First, I would like to share with you that I have a significant family history for cancer as my mother suffered breast cancer in 1980 and ovarian cancer in 1988 and that my father had prostate cancer, a cancer that his father and every one of his brothers also had. My mother sadly passed away from ovarian cancer in 1994 just eight weeks before the birth of my only daughter. My father, however, did not die from his prostate cancer and lived a very long time with his cancer and passed away ten years ago from other causes after suffering many difficult health issues.
I screened for breast cancer religiously every year since I was 29 because of my mother’s cancer history. I had that mammogram and pap smear yearly without fail. Every year I was told that my mammogram was normal except for the mammogram in 2008 which came back with a high Birads number meaning it was suspicious for cancer. I had a feeling when I received the call to come back for more pictures and an ultrasound that something was drastically wrong. I went for a needle biopsy after the surgeon told me not to worry that this was nothing and let him prove it. The next day he called to tell me I had cancer. I found out that I had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (breast cancer). I still can’t fully comprehend how in 2007 I had a clean mammogram and in 2008 at the age of 48 (that will teach me to get a mammogram before age 50) I had breast cancer. Today I credit that last mammogram with saving my life because if I had missed it who knows how far it could have gone. I was lucky to have my breast cancer caught on my very first digital mammogram. It was 0.6 cm big, so small. I was scheduled to have a lumpectomy, and was still awaiting the results of my BRCA test which I agreed to at the suggestion of my surgeon. I remember the results of my BRCA testing came within a day or two of my scheduled lumpectomy. As I was being wheeled into the OR, the doctor asked me whether I wanted to cancel my surgery based on my positive BRCA results. I responded that I did want to have the lumpectomy. The surgery appeared to be a huge success, clear margins and no lymph involvement. I followed up with the surgeon a couple of times before he started to counsel me that I might want to consider a mastectomy because of my BRCA status. I remember I was so upset and confused and didn’t know what to do. I cried many times and often because I was so scared. I knew I was being told this because I really needed to have the mastectomy. The surgeon told me that if I did not have the mastectomy and if the cancer came back, I would have to go somewhere else for treatment.
Backing up, a funny story about my lumpectomy. They went to mark the tumor with a wire which was being inserted using a mammogram machine. They had me sitting in Geri chair up to the mammogram machine. I remember that I started to feel ill and damn if I didn’t pass out right in that mammogram machine. The nurse told me that she yelled at the radiologist to get the wire in or they would have to start all over once they were able to bring me back around. The surgeon asked me in the holding area of the OR how I made out with the wire procedure, and I exclaimed that I had passed out!
Because of my BRCA2 status, in November of 2008 I underwent a totally hysterectomy and in December 2008 I underwent a bilateral mastectomy with immediately DIEP reconstruction. I must say that I had the most wonderful medical team all handpicked by me. Everyone worked together to make sure that I came through the other side happy and healthy. Because I moved forward with the mastectomy, I was able to avoid radiation. I was told upfront that I would not require chemotherapy regardless of the surgery that I chose.
I am just beginning my seventh year as a cancer survivor and I must say that I have learned to relax again a little and have figured out what is my new normal as far as my health is concerned. One thing that helped me a lot is that I tried to keep things very positive and tried to stay as upbeat as possible. My cancer diagnosis leveled us at first. In the beginning, things moved very slowly but once they started happening, it seemed like we moved with record speed. One thing is for sure, I would not do one thing differently than I did. I never second guessed any decision that I made. My risk factor for recurrence was taken down to less than 5% from a very high risk of recurrence of about 87% over my lifetime because of my BRCA status.
I have learned an awful lot out of my breast cancer diagnosis about myself. I learned that I am a pretty strong woman who was able to make decisions for myself. What I also found out about myself is that I am able to speak in front of other people about the importance of getting a mammogram, taking care of yourself and that I am able to support other women who find themselves in this unfortunate position.
My journey has taken me on a road to a few different places. About a year after my diagnosis, I started volunteering at Susan G. Komen and became an Ambassador with Susan G. Komen Central and South Jersey Affiliate. I organize a golf outing every year which I started doing about six years ago and to date have raised about $45K. I speak about the importance of women receiving their mammograms regularly. I once spoke to a group of radiologists about the importance of women receiving their mammograms every year and on time. Imagine that, me explaining why this is important to a group doctors. I was a little nervous because this was one of my first talks. Thank God for my mammogram because my lump was not palpable and could only be seen on this diagnostic testing. I would suggest that every women forget those 50 year old screening guidelines because if I had waited until 50, I possibly would not have been here. Mine was caught very early on my very first digital mammogram. I did a news conference with Senator Leonard Lance, R.-NJ on this topic. I was unsure what I had gotten myself into when I walked in to where the conference was to be held and the podium was standing there. I spoke probably for about 5 minutes. I have found myself becoming very involved creating an awareness about breast cancer and I would not have it any other way. I enjoy my friendships that have come out of my journey. Life has taught me an awful lot and in a strange sort of way I have been blessed by my breast cancer diagnosis. I have made many new friends along the way.
Again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Good luck and GOD bless anyone who is reading about the journey which I traveled.”