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"If I Could Save Time In A Bottle"...Embracing Our Authentic Selves - DCIS Hindsight
It has been three years since the diagnosis/treatment phase of my brush with breast cancer. If there is a best case scenario in the world of cancer – I apparently fit the bill. The calcifications on my mammogram turned out to be ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which my very capable surgeon expunged by means of a partial mastectomy. While he was “in there” he rearranged what was left of my mammary matter into the reasonable facsimile of a breast, which was far and away preferable to the alternative. After a round of 33 radiation treatments, all the follow-up tests seem to say…so far so good.
With all of these months of good health news under my belt (blouse?), I can now look back at my post-diagnosis thoughts and fears with new 20-20 hindsight. Surely every patient who hears the dreaded “C” word proceeds to cope with the impending life changes by employing a combination of factors – their life experience up to that point, tales from acquaintances in-the-know, medical facts and figures, personal faith, and the hyper-awareness that comes with getting to know their own personal cancer.
After much research, I know now that the finding of my very early cancer afforded me a much better prognosis than someone with, say, stage III breast cancer. But when the doctor first uttered “DCIS,” I didn’t catch any word except CARCINOMA. It was definitely the loudest word in the acronym. Sort of like when the teacher says, “Can you say CAR-CI-NO-MA?” So I had to strain to hear all the optimistic reassurances that I was hearing from the medical community, the abundant literature and other resources. One clear voice I heard came from a relative who had only recently had the same diagnosis and treatment regimen that I would need. She was a “real person” voice of experience, and this was a great comfort - especially since she was doing well and living a normal life. I remember comparing notes with her about the gurgling breast syndrome – while healing from my surgery, every time I bent over I could hear a bubbling sound from down in the inner recesses of my re-worked left breast. “Completely normal”, she said, “isn’t that a funny noise?” My husband had all the correct and caring reactions, thereby easing a number of fears.
After the swelling from the surgery had gone, I began the process of adjusting to my new junior-sized breast. It no longer filled the left side of my brassiere, an undergarment with only slightly more cuppage than the Littlest Angel training bra anyway, so “junior-sized” is a relative term in my case. When fully clothed, it was surely noticeable to anyone glancing chest-ward that something was slightly off kilter, but the picture was far from my worst nightmare, and so I crossed off “Be embarrassed about uneven chest landscape” from my list of things to worry about. However, had I wanted to use an aide to bring about a different appearance, I would have had no qualms - not even a qualm-ette - about doing so.
The radiation treatments loomed in the great unknown, imminent future. Until my diagnosis, I knew exactly zero about radiation therapy, which made the prospect sound much scarier than the reality. I mean, didn’t we watch all those bomb-shelter films in the fifties/sixties to learn how to AVOID radiation? It turned out I was pretty lucky; the worst aspect of my radiation experience was the daily forty minute commute I had to drive to attend my closest treatment facility. Not exactly a biggie. My technicians and physicians have told me that my skin has done remarkably well, observations that I’ve vainly chosen to accept as compliments, as if they were telling me that I have nice eyes. I haven’t experienced any negatives or side effects that have resulted from my daily session beneath that giant, rotating, cancer-killing contraption. I had so little physical evidence of treatment that I could have asked about the machine, “Excuse me, but is that thing plugged in?”
Throughout this time, I was continuing to gather information from all available sources. To me, the scariest fact about cancer is the lack of constancy. There is so much we just don’t know, and so much that changes after each new study. And even when we can grab hold of a truth, the variables for each patient’s own personal situation can cloud any clear treatment/prevention path. I am thrilled, however, that much more is known today than ever before, and that my little specks of the bad stuff occurred in the present day - not at a time when complete mastectomy was standard operating procedure. I’ve been able to call a cancer hot line, consult general and cancer-specific medical books, visit informative web sites, and I always have questions for each of the experts – the family doctor, the surgeon, the oncologist, the gynecologist, the radiologist, and the partridge in the pear tree. And I am SO over whatever bashfulness I used to harbor about disrobing for yet another specialist.
I remember going through a few months when I was suspicious of any new mark or spot on my skin, any sudden cough, anything remotely different than it had been the previous day. It seemed a natural leap to relate most of these things to the cancer. When I read the symptoms of other types of cancers, I would initially make a self-diagnosis that I surely had developed that type also. But after each normal mammogram and good checkup, it has gotten easier to get on with the gettin’ on. And since I’ve also had to keep living a normal life with challenges, discoveries, decisions, surprises, serendipities and disappointments – none of which relate to the breast cancer – I have had other items on my agenda. During one rough spell, it was not easy to decide whether a new problem would take my mind off the cancer, or vice versa. Pity parties proved to be very ineffective.
Of course, we are supposed to emerge from a trial a little better because of it. My own trial has been easier than most. Maybe a mini-trial, or an eye-opener, or a reality check. My experience was low on the pain scale, as well as the worry scale. I know of cancer patients with heartbreaking stories; and these tend to lower my “woe is me” cry to a mere peep. If I catch myself whining about yet another check-up, it’s easy to turn that frown upside down at the thought of those patients who would trade much for the opportunity to have a prognosis as positive as mine.
So, even though I wasn’t confronted with the fear and dread of a much more serious version of the disease, I hope that my induction into the club was the catalyst for me to grow more in appreciation for previously taken-for-granted blessings. I truly see things differently than I did before. Now I know that sometimes, radiation can be our friend – no bomb shelter needed.