It’s been seven years, but I still remember receiving my breast cancer diagnosis like it was yesterday. I was on the train heading home when I received the phone call from my primary care doctor’s office. Except my doctor of 10 years was on vacation, so another doctor who I’d never met made the phone call instead.
“I’m sorry to inform you, you have breast cancer. But it’s the good kind of breast cancer. You’ll need to contact a surgeon to have the tumor removed,” he said.
After two months of tests and biopsies, it still hit like a brick wall to hear those dreaded four words, “You have breast cancer.” And the good kind? Seriously? Who says that?
Little did I know I’d soon be knee-deep in a world of testing, genetics, receptors, diagnosis, and treatments. That doctor had good intentions when he said “the good kind,” and there’s a little truth in that statement — but it’s not what anyone thinks about when they get a diagnosis.
According to Dr. David Weintritt, board-certified breast surgeon and founder of the National Breast Center Foundation, there are two primary types of breast cancer: ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) and invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC).
Newer studies have shown that some people with DCIS can be under close observation rather than treated, which provides hope to those who are given this diagnosis. Approximately 20 percent of breast cancers are DCIS, or noninvasive. That’s 20 percent of people who breathe a little easier when hearing their diagnosis.
And the other 80 percent?
And even with an invasive breast cancer diagnosis, the treatment and experience isn’t a one-size-fits-all.
Some are found early, some grow slowly, some are benign, and others are deadly. But what we all can relate to is the fear, stress, and tension that comes with the diagnosis. We reached out to several women* and asked about their experiences and stories.
*The four women interviewed agreed to use their first names. They wanted readers to know they’re real survivors and wanted to give hope to the next generation of women who receive a diagnosis.
Jenna received a moderately differentiated IDC diagnosis. She was also carrying a genetic mutation and had cancer cells that divided more quickly. Jenna’s surgeon was actually very blunt about how aggressive her triple positive breast cancer was.
Fortunately, her oncologist was optimistic and gave her the best course of action for treatment. It included six rounds of chemo every three weeks (Taxotere, Herceptin, and Carboplatin), Herceptin for a year, and a double mastectomy. Jenna is in the process of finishing a five-year treatment of Tamoxifen.
Before Jenna’s treatment began, she froze her eggs to give her the option of being able to have children. Because of the gene mutation, Jenna also has an increased risk of ovarian cancer. She’s currently discussing with her doctor the option of removing her ovaries.
Jenna has now been cancer-free for over three years.
Sherree had a tiny but aggressive tumor. She received 12 weeks of chemo, six weeks of radiation, and seven years of Tamoxifen. Sherree was also part of a double-blind study for the drug Avastin, which she has been on for the last three years.
When Sherree had a lumpectomy performed to remove the tumor, the margins weren’t “clean,” meaning the tumor was starting to spread. They had to go back in and remove more. She then opted for a mastectomy to ensure it was all out. Sherree is celebrating her eight-year survivorversary and is counting the days to hitting the big #10.
Kris’s first diagnosis was when she was 41-years-old. She had a mastectomy on her left breast with reconstruction and was on Tamoxifen for five years. Kris was nine months out from the initial diagnosis when her oncologist found another lump on her right side.
For that, Kris went through six rounds of chemo and got a mastectomy on her right side. She also had part of her chest wall removed.
After two diagnoses and losing both breasts, 70 pounds, and a husband, Kris has a new outlook on life and lives every day with faith and love. She’s been cancer-free for seven years and counting.
When Mary got her diagnosis, her doctor looked at her with pity and said, “We need to move on this ASAP. This is treatable now because of the advances in medicine. But if this was 10 years ago, you would’ve been looking at a death sentence.”
Mary took six cycles of chemo and Herceptin. She then continued Herceptin for an additional year. She went through radiation, a double mastectomy, and reconstruction. Mary is a two-year survivor-thriver and has been in the clear ever since. No pity now!
As for me and my “good kind” of breast cancer, my situation meant I had a slow-growing cancer. I had a lumpectomy on my right breast. The tumor was 1.3 cm. I had four rounds of chemo and then 36 radiation sessions. I’ve been on Tamoxifen for six years and am getting ready to celebrate my seventh year survivorversary.
In addition to the breast cancer diagnosis that connects all of us as warrior sisters, we all have one thing in common: We had an idea. Long before the diagnosis, the tests, the biopsies, we knew. Whether we felt the lump on our own or at the doctor’s office, we knew.
It was that little voice inside of us that told us something wasn’t right. If you or a loved one suspect something is wrong, please see a medical professional. Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can be scary, but you’re not alone.
“Regardless of diagnosis, it’s important for all patients to have a conversation with their doctor, oncologist, or specialist to create a personalized approach and successful treatment plan,” encourages Dr. Weintritt.
The five of us are still recovering, both inside and out. It’s a lifelong journey, one in which we all live each day to the fullest.
Holly Bertone is a breast cancer survivor and living with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. She’s also an author, blogger, and healthy living advocate. Learn more about her at her website, Pink Fortitude.