What I thought after feeling a large, hard lump—similar to the feel of a granola bar—in my left breast was that I probably pulled a muscle while playing with my two young children, ages 7 and 5. Cancer never entered my mind until I asked my husband to feel the lump, and he immediately said, with some alarm in his voice, I had to have it checked out. Still, I wasn’t worried. But when I saw the size of the lump during an ultrasound, I realized I probably did have cancer. The results of my tissue biopsy a few days later confirmed my fear: I had stage IIB hormone receptor–positive, HER2-negative invasive lobular carcinoma.
I now know there isn’t anything I can’t overcome, physically or mentally. Cancer has taken away my fear, and that is a true gift.— Beverly Vuckovich
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Although my surgeon recommended full removal of just my left breast, I opted to have a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy. At age 45 and recently remarried with two small children to raise, I didn’t want to take any chances the cancer might eventually spread to my healthy breast, diminishing my odds for a full recovery. The decision was not that difficult to make. A magnetic resonance image (MRI) showed that in addition to the primary tumor, there were five smaller tumors in my cancerous left breast and they were growing fast. Getting rid of this cancer and stopping it from spreading were more important to me than any vanity I had about keeping my healthy breast.
Coping With Treatment Side Effects
My oncologist told me that following the surgery, I would need four rounds of the combination chemotherapy regimen doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide, followed by several weeks of paclitaxel (AC-T) and then 33 radiation therapy treatments. I was also prescribed 5 years of an aromatase inhibitor to reduce my risk of recurrence and then an additional 5 years of the therapy. However, I stopped taking the drug after 7 years because its intrusion into my quality of life trumped my fear of the cancer returning.
For me, chemotherapy was the most frightening part of the treatment, not because I worried about losing my hair—as with my breasts, I just don’t have excessive egotism around my personal appearance—I was concerned about the drugs’ other side effects and that they would make me too sick to care for my family.
And while I did have some fatigue during the treatment, and, of course, hair loss, I was able to avoid some other troublesome problems. My oncologist had suggested that during each treatment of AC-T, I submerge my hands and feet in ice water to prevent chemotherapy-related neuropathic pain, and it worked. I never lost feeling in my extremities or experienced any shooting or burning pain in my fingers and toes.
Missing the Active Pursuit of Conquering Cancer
I know it may sound odd, but despite nearly a year of coping with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy and all their long-term mental and physical ramifications, the most difficult time I had after my cancer diagnosis was when my treatment was over, and I was declared cancer-free. Of course, I was happy to be rid of the disease and return to a life that didn’t necessitate constant medical attention and scrutiny. However, I found it was the active pursuit of conquering cancer that I actually missed.
For a year, I was doing everything I could to beat my disease. And now that I had, I worried that maybe I hadn’t done enough and there was still more to do. It took me a few months to finally feel comfortable seeing my oncologist every 3 months, then every 6 months, and now every year.
Determining Life’s Priorities
Although receiving a cancer diagnosis and going through treatment are no picnic, I never asked, Why me? And I never felt victimized or worried I might die. This is not to say that having cancer hasn’t had a profound effect on my life. It has. Immediately after my diagnosis, I prioritized what was most important in my life. At the top of the list, of course, were my husband and children and ensuring their well-being. And I quickly got rid of worrying about everyday petty grievances. I also learned to lean more on my faith. Even though I wasn’t worried about dying, I knew that if I did die, it would be okay.
Having cancer has made me a stronger person and a better wife, mother, and friend. I now know there isn’t anything I can’t overcome, physically or mentally. Cancer has taken away my fear, and that is a true gift.
Throughout my cancer journey, I was fortunate to have a caring medical team and an oncologist who made me her partner in determining my treatment; she was and is my biggest cheerleader. I’m honored to call her my friend.
Living a Full Life
Like most people, I’ve been tested in my life, but everything I’ve been through has brought me to the place I’m in today. I’m healthy and happy and look forward to every day. What more is there? ■
Ms. Vuckovich lives in Dallas, Texas.
Editor’s Note: Columns in the Patient’s Corner are based solely on information The ASCO Post received from the survivors interviewed and should be considered anecdotal.