Tonight, after I stumbled into the building with the shock of memory, I had the good fortune to meet a new breast cancer survivor. She was diagnosed just three weeks ago with Stage IIIA breast cancer, and she starts chemo next week. She’s worried about it, but grateful that she has lived so much of life already (she’s 44, decades older than the youngest in our young survivors’ group). She has made plans for her chemo fight, and knows that surgery is next, once the tumor shrinks sufficiently; she seemed confident, but something about her made me pay close attention to her story. As it turns out, we seem to have a lot in common.
We both had locally advanced breast cancer. The term usually means Stage III, whether a large tumor (10 cm is not unheard of) which is called Stage IIIA, or inflammatory breast cancer, which is called Stage IIIB or, in a new taxonomy, IIIC. (The grades range from Stage 0, precancer, to Stage IV, metastasis.) We both had visible evidence of our cancers, perched on our chests. We saw one breast enlarge with tumor, and we wanted it gone. We both feared the cancer, but were taking it on with a fighter’s attitude, with confidence when possible. We both have little boys.
Here are the things I wanted to tell her, to make it easier. I tried … but some of it, she won’t need just yet. I hope that if she needs it later, she or someone else will find this. I’m titling this post locally advanced breast cancer, just in case.
- Yes, chemo is hard. Terribly hard. But it is the thing that will fight this cancer and make it operable;
- You may not feel sick the day after chemo, but watch out for Days 3, 4, and 5. It may hit you later than you expect;
- If you don’t see immediate results, don’t despair. It’s common to not see anything change after the first treatment and even after the second treatment. But by the third treatment, you may see visible changes in your breast; the swelling may go down and it may get physically lighter;
- The tumor will keep growing until the chemo has a chance to act on it. Buy new bras for support if you outgrow yours. It’s not a waste of money; it will save you from back pain. Oh, and it’s okay to just throw them out when the tumor shrinks, as it will, or you have your surgery. When the swelling/tumor goes down, that’s a good thing.
- There is support for families with cancer. In our area, there’s a program at The Wellness Community and there’s another through the national CancerCares organization;
- Yes, it is awful for the kids. But they can handle it and will emerge stronger and perhaps more sensitive than in the alternate world of no cancer; and
- Although they’ll want to take your blood each week before chemo, you can request a finger-stick instead, and that will help save your veins.
Once you get better, you may feel so good, and wonder why you didn’t notice before that you weren’t up to your normal strength. That tumor … the one the doctors just discovered … has been living on your energy for a while now, and sapping your strength. You’ll get it back. Just fight the cancer and take your time. Oh, and do it your way: Work, play, rest, pray. Find out what gives you solace and makes it bearable, and actively call on your resources to make it through this year. It’s gonna be a tough one.
Oh, and one more thing, in case you were wondering as an intact woman in a room full of missing or reconstructed breasts: do what you feel is best for you on that topic. It’s totally up to you. As for me?
I still don’t miss ’em. I run faster and farther without them. And I will, for the rest of my life.