Felt Like I Was Drowning: Wendy’s Story
My Grandmother and an Aunt died from breast cancer so I always had a yearly mammogram. I was told I had dense breast tissue and while that made my mammograms more difficult to read, I was also told any changes in my breasts from year to year would be revealed by a mammogram.
On December 23, 2011, I received the results of my latest mammogram, which read:
Dear Wendy, The result of the Mammography screening test recently performed on Wendy is within normal limits.
I thought, “Okay, I’m good for another year.” But on January 22, 2012, I felt pain in my right breast. Something didn’t feel right – it felt hard and not the same as the left breast. Two days later, I went to my gynecologist who didn’t think anything was wrong but suggested a breast ultrasound. On January 26, I had a breast ultrasound and although the technician didn’t see anything abnormal, he called in a doctor for a second opinion. The doctor recommended a breast MRI. Prior to the MRI, my gynecologist recommended I see a Surgical Oncologist. On February 24, I met Dr. Lori Alfonse who agreed that I should have a breast MRI. My insurance would not pay for the MRI until I had a digital mammogram. On March 14, I had a digital mammogram and breast ultrasound at Breast Health Services. The doctor said the digital mammogram showed nothing abnormal, but the ultrasound revealed a mass. A biopsy was performed the next day. On March 20, 2012, slightly three months after a mammogram “within normal limits”, I’m told I have breast cancer. It made me feel sick to hear those words. I didn’t cry. I was determined that I wouldn’t let it get the best of me. I thought of what my mother said when she was diagnosed with cancer. “It is in God’s and the Doctor’s hands.” I was grateful my husband, Bob, was there with me. On March 28, 2012, Bob and I met with Dr. Alfonse. Based on the information from the biopsy and ultrasound, it was thought the cancer was stage 1 or 2.
On April 18, 2012, a few weeks after experiencing some changes in his bowel habits, my husband had a colonoscopy. Due to the presence of a large tumor, the colonoscopy could not be completed. He was told he most likely has colon cancer. This time I cried.
A few days after that, I found an engraved medallion in my mom’s purse which read, Lord, help me remember that nothing is going to happen today that you and I can’t handle together. Thanks, Mom – still looking out for us. And so, this becomes our motto. We repeat it many times driving to yet another hospital or doctor visit.
On April 26, 2012 I had a lumpectomy. The next day, Bob, whose tumor was partially into his bladder, had a colon resection and bladder repair. On May 10, I had my post-op visit with the doctor. The results showed cancer on three sides of the tumor and in all 9 lymph nodes that were removed. Five days later, both Bob and I had PETT scans.
On May 17, Bob and I met with Dr. Ashish Shah for our PETT scan results. My cancer had metastasized to my lungs and right pelvic bone. Bob had spots in his lungs that were later determined to be consistent with colon cancer.
I thought, I can’t believe this is happening – not to both of us at the same time. I felt like I was drowning. We were both shell shocked. I prayed for God to take the worry from me. I prayed for us to be healed and find peace. I prayed not to be afraid.
On May 24, 2012, Bob has his port installed. I had mine installed the following day.
For the rest of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, life became a series of doctor and hospital visits – lab work, radiation, chemotherapy. A week without a doctor or hospital visit was a rare occurrence. Life also became a time to count our many blessings – the wonderful friends, family and neighbors, who made us meals, sent cards and flowers, mowed our lawn, added us to their prayer lists, sent gift baskets and prayer shawls, and cleaned our cat’s litter boxes; my sister in Texas sent me a letter every week, and a brother, also going through cancer treatment, who still calls to see how we are feeling; the gifts of an understanding and caring manager, and coworkers who allowed me to continue to work from home; the new friends we met while getting treated; the heightened appreciation of life and the preciousness of each day; a husband who loves me; and of course, the kind, caring and knowledgeable doctors, nurses and staff at Lehigh Valley Hospital.
In October 2012, I had a mastectomy. Strange as it sounds, that was a hopeful experience. Just a few months earlier, a mastectomy was considered to be non-curative and not an option. However, because I responded so well to treatment, it became an option.
In September 2013, I celebrated my 60th birthday. Do I worry about getting old? Heck, no! I am grateful for the chance to grow old. Yes, it has been tough and it has been scary. As the saying goes, there are bad things in life – but that does not mean life has to be bad.
Bob and I can truly say we understand what each of us is going through. Some tell us we have taken togetherness to a whole new level. The experience has brought us closer to each other and has strengthened our faith.
Currently, I am NED – No Evidence of Disease. Bob continues to have issues with his lungs. He’s had two surgeries on his lungs and will soon start another round of Chemo to treat the cancer in his lungs..
I have learned some valuable lessons – and here are some I want to share:
If you have been told you have dense breast tissue, do not assume a mammogram, even a digital mammogram, will find cancer. The dense tissue can hide the cancer. Discuss your options for additional testing with your doctor.
If you have a family doctor who believes, like ours did, that a colonoscopy, because it is an invasive procedure should not be done unless there are symptoms that warrant it, please do not blindly follow this advice. Consider getting another opinion on the risks of a colonoscopy versus the benefits, and then make your decision. And above all, do not assume because you have no family history of cancer that you will not get cancer.
Like it or not, cancer is now a part of our lives. We will get screened regularly, and most likely have to face treatment again. And, yes, cancer might kill us. However, I will try my best not to let cancer kill my spirit, and I will always try to remember to be grateful for each day we have together.