Starting Over after Cancer Treatment

Having breast cancer has affected my health and cost me my job, but I’m still optimistic about my future.


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My cancer is incurable, and I know that I’ll probably need additional therapy at some point. The thought of having to once again navigate through a complicated health-care system as well as deal with physicians who are not always helpful is daunting.

—Paula Tamboli

When bloody discharge started oozing from the nipple on my left breast, I knew instinctively that it was serious. Although I was just 43, having lost two aunts to breast cancer, I knew my family history increased my risk for developing the disease. So when I saw my gynecologist for an exam, I was shocked that he dismissed my symptoms and family history and said I was too young to have breast cancer. I don’t know if the fact that I didn’t have health insurance played a role in his decision not to order a diagnostic test, but I left his office feeling truly frightened and confused about what to do next.

A friend suggested that I try Planned Parenthood, and a doctor there immediately sent me for a mammogram and a tissue biopsy. The initial diagnosis was stage II invasive ductal carcinoma. Planned Parenthood helped me get into Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income Program and Medicaid, and I was able to get treatment.

My oncologist recommended a lumpectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but I wanted a mastectomy to get rid of my cancerous breast. My cancer was so aggressive, by the time I had the surgery in August 2010, just 1 month after my diagnosis, the pathology report showed that the tumor had grown to more than 5 cm and that the cancer had spread to six lymph nodes under my arm. I was reclassified at stage III.

Combatting Treatment Side Effects

After a 12-week regimen of docetaxel, doxorubicin, and cyclophosphamide and 25 rounds of adjuvant radiation therapy, the side effects have taken their toll. I was thrown into early menopause, and I have severe neuropathy in my hands and feet. I lost my hair, and the radiation therapy has left my skin burned and in constant pain. My left arm is so weak from the surgery, I had to quit my job as a home health aide, and I’m still so fatigued, some days it’s difficult for me to get out of bed.

Despite these issues, I’ve gone back to school to get training in medical coding and billing and, hopefully, I’ll be able to get back into the workforce soon. I’m looking forward to being a member of the working public again, but I worry that companies will be reluctant to hire someone with my health history.

Maintaining insurance coverage is also a concern. Once I start earning a salary again and can get off Medicaid, I don’t know if I’ll be able to get private insurance either through my employer or on the open market. I’ve been warned that health insurance can cost between $900 and $1,000 a month, and that’s if I could even find a company to insure me.

Looking toward the Future

My cancer is incurable, and I know that I’ll probably need additional therapy at some point. The thought of having to once again navigate through a complicated health-care system as well as deal with physicians who are not always helpful is daunting.

Having cancer is scary. I wish more of my doctors could have shown me compassion and answered my questions instead of telling me that they knew what was best for me and ignoring or discounting my complaints about treatment side effects. I wish I could have felt in partnership with my medical team instead of feeling like a burden.

And I wish I could be cured of my breast cancer or at least have it turned into a chronic disease that I can live with for many years. Maybe that will be possible. For now, I’m not looking too far into the future. I just take life 1 day at a time. ■

Paula Tamboli lives in Montvale, New Jersey.



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