Does the fear of recurrence ever truly end for a breast cancer survivor and how do we negate its power over us?
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
It all started with a scheduled visit to the breast surgeon. I've progressed from the regular three-month visits to the periodic six-month visits now. (All of my doctors are in this same rotation pattern. Thank goodness for my trusty iPhone. Without my iCalendar, I'd never be able to keep up with every appointment. It helps me remember who I'm supposed to see and when I'm supposed to see them).
Since this was a routine visit, I wasn't overly concerned. I figured I'd breeze in and breeze out. I love going to see my breast surgeon. She's a very kind and caring physician. She never makes me feel hurried. When she comes into the exam room, she sits down on her stool and begins talking to me like I'm her best friend. She shares news about her family and asks about mine. We have a good rapport. After a few pleasantries, we get down to business. She starts palpating my chest and comments on my scar. She says, "I did good work on you! Just look at that beautiful pink scar! It's almost perfect and I even worked hard to save your tattoo." I smile a big smile and she does, too. I like her. A lot. She continues talking and feeling my chest. Her fingers are steady and sure. She knows exactly what she's looking for and I can tell by the way she moves her hands. She never stops talking but as she talks, she pauses for a minute over one area. I blurt out a strong "Ouch!" and she asks if that really bothered me.
I explain to her that the area she just touched is very sensitive. She tells me it felt spongy and she wanted to check it out a little further. She tells me to sit up and I tie the ends of the white linen robe so my bare chest isn't exposed to the scribe she calls in to take notes. "I'd like to order an ultrasound for you so we can't see what this is," she says. In the same breath, she tells me not to worry. Right. I've already started. When we're through talking, I ask if she'd mind taking a photo with me. I tell her I'm documenting every step of my journey for my daughters. She doesn't mind and the scribe does the honors. I watch as she walks out the door, on to her next patient, and thank God for my sweet doctor.
On the way home from the appointment, I text my husband telling him the doctor has ordered a test. He responds immediately and voices his concerns. Although I can't hear the inflection in his words, I can read he's worried. I reassure him and try to sound upbeat. As I drive home, I feel numb. I wasn't expecting this.
When my husband arrives home from work, he instantly comes to me and gives me a big bear hug. As he smothers me, he begins to cry. I pull away from him so I can see his face. I ask why he's crying and he tells me he doesn't want to lose me. I wasn't expecting his reaction but I understood it. It felt like we were beginning of the beginning again. We'd already been here and done that with the first round of cancer. Neither of us wanted to be there again.
When the doctor's office called to confirm the appointment, the scheduler said they wanted to get me in quickly. I was surprised when she asked if I'd be OK to have the ultrasound performed the following day. I was glad it was going to be done so soon and that way I wouldn't have to spend days worrying. I didn't sleep well that night. I tossed and turned wondering what I'd do if the test revealed the cancer had returned.
As I drove to the appointment, I tried not to think about the numerous trips I'd made to hospitals, labs, or doctor's offices over the past 2 years. When I pulled up to the outpatient clinic, I was overcome with emotion. I could feel the pressure building. It felt like I had a volcano brewing inside me. All of a sudden, tears came spewing forth and they did not stop. Waves of grief overtook me. I felt so out of control. I didn't know how I'd be able to face another diagnosis of cancer. It had taken over two years to get past the first diagnosis. I just had gotten to a point of feeling like my life was returning to normal again. But here I was, again, at the same location where it all began. I cried a few more minutes and then decided it was time to suck it up. My appointment was at 11:15 a.m. I looked at my watch and saw I only had a few more minutes. I worked hard to regain my composure and when I felt ready, I made myself get out of the car and go inside.
I only had to wait a few minutes before being called back. I was thankful I didn't have to wait long. A volunteer took me to the dressing area and I was told to undress from the waist up. She handed me a gown and told me to put it on with the ties in the back. I looked at her and said, "Are you sure?" I could tell she was new when she said adamantly, "Yes, please put it on with the ties in the back." I knew every doctor or technician previously had asked for the gowns to be tied in the front for easy access to the chest, but I did as I was told. After my gown was on, the volunteer helped me put my belongings in a locker. We sat in the waiting area together and chatted. As I talked with her, I found out she'd just been diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer the week before. As I listened, I could hear the trepidation in her voice. She explained she'd hoped for a lumpectomy but her doctors said it wasn't an option. She'd have to have a mastectomy. My heart went out to her and I asked if she'd had time to process it yet. She said she hadn't and I advised her to really take some time to do that. I shared a little about my experience and her countenance seemed to improve slightly.
The radiation tech came to get me and take me for my test. She laughed as we were walking down the hall and commented on my gown. I shook my head and said, "Yep. I tried to tell her but she wouldn't listen." The tech said I could turn the gown around when we got into the testing room. After getting my gown turned around, I was asked to lie down on the table. The warm conducting jelly felt soothing to my skin as the technician applied it and within minutes, she was gliding the ultrasound wand over my chest. She asked if I knew where the area of concern was located and I pointed to an area just underneath my incision. She made several passes over that area and I watched the monitor to see if I could tell what lie beneath the surface of my skin. I know she wasn't supposed to comment but she said, "It looks like a lot of fluid." I didn't respond knowing the radiologist would review the films later that day.
I was told I'd know the results in three to four days. I'm hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. I can't tell you how much fear and dread came over me when I was told by the breast surgeon she'd found a suspicious area. Instantly, I was transported to that fateful day in June 2014 when my cancer was first discovered. At that point, I felt like my life was over and I'd been handed a death sentence. Now, after having lived a little over two years since that date, I know that feeling wasn't necessarily true. I do wonder how long a fear of recurrence will have power over me. Will it totally disappear after I reach the miraculous five-year mark or will it haunt me the rest of my days? I have a feeling I'll always be looking over my shoulder to see if cancer is lurking somewhere deep in the shadows but hopefully, if it is, it won't catch up to me again anytime in the future. I'm trying my best to be optimistic. When and if I ever have to face a recurrence again, I'll deal with it then. I don't want to waste any more time today thinking about it.