I’m ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ in Life After Cancer

After undergoing treatment for triple-negative breast cancer, I’m living my life with cautious optimism, and will always seek out joy.

My then two-year-old son was still nursing when I found the lump on the side of my right breast.

I had felt pressed to get an annual exam right before the lump surfaced, but I cancelled the appointment because of COVID-19. My new primary care doctor said the annual did not include a breast exam.

Now that I felt the lump, I also noticed I could see it protruding in the mirror. I worriedand simultaneously brushed it off. Over Christmastime with family, I decided I needed to get it checked since Dr. Google did not have any definitive answers for me. I saw my new primary care doctor on Jan. 12, 2021, hoping she would say that it looked like nothing.

She didn't. Instead, she ordered an ultrasound (I didn't know they did those for breasts) and a mammogram (my first one). I went a few days later, totally sure it was nothing.

It wasn't nothing, but the techs and even the radiology doctor gave me no clarity. I left with an appointment for a breast and lymph node biopsy, after which I cried in the fetal position a long time in the driver’s seat of my car before I drove home to my family.

I still thought the biopsy would come back benign. A story for another day, my breast biopsy was done by a surgeon my primary care doctor thought might be a good fit for me. The surgeon was not a good fit for me in a variety of ways, and I elected to transfer care.

However, she did the diagnostic breast biopsy (not the lymph node biopsy), and she needed to give the results. She had to tell me whether I had cancer or not. I asked to hold the appointment over the phone, mainly due to her carelessness towards the raging global pandemic.

I was hopeful as I took the call as a quick break from playing in our first snowy North Carolina day of the winter with my family. It was Jan. 28, 2021 when the surgeon said the dreaded words. “Your breast tumor is malignant.”

I was to turn 35 years old days later. The surgeon wouldn’t tell me much else, as she didn’t understand or approve of my request for transfer of care. She simply said, “It’s invasive ductile carcinoma. The new surgeon will explain it all to you when you meet her.”

I had to wait until Feb. 2 for any more details. A grueling week without food or sleep, I waited. The only information I had was that there was cancer in my breast, and it could have spread.

After transferring care, with a much better surgeon by my side, I learned more information little by little. I learned that I had triple-negative invasive ductal carcinoma, that the stage was 2B, the tumor was 3.6cm and it was grade 3, or most highly differentiated from normal tissue, and that although there was a suspicious lymph node in the diagnostic ultrasound and in the breast MRI, the cancer had in fact not spread, and was indeed localized to my right breast. I learned many weeks later that I do not have any genes that increased my risk of cancer.

A few weeks passed before chemotherapy started, as I was given some of the details of my diagnosis discussed above, and as I went in for the pre-chemotherapy echocardiogram, and as I waited for my tumor to be sent to a lab in Pennsylvania to see if I qualified for a phase 3 clinical trial for immunotherapy. When my tumor’s travelswere delayed by bad weather, my team and I decided I needed to get started fighting this aggressive cancer.

I was given a port on the right side of my upper chest, and I started my 16 rounds of chemotherapy two days following port placement surgery, on Feb. 26, 2021. I received four rounds of dose-dense Adriamycin and Cytoxan and 12 rounds of Taxol throughout the year, and I finished chemotherapy on July 9, 2021: one week before my 10-year wedding anniversary.

Given the choice of lumpectomy with radiation, or mastectomy without, I researched, and decided for a bilateral mastectomy to flat, which was performed Aug. 6, 2021. On Aug. 9, I received the best news possible from my surgeon: I had a pathology complete response to chemotherapy (pCR), and I was now called NED, or no evidence of disease.

Weary, cautiously hopeful and tired, I limped over into survivorship, where I live now. I call it “the cautiously hopeful after,” a place where I can catch my breath, slow down and live. Part of the weight of cancer lifted, and part of it will always be there, reminding me to stay alert, and grounded and to look for joy.

This article was written and submitted by Erin Perkins; it reflects the views of Erin Perkins and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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