Breast Cancer Stories
I would like to share some of my patients’ stories for education and inspiration. I am going to start with some of the ones I have known the longest — they have given me permission to share this information although I have changed some names and inconsequential details for their privacy. You will see that these women all took different paths, starting at different points and coming across different obstacles but have had obvious successes. As with most women when they heard they had the diagnosis of breast cancer, I doubt they thought they would be part of my 10 year plus club.
The 10 year Plus Club
Kaitlin was an anxious 29 year old who came in some 12 years ago with a dark bloody nipple discharge and a lump in her right breast. She was a professional single mother of a 10 year old boy (a fact that bonded us right away). She had insulin dependent diabetes and a weight problem and no obvious family history of breast cancer. After having a suspicious mammogram that day (I don’t think we were doing routine ultrasounds at that time) and a positive fine needle aspirate, Kaitlin went on to have a lumpectomy and an axillary dissection. While her tumor was fairly large — 3cms, her nodes were negative and she went on to have 6 cycles of CMF chemotherapy after her radiation. Because of her young age she was seen at the High Risk Clinic and eventually was tested for the BRCA1 gene. She actually tested positive and discovered that several women on her father’s side of the family had also been affected. Kaitlin continues to be followed at the High Risk Clinic, has declined further surgery but is considering an oophorectomy. She also continues to come see me every 6 months — she has had lumps and calcifications in both breasts that we have biopsied or followed and everything has been benign. We joke about her breast asymmetry — her radiated breast has shrunk and she sometimes uses socks to stuff her bra. She also continues to get her periods. I went to her “5 year” party and have seen her mother for benign concerns also. We have shared the trials and tribulations of raising a boy as a single mother — she being a few years ahead. Her weight and diabetes at this time continue to be her major health problems but the breast cancer is still a dark but small cloud over her head.
I saw Elizabeth about thirteen years ago for an abnormal mammogram — she had gone for a routine health check after coming home from her honeymoon. At 46 this was her second marriage and I could tell she and her new husband had a wonderful relationship. Jane went on to have a lumpectomy and axillary dissection for an early stage cancer — she had a small invasive cancer with lots of insitu which made it difficult to get clean margins and we had to do a re-excision. She had a difficult time deciding to have radiation — spent a long time debating it and even wrote a short story which was published about it. She did not have any other treatment at that time. Jane was a licensed psychologist and knew early on that she wanted to combine career with her health experience. Jane and I continued to meet every 6 months by regular check ups and actually gave a few talks together on patient-doctor relationships. She went on to start groups at local hospitals and today runs a Healing Garden Center — check out www.healinggarden.net. We have become good friends now and try to meet regularly for lunch to discuss raising boys (she has two grown boys) and hormones and menopause–related issues, and to shop.
Kathy came in
about 13 years ago for an abnormal mammogram. At 66, she was the mother
of 4 grown children, grandmother of 4, daughter of a
90+year old mother and wife of a devoted husband. She was terrified
from the moment I met her, and although her cancer was an early stage
she would come in almost shaking for each 6 month check up. She, however,
has survived a son’s divorce, a grandchild’s severe illness,
her mother dying at 100, 5 years of Tamoxifen and two years ago her
husband of 50 years’ sudden death.
Lillian came to see me 13 years ago, with her husband who was a doctor, about a lump she could feel. She was a thin 40 year old mother of 2 teenagers and was from England, so spoke with a lovely accent. She and her husband were obviously well informed and knew that they wanted. Lillian elected to only have the lump removed — which was a l.5cm cancer. We got clean margins and she knew that she did not want radiation or tamoxifen or chemotherapy. Her husband and she were more interested in what caused this cancer and introduced me to a book about electric currents. Lillian obviously made other lifestyle changes including some dietary ones and continues to do well — she sends me a Christmas card every year.
Mary was 43 when I first met her and her husband 12 years ago when she also had an abnormal mammogram. She went on to have a lumpectomy and axillary dissection and radiation treatments. I remember she went skiing a week after her surgery. She started tamoxifen because of her tumor for greater than 2 cms. But her nodes were negative and she stopped taking it after a couple of years. Being a physical therapist and involved in hands-on healing, it did not feel right to her. She did well until about six years ago when another spot was found on her mammogram, not near her old site at all. After reviewing all the information, this did not sound like a bad prognostic sign to her or me and she had no evidence of distant disease. She elected to have another lumpectomy and to take Tamoxifen again and also saw a Chinese healer and made some drastic dietary changes. She continues to do well, having made some changes in her work schedule, limiting her clients, enjoying life traveling with her husband more now that her two children are in college. She decided to stop the Tamoxifen after three years.
