Laying in bed, I kept thinking, “It can’t be. It just can’t be.”
After all, I had been down the cancer path before. I had heard the words, “You have cancer,” in 2002 after my oldest child was born.
I hadn’t been losing the baby weight so went to the doctor for a physical. They found a cancerous mass on my thyroid. I had my thyroid removed and that was that. No more cancer.
So the thought that what I was feeling in my breast was actually cancer was pretty far from my mind. I mean, I was 34. Who on Earth gets breast cancer at 34? That’s something for later generations, I thought.
I was wrong.
After many nights mulling it over (and the look on my husband’s face each time I told him about the lump), I went to the doctor. I told her I felt stupid to be there, that it was nothing, that I was sorry I was wasting her time. She set me up with a mammogram two hours later. Little did I know, those two hours would be the most peaceful hours I would have for the next few years.
After the mammogram, I was asked to stay for an ultrasound. I still didn’t think much of it until the radiologist came in. When he took the ultrasound wand and went to the side of my breast, the technician directed him to where I had felt the lump. It was then he said the problem wasn’t the mass I’d felt but the one lurking behind it, the one I couldn’t feel. He recommended a biopsy.
Still, I thought, “It’s nothing. They are just being cautious.”
Two days later, I received a phone call from my primary physician’s office.
I had cancer.
Invasive Ductile Carcinoma, Grade III.
From that point on, the next two years of my life were a complete blur. I had a double mastectomy on Dec. 23, 2010. I chose to have both breasts removed because the surgeon said the chance of this cancer coming back in the other breast was 80 percent – I wasn’t going to do this again.
Nothing could have prepared me for this surgery. When I woke up, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t blink. Everything hurt. I remember coming in and out of consciousness as they were trying to get my pain under control. I had a chest full of bandages and tubes coming out of everywhere. I couldn’t make sense of it all. Once my pain was under control, I was taken to a room where I met my mom and husband. They, too, had this look of horror when they saw me. Whether it was that color you turn after you have anesthesia, or me crying uncontrollably because of the pain, they just didn’t know what to do. They kept asking me what I wanted and at that point, I only wanted one thing: to see my kids. We had been very honest about what was going to happen and what they would see, but I don’t think anything could have prepared them for it.
Brooke and Lindsey, 6 and 9 at the time, came into the room. Their eyes were big and I could see the tears swelling from the other side of the room. I motioned for them to come to my bed without lifting my arm. I couldn’t talk loudly because of the breathing tube that had been inserted earlier. I couldn’t move because of the pain. Yet I wanted what no pain medicine could provide: snuggle time. The girls crawled into bed with me, asked what all the tubes were coming out of me and listened to the beeping sounds of a hospital room wondering what each was. We watched “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” – it seemed very appropriate for that day. After a bit, Brooke left the bed and sat in the corner with her blanket, sucking her thumb.
The next day, my husband joined me at the hospital as the doctor was going to remove the bandages. Nothing in the world could have prepared me. My once 38D chest was concave. I had two incisions – each 10 inches long – on both sides. I had three drainage tubes to help get rid of the fluid that was gathering from the trauma of surgery.
My boobs for many years had been the source of jokes. I swear to you they would walk in a room 10 minutes before I did. Now, there was nothing. Just scars, just tubes. Nothing. I couldn’t cry because it hurt, but my husband knew I was a basketcase on the inside. He just kept saying, “It’ll be OK.”
When we came home from the hospital, I specifically remember my kids having to help me with sponge baths, as I couldn’t lift my arms past my shoulders. I couldn’t wash my hair on my own. I could barely use the restroom on my own. I remember taking a sponge bath in our children’s bathroom and my husband helping me out of the tub. It was the first time I saw myself completely naked in a mirror. I was shocked. I had to sit back down. For the first time, I cried emotional tears. I kept telling my husband to leave because I didn’t want him to see me like this.
And for the first time in the process, I was angry. Very, very angry.
I learned the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, so chemo was a must. The cancer had broken out of the breast tumor, found its way to my lymph nodes and now it was running around in my bloodstream looking for a place to land and start over. The goal of chemo was to kill all those runaway cells.
Four weeks after my first chemo treatment, my hair was falling out by the handful. It wasn’t stopping, and I knew it was time to shave my head. I had to eliminate stress someplace and not watching it come out in a brush was one of them. Valetta, my hairdresser, made it fun. She came to my house, we had a few cocktails to loosen up and away she went. Although something happened that surprised me – my husband went first. If I was going to be bald, he was going to be bald. Our daughters even held the clippers.
Then it was my turn. My long locks were gone. I was left with nothing.
I spent the next 4 1/2 months sitting on a couch with a bucket close by. I’d walk into social situations and people would immediately look at my chest to see the reconstruction process or they would look at my head to see what my hair situation was. I never wore a wig. They were too hot, too itchy and just uncomfortable. Every week, I’d have some sort of chemo and a tissue expander fill with my plastic surgeon.
Before I knew it, I had small breasts and my hair was returning, though very slowly. I had my very painful tissue expanders exchanged for some saline gems (and am now a 38 C!) and I ultimately get to decide if I want to have nipple reconstruction. At this point, I’m comfortable with my scars and being a blank canvas.
It could also be that I dread another surgery and pain. I’m guessing the latter is true.
All told, I had 4 1/2 months of hard chemo, 52 weeks of maintenance chemo, four major surgeries, and four more years of an estrogen blocker.
Now, I am happy to say I am cancer free.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the “c” word, though. Not a day goes by that I don’t look at my children and my husband and wonder what is lurking in my body that I don’t know about.
I am a very self conscious person, so to have this all done to me in a very short amount of time really destroyed my self-image. I just wasn’t the same Brea anymore. Before, I was always worried about what people thought of my outfit, or how my hair was.
Now, though, I’m happy to be able to walk into a room.
I am taking time to smell the roses. I am taking time to put the computer down and play ball with my kids in the front yard. I am taking time to snuggle and love. Laundry can wait.
October is breast cancer awareness month. Please do your breast self exams and tell others to do the same. I was 34. It can and will happen to young people.
If you feel a lump, don’t be embarrassed. Have it checked out. Ninety percent of them are nothing. I was lucky enough to be in that 10 percent, but I’m also lucky enough to be alive.
I am a survivor.
Brea Nelson is a married Omaha mother of two. She is a two-time cancer survivor. Read her monthly on fruitamoms.com.