In June of 2005, was 36 years old, I was mother of four beautiful kids and married to the most wonderful man on the planet. I was also the primary carer for my 85-year-old grandmother. Cancer was the last thing on my mind - I was too busy worrying about my kids who were 13, 11, 8 and 21 months. Essential Baby member Nicole shares her story.
Some time in February of 2005, I found a hardening in my right boob, at about the 11 o'clock position. I sat on it for a while for 2 reasons. Firstly, I thought I would give myself time as sometimes you get a bit lumpy before your period. Secondly, I had had mastitis in the same boob when my youngest was a newborn and thought it may have been a scar of sorts. I had finished feeding her about 9 months prior. Funnily enough, she started to fuss on that same side from about 7 or 8 months, but would quite happily feed from the left boob.
So I mentioned it to Darren (my husband) and he suggested I get it checked out. Always busy and more concerned with the kid's health than my own, I put it off, even though I had been to the doctors with the kids in the meantime. One day whilst at the doctors with one of the kids, Darren said to him, "Nicole has a lump in her breast". Well his ears pricked up and he said "show me" which I did. He referred me for an immediate mamo and ultrasound.
So off I went on the 28th June, it was Darren's birthday the next day so I remember it vividly. I went and had it and the tech said it looked like a fibroadenoma. I went back an hour later to pick up the films, and being the sticky beak I am, opened it. It said something along the lines of "very suggestive of ductal carcinoma and a fine needle aspiration was recommended". Of course we came straight home and went to 'Dr Google'. In the middle of looking up ductal carcinoma, the phone rang and it was my GP's receptionist asking me to come in. I knew right away it was bad news. Off we went, I didn't even get to put my bum in the chair and he said to me "well it's not good news" My heart sank. I heard him say "cancer" and that was the end of it, I have no idea what he said after that other than saying "I have made an appointment for you for the FNA on Friday". It was Wednesday.
We had just bought a new car and were on our way to pick it up. I remember Darren and I crying all the way there - thank God we didn't have the kids with us.
I would lose my hair 2-and-a-half weeks after the first chemo, he was spot on…I was more concerned with losing my hair than my boob!
So I went for the FNA and was told it would take five days for the results. The procedure itself wasn't painful, just very very scary. My best friend came with me to support and look after my not yet 2-year-old. We left with the tech saying "sometimes what we think we see, isn't always what is there". I felt hopeful that maybe it wasn't cancer after all.
Monday I got the results back, unbeknownst to me, my GP had put a "hasta pronto" on them. He called me up personally and asked me to come in, again, I knew it was bad, I just had a feeling. He had the pathology report on his desk and all I could see were these huge black bold letters saying MALIGNANT. He had made an appointment for me to see a breast surgeon the following day.
I went to see the surgeon and he was lovely. He told me, it was early stage and that I wouldn't die from this cancer, most women with this type/stage went on to die from old age. I felt better. He said there was no great rush to get into surgery, but the sooner the better. So a lumpectomy was scheduled for 2 weeks and 1 day.
The day of surgery, I had to go and have a sentinal node locator test. They basically inject die into the lump and you have to rub and massage it for 15 minutes, this indicates where the flow from the milk duct drains to, so they can locate the nodes and remove them at the time of the operation. I went in for surgery later that day.
Two weeks later I went back for the results, of 2 nodes removed, one was diseased, and there was also a lot of DCIS - ductal carcinoma in situ, which is basically pre-cancerous cells. They were all the way up the surgical line. His suggestion was to go back in, and remove some more tissue until they got a clear margin. I wasn't happy with this and told him to remove the whole boob. Which is what I originally waned him to do but he was reluctant given my age etc. But this time, I was adamant I wanted it gone.
Surgery was scheduled for another two weeks later. August 1st. I went in the morning and was told I would spend 5-7 days in hospital. No way, my birthday was the 6th and I wanted out before then! I was released on the 5th with 3 drains still attached, right or wrong, I wanted out. I had not seen my baby the whole time I was in there and my heart was breaking. She was with my mother-in-law, who had thought it best she didn't bring her in because it would upset her and me. In hindsight, I should have demanded she bring her in, but I was too wrapped up in what was going on with me.
