Amy’s Journey: Gaining Control
“So many women–who I never would have known had cancer because they were absolutely fine–offered help and advice. That gave me hope that I, too, would be fine.” ~ Amy Thompson
“I’ve never been a hypochondriac,” says Amy Thompson, cupping her hands around her paper coffee cup, “but I always feared an illness over which I had no control, when there was no way to prevent it or deal with it myself. Cancer is one of those diseases. And then, when it happened, I was in disbelief; my greatest fear had come true. I thought, ‘This isn’t really happening. I’ve just been sidetracked, but I’ll be back to my normal life in a minute.’”
But it was true. Amy, only 45, had been diagnosed with ERPR positive, HER 2 negative breast cancer in the summer of 2015.
She’d had a slight inkling there might be an issue, when, by the merest happenstance, she’d noticed an abnormality in her right breast that made it feel inexplicably different from her left breast. But it didn’t feel like a pea, as she’d been told breast cancer would feel. It just felt…different. But she thought she’d wait for her mammogram a few months later.
This mammogram experience was different from all the others. Typically, the technician would tell her to get dressed and leave when she’d finished the procedure. But this time, the pattern changed: the technician left the room, wordlessly. Amy was vaguely, but not frantically, suspicious, so, while waiting, she peered at the monitor, eyeing the screen’s multiple photos.
“I grabbed my phone, and Googled breast cancer images,” says Amy, slightly swinging her leg with its bright-colored sneaker. “The images that came up were identical to the ones on the monitor.” So, she knew.
When the technician returned, she told Amy to talk to the radiologist rather than to get dressed and leave. “Finally,” Amy continues, “when there was almost no one left, the radiologist came to talk to me, and said, ‘Do you know what DCIS is? I think you have it.’” She had a solid mass, he said, and scheduled a biopsy two days later.
“I knew immediately when the radiologist phoned me. It was an interesting call,” she leans forward. “He said, ‘Here is the information. We’ll talk for a second now. Then we’ll hang up, and I’ll let you digest it, talk to your husband, think about your questions, and I’ll call you back in 15 minutes,’” Amy’s shimmery eye shadow brightens the coffee shop.
It was as if she had been waiting for this diagnosis for years. She was resolved, calm, matter-of-fact, business-like, moving into “fix-it mode,” as she says. “I had no time to panic or feel sorry for myself. I had this cancer, and I wanted to get rid of it immediately and completely.”
Tests identified its type and size, as well as her genetic panel. She learned she had an increased risk of colon cancer. She would deal with that later. Now, it was time to consider the options to address her breast cancer. She talked to a slew of friends and acquaintances, relatives, and doctors, and reviewed the research.
“I kept a huge binder with the scientific stuff and my questions. I was probably the doctors’ worst nightmare. They hate it when you research on the internet,” she smiles in recollection.
She knew her choices, she knew what she would do. “I never defined myself by my breasts. They were just there. And if they weren’t there, that was ok, too.” She places the coffee cup on the table. She selected a double mastectomy with reconstructive surgery. This was a good route, since pre-cancerous cells—which may or may not have progressed—were found in her other breast.
Immediately after surgery, she began the arduous process of breast reconstruction.
“Now,” she grins, and lightly tosses her shoulder-length blonde hair, “I could get perky breasts.”
Amy’s strength swelled from the support she found from her husband, friends, relatives—and mere acquaintances. “So many women–who I never would have known had cancer because they were absolutely fine–offered help and advice. That gave me hope that I, too, would get through this and be fine.” Amy adjusts the sleeve of her bright green and yellow track suit jacket.
“I have no modesty about any of this. So many women came out of the woodwork with help for me, and I thought, ‘They’re being so forthright. I can do that too. Maybe I can help others benefit from my experience.’” She laughs, “But, it’s not like I introduce myself as this person with cancer.”
Still, as strong, as capable, and as in-charge as she was, there were moments she stumbled.
“The only thing that I did that isn’t normal for me is keep a journal. One of the nurses gave me a little pink book when I was in the hospital. I looked at it quizzically, I didn’t get it. But then I saw her note that said, ‘In case you need to capture thoughts.’ Then I knew what the journal was for. I wrote in it before bed about scary things and things I was grateful for. That helped express my feelings,” Amy settles back in the wooden chair for a moment.
Three years have passed. She has completed her surgeries. She will take Tamoxifen for 10 years. She’ll never have another mammogram, and if she has a cancer recurrence, her doctors said any lump will move to the forefront and be easy to detect. She has had early menopause (that’s ok, too), as well as her first colonoscopy (five years earlier than the recommended screening). She is cancer-free.
“I was fortunate in my cancer. Luckily, for me, it seems that my experience with cancer is finite. It could metastasize, but right now, I don’t have it,” she sighs. “Cancer wasn’t that uncontrollable thing that I thought it was before I got it.”
Amy recently joined the Cancer Support Community’s Board of Directors, having been part of the Ambassadors of Hope, an advisory board to the program director, for several years.