Diana DeWeeseI’ve been waiting almost 40 years for the bad news.  The news that I had breast cancer.  My mother was diagnosed in her 60’s with invasive ductal carcinoma.  She found out after her very first mammogram.  She had one modified radical mastectomy and less than a year later the cancer had developed in her other breast.  It was also removed.  Her diagnosis was quickly followed by her older sister’s diagnosis – both breasts removed.  One younger sister had one breast removed.  As time progressed, another had a lumpectomy and radiation treatments.  I don’t know if my Aunt N was in denial or just wanted to ignore the cancer in her breast, but too late she saw a doctor.  By that time the breast cancer had spread to her liver.  She died.  My mother and her other sisters are/were breast cancer survivors.

So, for decades now, I have had annual mammograms.  Occasionally I’d get a call back, but it would be a cyst.  Nothing to worry about.  A couple years ago, I paid for a genetic screening to see if I have any of the genes that lead to breast cancer.  Six different breast cancer causing genes were tested.  I was negative on all of them.  I thought I was home free.  My annual exam with my primary care physician was December 12.  No issues, no lumps.  I almost canceled my mammogram scheduled for December 21 - Solstice, but I went ahead and had the screening.   A few days later I got a phone call.  Need to come back for another mammogram and an ultrasound on January 8.  Two days later, a needle biopsy.  A call from my primary care physician’s nurse.  Please come to the office the next day on Friday, January 13th.  I asked the nurse “Tell me.  Is it Cancer?  I’m strong.  I can take it.”  She said “Yes”.  So the appointment with my doctor was anticlimactic.  I knew.  She knew I knew.

I posted on my extended family’s facebook group – GET YOUR MAMMOGRAM.  I let it be known gradually to friends.  GET YOUR MAMMOGRAM.  I find out for the first time so many more of my relatives and friends have had breast cancer surgery.

I wanted the surgery NOW.  But that’s not how things work.  There’s a Cancer Team assigned to you.  The surgeon (a general surgeon because the breast cancer surgeon had moved on and her replacement wasn’t on board yet), the radiation oncologist, the medical oncologist, and their nurses.  A week went by and I met with the surgeon.  The lump is small.  That’s good.  So the team explained there’s surgery and probably radiation and maybe chemotherapy and then 5 years of a daily pill to take.

January 30th I met with the radiation oncologist in the morning.  Following the surgery there will be 20 radiation treatments – one a day - Monday through Friday for a month.   In the afternoon I met with the medical oncologist.  The tests came back – no chemo.   She will be prescribing anastrozole as my estrogen suppressant pill. 

Everything is in sssllooowww motion.  February 7, a final appointment with the surgeon and February 8 a bone density test – to make sure my body can tolerate the estrogen suppressant drug that I will be taking for 5 years.

Feb 13 – trip to the hospital to have a sentinel dye put in to be absorbed by the lymph nodes, followed by a cat scan.  Surgery was February 14 – of course – the anniversary of my first date with my future husband – 54 years ago.  First a sonogram to insert a guide wire to the lump of cancerous tissue.  “This will burn”.  NO, IT REALLY HURT.  The surgeon stopped by later.  I said I had watched a video of a lumpectomy surgery.  He said he had watched a video, too.  We both laughed!  That conversation was followed by 6 hours of WAITING for my turn in the operating room.  They removed the lump as well as a lymph node to check for spread.  It came back negative.   I read my online medical chart.  Looks like the surgery was successful.

Now for the radiation treatments.  But wait.  I need to heal.  So 6 weeks later – April – I walked through the door of the Cancer Center in St. John’s Pavilion and the radiation treatments start.  As I walked through the door it hit me.  I had cancer.  I am a breast cancer survivor. 

Each treatment lasted about 10 minutes.  I quickly get used to the routine.  Remove my shirt, my bra.  Climb into the mold made to hold my torso in place.  Grab the bar above my head with my left arm.  Staff are friendly, but the machine is scary.  As it tracks across my torso I can hear when the radiation beam is on.  My whole breast is being irradiated.  The nipple area is most sensitive.  They offer creams and gel packs which offer some pain relief.  Over time, the underside of my breast turned a deep red-purple.  This was all normal.  It’s the little things - Fox News on the TV in the small waiting area gets turned off as soon as I can.  I could do without the country western music blasting over the sound system in the treatment room.  I ask for classical music.  The next time – Clair de Lune.  The next time – they forget – country music again.  Oh well!

I’m tired.  My boob hurts.  I have little energy.

The middle of April I asked for two days off – April 24 and 25 – Marissa and I are training to Chicago so she can go to a concert and I’m her travel companion.  That’s when they tell me that I will have 21 radiation treatments not 20.  And the last 5 treatments are called a BOOST, which means they are really going to irradiate the area where the cancer was.  After my last treatment, I rang the bell outside of the treatment room.  That’s what patients do when they finish their treatments.

I’ve been taking the anastrozole since May.  No physical side effects yet.  I feel like I have memory issues.  I can’t recall the names of things.  I’m 73 years old now.  Is that because I’m 73 or because of the drug.  I don’t know.  Follow-up appointments are scheduled for the fall, including a mammogram on both breasts.  I worry that like my mother, the breast cancer will show up in my right breast.

When I was waiting, waiting for all this to unfold, I thought of my mother and what she went through.  Two consecutive modified radical mastectomies. I thought how little time I spent with her.  How little comfort I gave her.  Sure I drove up to Bloomington to see her when she was in the hospital, but was I there for her before the surgeries?  NO.  Was I there for her after the surgeries, helping her with meals, showers, meal preparation, cleaning her home?  NO.  My younger sister and my sister-in-law and my aunts, and her friends from her church were there.  But I was not.  I am so ashamed of my behavior.  And she never chastised me for my lack of support.  How do you ask for forgiveness from your mother who has been dead for 10 years?

So three months after the radiation treatments ended I’m dealing with a very red and sore left breast.  At first the medical staff thought I had an infection – cellulitis – but the antibiotics had no affect.  So the next guess is that the radiation did a number on the lymphatic system.  I am waiting again for the next step.  Waiting.  Waiting.  I am learning to be patient and to fill my life with so many other things that I really don’t feel like I am waiting.

Diana DeWeese
August, 2023