I met Polly and her mother 13 years ago after Polly, at 27, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Polly had felt a small lump and had wanted it removed. Her doctors had gotten an ultrasound and everyone had assumed it was a fibroadenoma. She and her family were shocked. There was only one other woman, an aunt of the same name who had had breast cancer and she had a large extended family.
Polly had a re-excision and axillary dissection — she had clean margins and negative nodes. She got several opinions and, given her age, it was felt she could be watched instead of undergoing radiation. I saw Polly every 6 months for 5 years — then she decided to quit her job in Cambridge and travel for a year with a young man. When Polly got back we could both feel a lump near her old scar. Polly decided at this time to have a mastectomy with reconstruction — her breast size wouldn’t tolerate another lumpectomy and she didn’t want to risk it coming back. Nothing had spread and it looked like the same cancer. Polly’s oncologist did not recommend chemotherapy and Polly did not want to take Tamoxifen. She decided to return home to the state where she had grown up and made some changes — she continues to be very active — windsurfs, although works on not getting lymphedema and has recently met the man of her dreams and married.
I met Lucy about 12 years ago. She came in with a left breast thickening which she thought had been there for some time but getting worse. She related it to the stress of her husband’s health deteriorating and problems with her daughter. Lucy was a young active 68 year old who probably smoked and drank too much. She eventually underwent a lumpectomy and axillary dissection. Her nodes were negative and she declined radiation and took up macrobiotic eating for awhile. Over the next couple years her older sister was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and came to live with her for several years before passing on in sleep one day. Lucy’s cancer returned about 3 years ago near her old scar — she could feel it although her mammogram didn’t show it. She underwent another lumpectomy and has been on Arimidex since her surgery. At 80 she has slowed down a bit but remains quite independent.
Flora, her husband and her 2 small daughters came in about 10 years ago after having found a lump in her breast. She elected to have a mastectomy and axillary dissection and had an early breast cancer. At 30 she was understandably quite anxious and wanted to how to prevent it from coming back. She did not have chemotherapy because her tumor was small. We had a scare when an AMAS test she took showed a high level but we couldn’t find any site of reoccurrence. I hadn’t heard from Flora in several years until I got the following letter —
Marlene and her husband came to see me about 13 years ago after she was told my another surgeon that she had to have a mastectomy. She was 45 and had a lump and a suspicious mammogram. Her lump was near the nipple and good sized for her smallish breasts. But I said I’d give it a try — She indeed had a successful lumpectomy, however her axillary dissection showed 6 out of 11 nodes to be positive. She had chemotherapy and radiation and was on Tamoxifen for 5 years. She and her husband come to see me once a year now and they are doing great — she had some problems with menopause and vaginal bleeding but everything turned out OK. She is still working, taking care of her new grandchildren and loves her breast!
I remember Beth as being my most scared patient. She was 41, mother of 4 — the oldest being 22, had no family history and thought she had done everything right. She had felt a lump herself and had a suspicious mammogram. On her first visit, I can see her sitting curled up in a fetal position and her mother doing most of the talking. She eventually went on to have a lumpectomy and node dissection. Her nodes were negative but her tumor was over an inch and ER negative. She had radiation and chemotherapy. Slowly she started getting over the initial trauma. She changed jobs, deciding that the chemical company she worked for may have contributed to her cancer — opened a beauty salon and got remarried. She still comes every six months because she admits she doesn’t like doing her own breast exams.
Holly was a very composed, well put together 54 year old woman when I first met her 10 years ago because of a breast lump. She agreed to just having her lump removed, however did not see the benefit of having her nodes removed since she was certain that she did not want chemotherapy. She did have radiation and was on Tamoxifen for almost 5 years. She now says she is in better health than ever and has a 3 year old grandaughter who she is completely in love with. She also just published a book of photographs and poems which can be found at www.dancingdragonflypress.com.
©copyright Dixie Mills, MD, 2006-2010