My right boob is such a diva.
It gets to sleep next to my husband. The left boob gets the bedside lamp. The left boob toughed out needle biopsies of benign fibroids, and all it did was whimper a few times and bruise some. The right boob got one biopsy alerting us to a cancerous tumor the size of a Brazil nut and it turned into Susan Hayward in a 1958 prison flick.
“I Want to Live!” it wailed.
Then, to match the movie, it bruised noir. If it hadn't been so tender, I would have given it a 1950s slap. Instead I admonished it to calm down, already. Maybe we could find a way where we both get to live.
And that's how it is turning out.
Welcome to “The Lucky Woman's Guide to Breast Cancer, Surgery Edition.”
The diva boob tumor was pretty much self-contained, Dr. Virginia Stowell explained to my husband and me. It was moderately differentiated invasive ductile carcinoma, she said, a common cancer, and she intended to cut it all out. How much of the boob went with it would be my choice.
I was surprised to learn that the decision on whether to go with a mastectomy or a lumpectomy was mine. With my tumor, survival over time is the same with either of the two. There is, of course, the chance that cancer will come back in the same breast, or the other one. That chance is 10 percent with a lumpectomy and radiation only.
We went for the lumpectomy for sound scientific reasons: I don't like the idea of cutting off a boob. I like even less the idea of reconstructing it with an implant. And, back in December, I ran into a woman in a waiting room at the Carol Milgard Breast Health Center. She had a few years on me, and she was delighted that her lumpectomy had left her with a perky boob. It sounded good to me.
So much of what we expect from cancer, we learn from friends, or folks we bump into. That, Gentle Readers, is why we need to broaden this conversation – to get more accounts into our ears. We need to know when people run out of resilience, and what, other than time, can trigger that. We need to understand that some of us bounce back to work a day after surgery, and some of us deflate into bed. Most of all, we need to know that it is all okay, or should be. When it isn't, we need to know how we can muster the resources for the people who need them.
Based on chats with younger, fitter friends, I was expecting the bounce-back path.
The surgery was oddly sweet. All prepped up, I waited my turn in pre-op, where jolly conversations drifted through my cubby's curtain.
“I like these people,” I thought. “They'll take good care of me.”
And so they did. They are good at shots. They made sure not to lose my glasses, or my library book. Because they preferred that I not die from a rogue blood clot, they rigged me up with compression stockings and a blissful machine that massaged my legs. Because they did not want me to have cold feet or slip on their nice clean floors, they gave me non-skid socks. The hospital, it turns out, is a great place to score socks.
Wheeled into the O.R., I saw Dr. Stowell reading the Tacoma Weekly.
“Dang,” I thought. “I hope she likes what I wrote.” She did.
She wasn't so wild about what she found after she got the tumor out of diva boob. The cancer had gotten to the lymph nodes and was staging an invasion when she caught it, she told me when I woke up.
“Crud,” I thought. “That means chemical warfare.”
And it does, but not before diva boob monopolized the show for a few weeks.
That boob must have admired Greta Garbo fainting away her life in “Camille.” It left me with the energy level of an expiring French courtesan for a couple of weeks
But did it afford me any glamour? Nooooo. It upped the contusion index to the gasping point - and I am talking the nurse when I went in for a post-op check. My torso looked like a lava lamp, but in camo colors. (Yes, that lamp is a million dollar entrepreneurial idea, and, yes, you may have it.)
That boob's bruises are fading. It gets no more drama. Not one wail.
And it had darn well end up perky.
This week's self-care tip: Eat some ice cream. You never do, because it's an extravagance, but you're worth it. You're a diva.
Every breast has its own story. That's why, through the Magic of Facebook, I asked if the choice between lumpectomy and mastectomy had landed in your lap, and what you decided.
Keep in mind as you read the responses that cancers are different, as are their treatments, which can also include radiation and chemotherapy.
Carole Turner Parkhurst went with the mastectomy. “I had stage one breast cancer one year ago. I opted for the mastectomy and when I told the doctor, he said that's what he would do for his wife. I didn't have chemotherapy or radiation. I take an anti-estrogen pill every day for five years. The side effects are bad joint pain and inability to sleep. I live with the joint pain and have found relief for the sleep. I just had my one-year check-up last week and am fine.”
Donna S. Casey wrote, “I received a lumpectomy at the start. However, as time went on I feared the cancer coming back, and I thought, 'I am getting a double mastectomy.'”
Out of the blue, she had a conversation with a woman whose cancer had come back 15 years after a double mastectomy. Casey talked with her treatment team and decided to stay with the lumpectomy and her medication.
“I took my pills for 10 years and kept my breast,” she wrote.” I am Cancer Free!”
Christine Dampier has had second thoughts about her choice.
“My wonderful surgeon was able to do the lumpectomy and save the breast, but after a year of being in remission, the cancer returned and metastasized itself in my bones. If it ever came down to it, I would have the breast removed to better my chances at life,” she wrote.
“Christine that is what my surgeon said too,” Pat Porter responded. “I went ahead with a mastectomy, and that was just six weeks ago. I think the most painful part is over. I had six rounds of some god-awful chemo. Now I have to have a chemo that will insure any cancer that is floating around will be killed, and I will have that until July. My hair is growing back. My fingernails are hardly black anymore, and I am getting my strength back.”
The women talked about unexpected side effects, from stress to bone pain to just breaking down in tears. They're all part of the big trek through this disease, and we'll get to them later in the Lucky Woman's Guide to Breast Cancer.
If you would like to read more of the comments from readers, or chime in, they are on Tacoma Weekly's and Kathleen Merryman's Facebook pages.