A Nanuet Breast Cancer Survivor
Editor’s note: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Patch is sharing inspirational stories of breast cancer survivors to help raise awareness for early detection.
Maryann Small has lived in Nanuet, NY since 1989. Because her mother is an ovarian cancer survivor and tested positive for the BRAC2 gene, Maryann got tested and was negative for the gene but still, at the age of 52, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
On a warm and sunny day in September, I got that phone call from my doctor, the one you fear getting, but you think you never will, but obviously some people do. And even though I tried to tell myself that it was going to be fine, that it was just a precaution, I knew. In my heart of hearts, I knew. How is that possible? Not sure, but I just knew.
I had gone for my annual OB/GYN visit at the end of the summer. He noticed that I hadn’t had a mammography in a while, so he wrote me a prescription for a mammography and ultrasound. I went on a Wednesday morning. That Friday, we were supposed to go out with friends for dinner, and I was waiting for my husband to come home from work so we could go meet
tedshair them. And the phone rang.
It was Dr. Fein. He was calling to tell me that the radiologist had seen something on the mammography and they wanted to do more tests. I needed to call and make another appointment, as soon as possible. Dr. Fein has been my doctor for almost 30 years. He delivered my two daughters and my oldest has recently become his patient, too. We obviously have a history and I trust him.
He assured me that it was just a precaution at this point, that he really didn’t know this radiologist. Maybe this radiologist was a panic monger. The ultrasound would tell us more, so I shouldn’t make myself crazy. So, I hung up the phone and burst into tears.
I swear, this behavior was very out of character for me. I am not like that. I have been through too much, seen too much. I don’t scare easily. However, there was something in Dr. Fein’s voice that day that terrified me, even though he was trying to allay my fears. I just knew that this was a day I would never forget, no matter how hard I tried.
Mammographies and ultrasounds and biopsies later, my husband and I sat down with the breast surgeon that Dr. Fein had recommended (he said that it was who he would have operate on his wife or daughter, a good enough recommendation for me). I was diagnosed with Invasive Lobular Carcinoma in the right breast. The doctor recommended a lumpectomy and a sentinel node biopsy to check my lymph nodes.
Before my first surgery, I had to have an MRI to confirm that there was nothing in the left breast, which it did. The day of surgery, I had to have needle markers put in my breast to help Dr. Karsif find her way to the tissue that needed to be removed. That was exactly as painful and humiliating as it sounds. A radiologist literally drove a couple of very long needles into my breast using a mammography to guide them. Then she placed a cup over them so they couldn’t hurt anyone. She complimented me on not fainting.
The first surgery results were a mixture of great and disheartening. The sentinel node biopsy was clean, which meant my lymph nodes were clean. That was amazing news. However, the lumpectomy didn’t get everything. I had to have a second surgery. It was scheduled for a few weeks later. Same results. I had to schedule a third. Then I got the results of my Oncotype test, which determines if chemotherapy will be beneficial. I was borderline. I decided I wanted to do it, go for the gusto, leave no stone unturned.
I was faced with a choice of a mastectomy or the third lumpectomy. If the third lumpectomy didn’t achieve clear margins, then I would have no choice. I was facing the three strike rule, as my surgeon said, and a mastectomy would be surgery number four. However, since I couldn’t have reconstruction until after chemotherapy, I decided to roll the dice and go for the third lumpectomy. Impossible choices!
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My surgeon, Dr. Karsif, tried to make her patients as comfortable as possible. When we went
tedhair into surgery, she wouldn’t let us wear the silly blue bonnets that other patients did. She offered special hats with flowers or cats (my daughter insisted on the cat hat for my first, saying it was appropriate for "the crazy cat lady"). We finally achieved clear margins.
I moved from Dr. Karsif to Dr. Lonberg, my oncologist. He said that with my tumor, which was slow growing, and its pathologies, chemo wasn’t necessarily warranted. I was given the choice of one chemo for 24 weeks or a more toxic cocktail for 12 weeks. I chose the shorter duration.
The chemotherapy had the usual side effects, nausea, loss of appetite, stomach problems, none of them unexpected. I was given a shot after each treatment called Neulasta. This was to increase bone marrow production so that my white count didn’t dip into dangerous areas, a common problem for chemo patients. The side effects of Neulasta are bone and joint pain. Starting about 24 hours after I received the shot, the pain would start and would last for another 48 hours. It was horrific.
And then my hair started to fall out. It was expected, but not. I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly, only about eight days after my first treatment. One day there were a few extra strands in my hairbrush and the next thing I knew, I was shedding like a collie in April. I took the bull by the horns and cut my long, curly locks into a pixie, but even that wasn’t enough. A few days later, my husband buzzed it with a razor.
And I never felt more like Jo March. My daughter and I love "Little Women." It’s our favorite book and we loved the remake with Winona Ryder. Like so many other young women, Jo was my literary hero and I always felt an affinity with her. Like Jo, I bravely offered my head to the shears, but when it was gone, my heart was broken. I had spent years growing it halfway down my back, plus I had recently gone blonde. Having long blonde hair made me feel young and sexy. I had incredibly thick and curly hair and it was all gone. Like Jo, I just wanted to cry into my pillow.
Cancer is an insidious disease. You are brought to new lows. I have flashed my boobs to more strangers than I could imagine. I had to deliver the news to my 87 year old mother and my two daughters. I have spent months trying to hide my scars from my husband.
The only thing I have nothing to teach from this experience is to keep up with your doctor visits and get regular mammograms. You don’t know what will blindside you, what will bring you to your knees. Jo and I know, though. And we both wiped our tears away and went on with our lives, perhaps the most important lesson of all.