Confessions of a two-time survivor


I have a confession to make. While I've talked a great deal about my experience with breast cancer back in 1997, only close friends and family have been privy to the fact that I experienced a second diagnosis this year. I've often wondered why I was so comfortable talking about the first experience, but not the second. The first time was so different. So scary. This time, I had DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ), which was discovered during cosmetic surgery. I had decided that after 13 years of survivorship, I was tired of feeling lopsided. Surgery and radiation from my previous treatment left me a bit uneven, and I decided that I was going to do something for myself. I was going to "fix" something that only I really noticed or had a problem with. I was going to "even myself out."The surgery went great. The very next day I could tell that I was going to be happy with the ultimate result. Well, actually, the very next day I was horrified by all of the incisions and tubes and condemned myself for voluntarily opting-in to cause such damage to a perfectly healthy body part. In fact, for a couple of weeks I referred to myself as "Frankenboob" and marveled at the notion that people called this "cosmetic" surgery.In the midst of all of this self-criticizing, I got a call from my surgeon. It was Friday afternoon and I had just picked my son up from school. "Susan, I'm afraid I have some bad news," my doc said. He went on to say that during the routine course of examining the tissue, the pathologist had discovered DCIS in my left--previously unaffected--breast. I began asking very specific questions about next steps and assured the surgeon, who was very impressed by how well I was taking this news, that I knew a great deal about DCIS and that this in no way compared to my first bout. "This is really baby cancer," I said. "This was nothing to freak out about." I hung up and glanced over at my 15-year-old son. He was crying.How could this happen to us again? The first time was a fluke, right? She's been healthy for 13 years! Why now? All of these thoughts were whirling through his mind. I could see panic in his eyes and rushed to reassure him that this time in no way resembled the last. I told him that DCIS is the earliest stage of breast cancer and that many women have had it and it almost never progresses...meaning it just sits there, causing no harm.In the months that followed, many tests were ordered, including an MRI, a biopsy, then a last-second canceled biopsy and a mammogram. I hade to wait for a couple of months for my breast to heal before further tests could be done. During that time, everyone privately worried. When tests were finally ordered, a suspicious shadow presented itself, causing more worry and more tests. When the suspicious shadow disappeared and the biopsy was canceled, everyone rejoiced. The rollercoaster of emotion that my entire family endured from June through October was palpable. The ups and downs, twists and turns in the diagnostic process this time were far more difficult than my first experience. The first experience was cut and dry. My health care team said, "You have an aggressive cancer. We need to remove it and will follow the surgery with chemo and radiation." This time I was told that I had three options, none holding greater promise or survival benefit than the next. I was told that I wasn't going to die from this and therefore, the options were broad, and I was the only one who could determine the best treatment option for me. I could remove my breasts, I could radiate the affected breast (not ideal because I remove that option should cancer present itself again) or I could watch and wait.Guess which I chose? I am now being followed very closely by my health care team with frequent screenings. What lesson can be learned from all of this? There's no such thing as "baby" cancer. A second diagnosis, no matter how early the stage, is just as emotionally draining as the first one. Maybe that's why it's so hard to talk about.

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