A week and a half after getting my results that I have breast cancer, I was on my way to see a surgeon to determine the next course of action. One of the things I have learned is that it is so important to bring another set of ears to your appointments as there’s a lot of information thrown at you and it can be hard to remember everything. I brought my mom and husband with me to my appointment for support and to help ask/answer some of the questions thrown at my already overwhelmed brain.
When I first found out I had breast cancer, the thought of having a mastectomy (removal of the entire breast) came to mind as I thought that was the only way to truly get rid of the cancer and never see it back. The surgeon, however, recommended a lumpectomy (removing only the lump) as studies have shown that mastectomy versus lumpectomy surgery have the same long term survival rates. Most surgeons these days opt for breast conserving surgery as there is less overall impact on the appearance of the breast and also has a faster healing time with less post-surgery side effects. They would also be conducting a sentinel node biopsy where they remove the first 3 or 4 lymph nodes near the armpit as that is the first biological barrier the cancer would reach before spreading further throughout the body.
The surgeon also discussed my personal health history, how I found the lump, and my family history of cancer which can all factor into my risk of cancer recurrence. Just due to my age (being under 35) and the size of the lump (over 2 cm) alone placed me at high risk of cancer recurrence and I would most likely require a course of both chemotherapy and radiation therapy following the lumpectomy surgery (the treatment plan would ultimately be decided by the oncologist(s) at the Cancer Agency). Being young and healthy was a good thing in that I could handle a more aggressive treatment; however, it was also a bad thing in that cancer can thrive in patients who are young and premenopausal. Although I knew in my mind that there was the possibility of having to go through chemo, it still hit me really hard. I could feel the tears well up in my eyes. The thought of being sick, losing my hair, among the other awful side effects I had heard people talk about ran through my mind. How was it going to be for me?
Following my appointment, I was set up with a surgery date exactly one week away from my initial consult. Things were moving fast which was exactly what I wanted so I could get rid of this beast doing damage in my body. It also meant getting all of my things in order asap: I would be leaving work indefinitely, cancelling that trip to Vegas I was looking forward to, and getting last minute stuff done around the house as I would be out of commission for awhile. It was a stressful time to say the least, but the outpour of help and support from my family, friends and coworkers made life easier.
I showed up to the hospital the morning of my surgery at the surgical daycare centre with my husband and parents for support. The day started with my vitals being taken and answering a bunch of questions about my current health. I was then taken down to medical imaging to have a dye injected into either side of my nipple on my right breast which highlighted the lymph nodes on the following nuclear scan. This gave the surgeon a road map of the nodes to be removed.
Once finished the scan, I was taken back up to the surgical daycare centre to wait. I was nervous. This was the first surgery I had ever gone through where I would be put under anaesthetic and I had no idea what to expect coming out of surgery. I was looking forward to getting this beast out of me though and moving ahead with my journey so that I could put this all behind me. It was only a few more minutes until the porter came to grab me and I was on my way.
I was introduced to the team that would be working on me which included the surgeon, an anaesthesiologist, and three nurses. About one minute after arriving in the surgery room, I was given the anaesthetic and was out within seconds. The next thing I remember is waking up in the recovery room and looking at the clock. 11:45am. It had been an hour and a half since my surgery. I was all bandaged up, but I was okay (a bit groggy) and the lump was gone.
Once the anaesthetic wore off, I asked the nurse if I could speak to the surgeon to see how things went. He came in a couple of minutes later and let me know that the surgery went well; however, the lump they removed was larger than expected and three of the four lymph nodes removed were suspicious looking. I asked what that meant, but was told we wouldn’t know for sure until the biopsy results came back a couple weeks later. I was hoping for a sense of relief when the lump was removed…that it was gone and I was cancer free. But hearing about the lymph nodes though made me worried and I was anxious to get the results back as soon as possible.
When I went home and looked at the bandages on my breast, I was sure half of it was gone. It looked like so little compared to my other. Although the ultimate end goal is to beat this thing, it was tough to think of losing a part of my femininity…something that’s been a part of me my whole life. As the bandages started to wear away four days after surgery, I decided it was time to remove the bandages and come to face my fears. My husband helped me through and after stopping about 20 times, I managed to peel it all away and felt a huge sense of relief. It wasn’t as bad as I thought, a little lopsided and a bit smaller, but hey, I still have a boob! The incision from the lumpectomy was about 3 inches long running horizontally just above my nipple and the one from the removal of the lymph nodes was about 2 inches long located just below my armpit.
Going out in public with the bandages was difficult after surgery. It was 30 degrees outside and all I wanted to do was get out of the house. I went down to the beach for a few minutes but couldn’t help but see the stares from people wondering why I had this huge bandage across my breast. Sleeping at night was another feat as I always sleep on my right side so it was hard to get used to sleeping on the opposite side. I used a pillow to bear hug at night too as it helped elevate my arm where the lymph nodes were removed. Out of both incisions, the one under my armpit hurt the most and required frequent stretching so that the muscles and tendons didn’t seize up causing a temporary or permanent lack of range of motion.
Two weeks after surgery, I got a call from the surgeon with results from the surgery and sentinel node biopsy. The tumor was successfully removed from my breast; however, 3 out of the 4 sentinel lymph nodes removed tested positive for cancer. This was not the news I was hoping to hear. I was devastated and scared of the unknown. Did this mean the cancer had spread? I couldn’t believe it was already in my lymph nodes when I didn’t even know I had this lump until one month before. The surgeon advised that since the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes, I would most definitely be looking at a course of chemotherapy with the possibility of additional surgery in the future to remove more lymph nodes.
Since we now had the results from the surgery, I was told that the Cancer Agency would be in contact with me right away to set up an appointment with an oncologist to determine the next steps in my treatment plan. We needed to get things moving fast.