Check Yourself

I am about to get real personal today. It may be a little long, so strap in.  I shared a small portion of this on my personal Facebook page yesterday and figured it was time to share it here too.  You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting as consistently as I used to over the last 3 or 4 months.  Part of that reason was due to a lack of things to write about since my life has been pretty boring with social distancing.  The other part of that was due to a personal battle I was facing.  Back at the beginning of the pandemic, I had felt a lump in my breast.  It was not something that was unusual for me.  I found my first lump about 5 years ago.  That first time I felt one, I freaked out.  It scared me to death.  I went to the doctor right away and was sent for my very first mammogram.  It turned out to be just a simple, fluid-filled cyst that I was told was nothing to worry about.  They said it would likely go away on its own.  I had another mammogram 6 months later, and it was gone.  About 6 months later, I felt another lump on the other side.  I again went to the doctor right away and had a mammogram (my 3rd in a year).  This time, they told me that not only did I have the one I felt, but I also had 7 others that I couldn’t feel.  I was again told that they were just simple, fluid-filled cysts and that I was obviously prone to them.  I was just told to take Vitamin E because it had been known to help with breast tissue.   From then on, I was having mammograms pretty regularly.  Each time, they would see some cysts had gone away and new ones had appeared.  It was just becoming a normal part of my life.  

When I felt the newest lump back in March, I didn’t immediately rush to the doctor.  We were in the beginning of the pandemic and everything was shutting down.  I assumed that it was another simple cyst like all the others and that there was no need for me to rush to the doctor and risk getting sick.   It wasn’t until June when some things had started to open back up and I needed refills on some of my medications that I saw my doctor and told her about the newest lump.  Of course, she sent me for another mammogram just to make sure, thinking it was likely the same as usual.   It was another 2 weeks before I could get the mammogram because I had to wait for the records from my previous mammograms to get here from my doctor in Georgia.  I had not yet had a mammogram since we moved.  In my world, nothing is ever simple, and they had a very difficult time getting my records which is a whole other story in itself. Anyway, I finally got the records after multiple phone calls and was able to get the appointment scheduled.  Now, when you have a mammogram, it is typically followed by an ultrasound.  In my previous instances, the ultrasound tech would tell me where and how many cysts had been found and reassured me right away that they were nothing.  Well, this time was different.  As she was doing the ultrasound, she really wasn’t saying much.  I figured it was because we both had masks on, and it was difficult to understand each other.  Then she told me to stay right there and she would be back with the radiologist.  I thought that was odd because I usually don’t see the radiologist.  In the past, the tech told me what she saw to ease my mind, and then the radiologist would send a report to my doctor and I would get a call confirming what the tech had told me.  The radiologist came in and introduced himself and then instructed the tech to continue with the ultrasound because he wanted to see it for himself.  At this point I was starting the sweat.  This was NOT normal.  When they were done, he asked me to sit up.  He told me that I had several simple cysts in both breasts like usual but that the one that I had felt was different.  He told me that it looked much more complex.  There were none of the assurances that I normally get that everything was ok.  I could literally feel my heart pounding out of my chest as he was talking.  I was trying to pay attention and process all that he was saying, all while trying not to cry or panic in front of them.  He told me that I needed to schedule an appointment to come back the next week to have a needle biopsy.  I held it together long enough to get dressed, schedule the appointment, walk back to my car, and call my husband.  He tried to assure me that everything was going to be ok and that they were likely just taking precautions, but the fear had already set in.  

That next week, I went back for the needle biopsy.  The radiologist cut a tiny slit in my skin. Then using an ultrasound as a guide, inserted a large needle through the slit and into the mass.  It wasn’t painful per se.  It was more just very uncomfortable.  He instructed a tech to push a button and the needle sucked a portion of the mass out through a tube.  He repeated this a couple of times moving the needle around.  Then he placed a “clip” near the mass which he said would show up in future mammograms, so they knew that they had done a biopsy of that particular mass before.  After tapping me up, he told me that my doctor should call me with the results in a couple of days.  The wait was excruciating.  I wasn’t sleeping and was so worried about it all.  When I hadn’t heard from my doctor after about a week, I finally called her to see if she had the results.  It turned out that they had switched systems and my results had been lost in the shuffle.  My doctor had never seen the results.  These things seriously only happen to me! Anyway, after eventually locating the results, I was told by my doctor’s nurse that my doctor would review them right away and call me back.  About 30 minutes later, my doctor called.  She was very matter of fact and told me that the biopsy results were ultimately inconclusive, but that it was possibly a phyllodes tumor.  She didn’t give any other details or information, but I felt like there was a sense of urgency in her voice.  She said I needed to see a breast surgeon right away, and that her nurse would call me back in a bit with an appointment.  Of course, I hung up and immediately began googling what she said.  It took me straight to the American Cancer Society page, and I freaked out.  I called my husband in tears.  I don’t think I will ever forget that moment and the pure terror that was racing through me.

