By ROBBIE BAKER KING
I am a truly blessed seven-year breast cancer survivor.
I’m very glad to share my adventure with breast cancer. With the range of emotions that fill your entire body from the moment you feel the “lump,” adventure is the only true word that best expresses what I went through!
I’ve always had an athletic build. Nothing “extra” on my body, including the chest area! So, in the summer of 2000 when I was laying on my stomach, I felt something different near my left breast. It didn’t hurt, but I could feel it. A lump sitting right on one of my ribs. I had been performing self breast exams for five years, since my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis in 1995, and this area is not included in the circular path associated with the breast self-examinations.
So I scheduled a mammogram. The first mammogram showed nothing. I said to myself, “must be these diet cokes I’m drinking … caffeine build-up or something like that.” Two months later, in September, I had another mammogram, and that mammogram also showed nothing. I was getting a little frustrated, because I’m having to go through these painful procedures that didn’t show anything.
First of October, the lump was still there and now I’m ready to panic. Can’t really panic though because my ailing father is now living with me and I don’t have time to focus on myself. I’ve got a 16-year-old daughter and a 79-year-old father who need me. When I tried to schedule the third mammogram, I was sent to the general surgeon’s office instead.
Dr. Daniel Lee told me point blank, “those mammograms are not showing anything.” So I said to him, “Doc, can I see your hand?” I took his hand and placed it on the area, and he said “Oh, there it is. Yes, I do feel that. Let’s schedule a biopsy.” I grabbed my cell phone and called the office to tell them I would not be returning that day. Dr. Lee said, “you want to do it now?” I said, “there’s no way I’m leaving now, Doc … I’ve been waiting three months for someone else to feel this thing. Please let’s just do it now.”
Thirty minutes or so later, I was looking at this lump/growth in a small specimen bottle about to be sent to the lab. The Friday after Thanksgiving, Dr. Lee told me “I am afraid I don’t have good news.”
In situ ductal carcinoma, that was the diagnosis. I heard what he said, and I didn’t even cry, which is unusual for me. We discussed a lumpectomy and I asked him to schedule it. The first lumpectomy was a piece of cake. I was glad to be able to get back home and take care of my father.
Prior to the lumpectomy, the lymph nodes were tested. I’m laying there waiting for the “sentinel lymph nodes test” and in walks a technician in a hazmat outfit — radiation protective clothing from head to toe. He then said: “I have six needles here with radioactive dye that I will inject into your breast to determine if the lymph nodes have been affected.” He also told me there would be no anesthesia.
I asked if he planned to stick six needles in my breast without it. And he said “Yes, I will have to do it that way.” I said, “If I walked into a room with six needles of radioactive substance ready to stick them in your testicles without anesthesia, would you be happy about it?” He said “No, I don’t think so.” Humor always helps when you’re scared to death, but actually it wasn’t that painful.
Dr. Lee called to say they “did not get a clean margin,” and will need another lumpectomy. So I’m heading in for my second lumpectomy. I only had an 34B cup size breast to begin with, so now we are talking about two lumpectomies and 35% less breast. So, I’m freaking out a little more than necessary.
After the second lumpectomy, Dr. Lee called again to say that that lumpectomy did not provide a clean margin either, and we’d need to discuss a mastectomy.
Okay now I’m crying. Yep, I’m crying for real! I’m mad at myself… “did I decide the lumpectomy route was the easiest way to go because I was in denial?” I beat myself up for weeks, trying not to let my father see me so upset. We were getting ready to admit him into a full-time care facility as his condition was worsening. I just didn’t have time for cancer in my life right then.
Dr. Lee and I decided on March 21 for the surgery. I learned so much information in a month’s time. I read everything. I even got my shoulder length hair cut off and I was ready for whatever twist/turn this adventure would take me.
I shared my experience with sisters, co-workers, church members — anyone who would listen. The lump was sitting between my breasts near my rib, and it would have never been detected with mammograms. I showed them the results of the lumpectomy.
I was scheduled to be in the hospital for four days following the mastectomy. Nothing in my spirit told me that I would be there four days. The doctor was so impressed with my recovery that he released me on the 2nd day. I wore gauze and tape with draining bulbs to my father’s funeral in April 2001. It felt like I had worn gauze for at least six months that year.
I am so very grateful to the medical professionals who helped me through this process, especially the plastic surgeon team that made me feel special each time I visited. And the good news is that I went up two cup sizes, and won’t ever have to worry about sagging!
There was no need for chemotherapy or radiation, as the cancer was caught very early. God was all over this process.
Five years after the procedure, I saw my plastic surgeon at a Falcons game. We greeted each other like family. When I saw Dr. Lee as I celebrated six years cancer free, it was an emotional reunion. He was glad to tell me that I remain cancer free, and I was equally glad to hear it. Self exams are not that easy now for me, because of the implant in the right breast, but they’re important, so I have ultrasounds done as well as mammograms.
The year 2009 will represent two major milestones for me: turning 50 years old, and celebrating eight years of being free from cancer!