As a patient, it is so hard to really focus on what’s being said by an oncologist [when you get a cancer diagnosis], because all you hear is, 'You have cancer.'
After a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, I became so worried it would happen to me, I decided to perform regular breast self-exams so I could familiarize myself with the normal feel of my breasts, and quickly spot any changes. My friend’s diagnosis scared me, and that fear probably saved my life.
In 2000, 6 months after giving birth, I felt a lump in my right breast. I was just 36 years old. Wasting no time, I immediately called my gynecologist who then ordered a mammogram. I found the lump on a Sunday, and the following Tuesday I was staring at my test results as the radiologist showed me the tumor sitting right above my right nipple and surrounded by calcifications.
The radiologist recommended an oncology surgeon, who scheduled a biopsy for the next day. The surgeon removed a 1.6-cm tumor, but the tissue removed did not have clear margins, and I had to have another excision 3 days later. At that time, more breast tissue and my nipple were removed, along with three lymph nodes, which were clear. The diagnosis was stage I, grade 3, triple-negative invasive ductal carcinoma.
Within a week, I had gone from being a healthy, young mother to a person battling cancer, and all I could think about was getting well. My oncologist prescribed eight rounds of the chemotherapy regimen CMF (cyclophosphamide, methotrexate, and fluorouracil) plus 37 radiation treatments. At the end of my treatment, I was declared cancer-free. While I was relieved to hear the news and anxious to get my body—and my life—back to normal, I was so emotionally and physically drained that I put off having reconstructive surgery for 5 years.
In hindsight, I believe I never should have had the reconstructive surgery. My chest tissue and muscle were so damaged from the radiation that the implant used to rebuild my breast was painful and had to be removed. Next, a deep inferior epigastric perforator (DIEP) flap breast reconstruction was performed, but this also resulted in complications, including tissue necrosis and a hole in the middle of the breast that never really closed.
In 2010, some of the top tissue of my breast was removed to relieve the continued pain. But the following summer, the pain was back and my breast was swollen. I had more surgery to remove the DIEP flap, and it was during this procedure a cancerous tumor was found below the tissue.
To have a cancer recurrence after 12 years was shocking, and I’m still coming to terms with the news. I have completed six rounds of chemotherapy, surgery to remove my remaining healthy breast, and radiation. Once again, I’ve been declared cancer-free, but the thought of another recurrence is paralyzing. Any slight ache or pain convinces me the cancer is back, and I find myself breaking into tears at the thought.
I’ve had some wonderful oncologists taking care of me throughout my cancer diagnosis and treatment. They couldn’t have known that all I was thinking about during our many conversations about treatment was, ‘I’m going to die and leave my three children behind.’ As a patient, it is so hard to really focus on what’s being said by an oncologist because all you hear is, ‘You have cancer.’
I’ve had such a hard time coping with my cancer recurrence that my doctor recommended I see a counselor, and I’m getting some relief for my anxiety. However, I know that my life will never be the same. I can no longer work, due to effects from the chemotherapy. Still, I know I’m lucky to be alive, and I’m working on resuming a healthy life that is filled with joy and optimism instead of constant fear. ■
Annette Soto lives in Clermont, Florida.