Two weeks later back to the surgeon who tells me it all went well, they took a further 16 nodes from my armpit, of which 1 was diseased, a bottom node close to the tumor and everything else above it was clear, great news. My cancer was a Grade 2 B. He suggested I see an oncologist for follow up, and possibly have chemo and or radiation treatment.
I started my chemo on my baby's 2nd birthday. I had a treatment called FEC, as my cancer was hormone receptor positive, which means it feeds on oestrogen, I would also be put into menopause. This was done via monthly injections.
Chemo was hard, really hard. He told me I would lose my hair 2-and-a-half weeks after the first chemo, he was spot on. I was devastated, my hair was my crowning glory, waist length, beautiful, thick shiny healthy hair. I had a wig in preparation (Wendy). I was more concerned with losing my hair than my boob! The first round of chemo was ok, I was back to normal five days later. The second one took a bit longer to recover and so it went on, each one took me longer to bounce back. It got to the stage where I would wake up on the morning of the scheduled chemo and be throwing up before I got there. I had it every three weeks. The drugs they gave me did diddly squat, apart from give me massive headaches, it was the steroids. I ended up ditching the anti-nausea drugs, they weren't doing a thing. I was given a drug the size of a tic tac to help with the nausea at $52.00 per pill, again, not a thing from it. So for the last two I had to take a different pill the night before and morning of the chemo to help me relax, a lot of it was anxiety. It helped, it made me groggy so I could sleep the night before and put me in a euphoric like state the following day so I could make it through without vomiting.
During the treatment, my white cell count dropped really low, as is common and I had to have injections in my tummy to boost it. A blood test had to be done two days before every cycle to see how the levels were. That was a horrid injection, it made me ache all over, all my bones and joints - it was awful.
During the five months of treatment, my toilet bowl became my best friend. I hugged it like there was no tomorrow. The only thing I can compare it to is the absolute worst morning sickness you can ever experience. The oncologist told me if I suffered from morning sickness (which I did) chances are the chemo would make me sick. He suggested I smoke pot for the nausea - which I did try and it did help!
Anyway, I got through the chemo and had a months break, my last chemo was the 19th December, I had them bring it forward five days because I was due on the 23rd December, and there was no way in hell I wanted to be sick for Christmas Day.
At the end of January, I started 28 radiation treatments. This helps to kill off any possible remaining active cells that the chemo may have missed and also hardens the tissue making it harder for the cancer to spread. I had horrific burns from it - but in comparison to the chemo, it was a walk in the park. Two weeks into it I was so lethargic and tired, I could barely move, it lasted a few days and I was so scared thinking something was wrong with me, the nurses assured me it was perfectly normal. Two weeks after it finished, again I was hit by the hugest dose of tiredness. I could barely make it up stairs with a basket of washing without having to sit down and have a rest on my bed, it was a nightmare. After a few more weeks I started to feel normal again.
I was on three monthly visits with the oncologist for 12 months and am now on 6 monthly, and will remain on 6 monthly till the 5 year mark. Usually it is 12 monthly, but because I am taking a trial drug, he sees me more often. The drug I am taking stops all glands in the body from producing oestrogen, unlike the tamoxifen as previously used which only stops the ovaries producing it, this stop it all together. Which is great but is has some side affects. One of which is it is known to cause osteoporosis, so I have to take calcium supplements daily to try and stop it. Also when you go through menopause, your whole body changes. Muscles, joints, everything. I have arthritis in my back, shoulder and knee, which some days is a killer.
I had my ovaries out in January this year, so I no longer need to have monthly injections to keep me in menopause, which is great, I am so sick of the cancer therapy unit it's not funny, even though the staff are fabulous. I kind of miss them - we all became friends, even socially.
So three years on I am still her going strong and am willing to take on any challenge. It has changed me as a person and changed us as a family. I could not have got through it without my husband, he was and is my rock. There were times when I was having the chemo, no hair, all swollen from the steroids, 1 boob and looking and feeling like shit, he would come up behind me, put his arms around me and tell me how beautiful I was, how much he loved me and what an inspiration I was to him and everyone we knew. He was so sweet. He even shaved his head in sympathy with me, my daughter wanted to do the same but I wouldn't let her!
So that's a condensed version of my story - but there all the same. I kicked cancer's ugly butt and I plan to be here for a good while yet. I turned 40 last month and am feeling fantastic. My whole life is ahead of me and I plan to make the most of it.
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