. (I even got choked up saying goodbye to them on my last day.) I’m happy to say that radiation was pretty uneventful. I vigilantly used aloe vera three times a day – in the morning after my shower, in the afternoon after treatment, and once more before bed. I didn’t burn too badly. I kept hearing that some folks experience terrible fatigue with radiation. I became very worried about that and asked one of my sisters if they experienced that. I said, “Am I going to be in the middle of a grocery store aisle and keel over?!” She allayed my fears and, indeed, I never keeled over anyplace. I continued to work as usual. About half way through treatments I got a little tired and would take a short nap after dinner but the fatigue was very manageable. My husband took a Post-it note pad and wrote a number on each page starting with 33 and ending in 1. We attached the pad to the refrigerator. Each day after treatment I would tear off a page as a countdown for the number of treatments I had left.

One interesting thing that happened during radiation… As those of you who have had radiation know, you pretty much see the same people every day in the waiting room. Some are very talkative, others don’t say a word, and the rest are somewhere in between. One woman I encountered wore earbuds and didn’t look at or speak to anyone. On Halloween day I went for my usual radiation appointment. I sat in the waiting room in my jeans, gown, and a red sponge clown nose and read a magazine as I waited for my turn. The woman with the earbuds saw me and laughed out loud! She came over to me and said, “We’re going to survive this.” I said, “Yes, we are.” I saw her one more time after that. She did not look at or speak to me. That’s okay. It made me feel good to think I made her smile even if it was only for that one brief time.

During the time I was having radiation I met with a genetic counselor. She was great, too. She was actually the wife of someone who worked for my husband. She called me and told me she was assigned to my case and asked if I was comfortable with her being my counselor because, if I was not, she could turn my case over to someone else. I knew that she was smart and would be totally discreet and told her I was fine with it. When we met at her office we discussed my family history and I took a blood test to see if I was positive for the BRCA gene. On the day of my last radiation treatment I found out that I was not. That day was also the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I felt like I had extra things to be thankful for that year – radiation was over and no BRCA gene.

None of the medical personnel I dealt with mentioned lymphedema. An acquaintance told me that I should discuss lymphedema with the oncologist so I brought it up at my next appointment. The oncologist said that given I only had two lymph nodes removed my risk of lymphedema was very small to none. To be on the safe side, I did have lymphedema physical therapy and learned exercises and lymphatic massage and wear a compression sleeve and gauntlet when I fly. So far, so good.

Villa On Lake Como 2007 For Wn

A Villa on Lake Como 

My shoulder on the affected side started to hurt several months later. I saw an orthopedic surgeon and realized that I had been protecting my breast without even realizing it. I was placing my hand on the middle of my chest with my arm across my breast as if to protect myself. I realized that I was doing it when I walked down hallways at work where doors opened into the hallways and doing it when I was in a crowd. The doctor said it was actually quite common for women who had had breast surgery to do that. He diagnosed an issue with my rotator cuff and recommended physical therapy which helped a lot. My shoulder still “pops” occasionally and I have discomfort now and then but it’s manageable.

I continue to have a mammogram and MRI every year but since treatment they have been scheduled such that I have a mammogram then six months later I have an MRI then six months later I have a mammogram, etc. I have severe anxiety around exam time (I’m a terrible worrier in general) but I try to remind myself that it’s better to catch something early than late. Fortunately, I have a strong support system in my husband, friends, and most of my family. I also feel very fortunate that my husband is a research scientist (specifically, a toxicologist) so if I run across something I don’t understand he can either explain it to me or help me find the information I need.

It has been nine years and thus far I have been free of a re-occurrence. The fear is always in the back of my mind but I’m trying to live life and be happy. Having had cancer has made me more grateful for what I DO have. If there is some sort of annoyance in my life – whether it be an ache or pain or a ding in my car, etc. – I think, “Well, at least it isn’t cancer.” Having had cancer indeed puts things into perspective.

I retired five years ago. I decided that life was too short to stare at a computer screen all day. My husband and I like to travel, I’ve taken up golf, joined a women’s group that does a variety of activities (day trips, wine tasting, etc.) and I do volunteer work. One of the places I volunteer is at the local American Cancer Society office. I really enjoy volunteering there. It’s a very positive environment and really encouraging because the staff genuinely cares about the ACS mission and works really hard. I help with events and projects but the main thing I do is wig fittings. The ACS will give one free wig per cancer diagnosis to a patient and I help women find a wig they like. When a patient does find a wig she likes, I hope the help I’ve provided has given her at least one small “feel good” thing while she’s going through her own cancer experience.


Bug is a little nervous holding this Koala Bear

I’m a bit leery of social media and do not participate in any other groups – no Facebook, no Twitter, etc. WhatNext was formed in partnership with The American Cancer Society, so that was the reason I trusted it and joined. I’ve found comfort and good information on WhatNext. It has helped a lot to know there are other people out there who are going through the same things and have the same fears. No one gets put down for being anxious about an upcoming scan or concerned about results. People on WhatNext “get it”. 

I continue to stay on the site because I just like to help other people if I can. I know what it’s like to need help – whether it’s related to cancer or not – and if I can help someone else and make things even a little better or easier for them then that would be great.

Would you like to inspire others and help them get through their own diagnosis? It's simple to do, just share your own personal cancer story with us and we will share it with thousands of people. Contact us for more details. 

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