Making Cancer Decisions When Fear Gets in the Way


The first few weeks after a cancer diagnosis can be scary and confusing.

I almost didn’t answer the phone when it rang a few nights ago because there was no caller ID, and I don’t usually answer the phone when I don’t know who is calling. But I answered this one and I am glad I did. The voice at the other end of phone was soft and filled with fear.

As a way to give back, many breast cancer survivors talk with women who are newly diagnosed to help them get through those first few weeks and the terrifying feelings that accompany a number of decisions.

My sister told me she had a friend at work who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she recommended her friend call me. I went about my business, knowing that sometimes women call and sometimes not if they are too frightened to talk to someone who has been there for fear we would say something they did not want to hear.

This woman was very soft spoken and, when I asked her, as I always do, what she knew, she gave me the basic information. This way I can see what they know and also how accurate their information is by the language they use.

This woman had had a biopsy and the doctor told her she was stage 1. As we all know, that can change with surgery, but that was where she was when she called me.

Now she had to decide between a lumpectomy and radiation or a mastectomy on the affected side. If she had the lumpectomy, the plastic surgeon said he could lift the other breast and she would get a free breast reduction and both sides would match. But she was afraid of radiation and wanted to be sure all the cancer was gone, so she was leaning toward a mastectomy. The problem was, she would be lopsided since the doctor told her that her insurance company would not pay for her to reduce the other side to match.

Since she said she was a worrier, I asked her if she had considered a bilateral mastectomy — having both breasts removed. She said she would do that, but the insurance company would not pay for the cosmetic removal of the breast on the other side. What?? I thought we were past that.

She is 53, divorced, and a 38DD and wanted to reduce the other breast to match the cancer side. That sort of shocked me. I didn’t know any insurance company refused to pay for the other side anymore. Even she said she may have heard wrong.

She was going to have another talk with the doctor she said, and I expected her to say goodbye. Then she asked me about fear of it coming back.

She said she was terrified that it would come back. I explained that her fear is normal and what she could do was take care of herself with diet, exercise and stress to reduce the chance of recurrence.

We talked about where she could find that information and I told her to call me anytime she wanted reassurance.

About an hour after we said our goodbyes, she called me back. She just had one question about whether I knew any women who had chosen lumpectomy with radiation and chemo who were still alive.

My heart melted for her. I told her I knew hundreds. She thanked me again and said goodbye.

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