I got those results on a Friday and four days later, my husband and I were sitting in an office at the Breast Cancer Center waiting to see the surgeon.  I was a nervous wreck.  I think the surgeon could see the pure terror on my face even through my mask when she walked in the room.  She immediately started reassuring me that I was going to be fine and that the chances of it being malignant were very small.  Wouldn’t it have been nice if my regular doctor had mentioned that little fact? She then began to talk to us about all the possibilities of what it could be and my options as she was furiously writing it all down for me.  I do want to go on record saying how amazing she has been throughout the whole process.  Anyway, she said that the tumor had to be removed to not only to confirm what it really was but also because we just needed to get rid of it.  She even drew diagrams for us to explain the whole process. She did tell me that I had to have a Magseed placed before the surgery, which was a simple procedure where they placed these tiny little seed-like things in or around the tumor to help guide her to the right location when she did the surgery.   I left her office feeling a little reassured and with an appointment for the Magseed placement in a week and a lumpectomy three weeks later. Even though she told me that there was only a small chance it was malignant, I still worried so much over those next three weeks.  Even little things would make me burst into tears.  I am not sure I have ever felt so afraid in my life.  

I had the surgery on August 19.  My surgeon told my husband that everything went well and that she would call with the results in about a week. However, if we didn’t hear anything, it usually meant that everything was ok. It was the whole no news is good news kind of thing.  I had a follow-up appointment scheduled two weeks later.  The pain following the surgery was way less than I expected, which was good.  I was obviously still worried about the results and I had some insecurities about what I would look like when I healed, but overall, I was doing pretty well.  In true Allison fashion, I never got the call with the results.  I took that to mean that I was ok, and I was just so glad it was all over.  Of course, I was wrong about one thing.  The whole nightmare wasn’t over.  When I went for my post-op appointment, my doctor immediately told me that it was a phyllodes tumor, but it came back benign. I was ok!  I had a brief moment of complete relief before she hit me with the next bit of information.  The results didn’t show clear margins all the way around which meant they didn’t get all of it.  I needed a second surgery to remove more tissue or the tumor was certain to return.  They would go back in through the same scar and take a little bit more.  I had my second surgery on September 16, almost one month after the first one.  This time the bandages stayed on a little longer than the first time, which caused me to have an allergic reaction.  I developed an allergy to adhesive a few years ago and tend to get hives that are extremely itchy when a bandage is left on for any length of time.  I ended up having to remove the bandages myself (they were supposed to fall off on their own), which caused some extreme pain.  The incision was VERY sensitive this time after being cut open twice.  With the large welts from the hives and the sensitivity of the incision, I was miserable for a couple of days.  Only me, right? Thankfully, this time I got good news at my post-op appointment.  They had finally gotten it all and this mess really was finally over.  I will see my surgeon again in March and then will have my next mammogram in June unless I feel another lump before then.  

What I learned through all of this is that life is so precious, and it can change at any moment.  I also learned that I am much stronger than I thought I was.  I cannot imagine what would have happened if things had turned out differently.  Not many people knew what I was going through over the last 4 months because I kept it all in, but I am so grateful to everyone that did know and prayed for me.  It truly was all in God’s hands and he carried me through it each step of the way.  It is only by his grace that things turned out the way that they did.  My heart and prayers go out to everyone that didn’t get the same outcome and have fought or are fighting for their life.  I know that what I went through was very minor in comparison.  Self-checks and mammograms are so important.  Please make sure you are doing them regularly.  No matter what age you are or whether or not you are at risk, you should be doing regular self-exams at home.  They are so easy to do, and they could save your life.  If I wasn’t doing them myself, I would never have found that first lump 5 years ago or the ones that followed.  If you are 40+ years old or have a family history of breast cancer, you need to be getting mammograms at least once a year.  Yes, they are uncomfortable and a little painful, but they are all worth it if it saves your life.  October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and we are all reminded of the importance of regular checks, but we don’t need to forget about them the other 11 months of the year.  I cannot stress how important this is.  If you take nothing away from my story than this, please check yourself! 

I am still in the healing phase and am self-conscious of my big scar, but I couldn’t be more grateful that I am ok. I have been truly blessed.  There is no guarantee that this won’t happen again or that the outcome next time would be the same, but I know that God has me in his hands and will carry me through whatever the future holds for me.  

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Anchored and Well,

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