Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
(#10 in a series)
I discovered a large lump in my breast on October 14, and had a mastectomy on November 10. Two weeks later, it was time to meet with my oncologist for the first time. An oncologist. Chemotherapy. It was still difficult to fathom.
The Oncology Battle Plan
We’d had plenty of time to anticipate this appointment, and I must admit that my husband and I were a bit on edge. The doctor had set aside a full hour for this introductory visit, and we would have plenty of ground to cover. It was time to formulate phase two of the battle plan to beat cancer.
It didn’t take us long to realize that we lucked out once again and found a doctor who possessed empathy, kindness, and a willingness to answer questions in depth. Wow! He didn’t pull any punches, but just like the surgeon, Dr. G wasn’t about gloom and doom.
He began with a complete explanation of what triple-negative breast cancer is, emphasizing the fact that it generally responds well to chemotherapy. Taking into account my medical history and the pathology of the tumor, his plan called for 16 rounds of chemotherapy.
The first four rounds would be given at three-week intervals and would consist of two chemo drugs — Adriamycin and Cytoxan. That would be followed by 12 rounds of Taxotere, once a week. I would soon learn that the body doesn’t always go along with the schedule. This was going to be a long haul. Was I happy to be pouring harsh drugs into my body? No, but with everything I’d learned about triple-negative breast cancer, I felt it had to be done.
Radiation would be considered as we approached the end of chemo.
A Thing Called ‘Chemo Class’
Despite the hour-long session, Dr. G’s practice conducts “chemo class.” All patients who are about to begin chemotherapy are urged to attend. According to the nurse who led the session, since the practice implemented this educational class, they’ve cut down considerably on unnecessary trips to the ER and lots of patient angst. I can believe it.
It was a mixed group that showed up for the Monday morning session. Some brought partners, some came alone, the mood fairly serious. I’d already done my research, but nothing beats a face-to-face with a human being.
The nurse who led the class assured us that from that moment on, we could consider ourselves to be on a 24/7 clock with the doctor’s office. Day or night, someone would always be available to answer questions and guide us through our concerns. We were encouraged to be partners in our own treatment. As the months passed, I would discover that those were not empty words.
There are many different chemotherapy drugs. The drugs and the dosages are tailored to the individual’s needs and specific medical history. The list of potential side effects is seemingly endless. Some people sail through treatment with little trouble, while others suffer many side effects and become quite ill. The plan is always subject to change.
We received information about diet, rest, and exercise, and a strong encouragement to remain active and engaged. We learned simple strategies for coping with chemo’s side effects and how and when to reach out for help. (For detailed information about chemotherapy, visit The American Cancer Society’s (ACS) Chemotherapy Guide for Patients and Families)
Next: The First Chemotherapy Session
My First Chemotherapy Session
The gray morning was appropriate for what we were about to begin. We arrived at the doctor’s office at 9:00 a.m. First there was a brief visit with the person who handles health insurance. Now that’s some scary stuff.
Next, I was called to the lab for blood work, something that is done prior to each treatment. If the situation warrants, treatment is delayed until the patient is stronger.
Then it was on to the chemo room. There’s no way to explain the feeling of walking into that room full of people trying to beat cancer. The nurses, knowing it was our first time, pointed out the bathrooms and a refreshment area to which we can help ourselves to tea, coffee, and juice. We patients had cozy recliners and blankets, and our visitors have chairs next to us. The recliners are set up in groups of four with several nurses stations.
As they went through the process of explaining the drugs and potential side effects again, I went into information overload, until it became nothing more than a blur. The nurse didn’t make the vein on the first try (ouch), but the second went well, and off we went. I was officially on chemo.
With each change of IV bag, another explanation of the drugs and side effects was given. One was an anti-nausea medication which makes chemo a much better experience than it was a decade ago. Because of the mastectomy being on the right side, all blood work and IV drugs would have to be given through my left arm. In the long-term, that would be tough on my skinny little arm. Eventually, we would opt for a chemo port.
What is a Chemo Port?
From the ACS: A port of plastic, stainless steel, or titanium with a silicone septum. This drum-shaped device is surgically placed under the skin of the chest or upper arm. The attached catheter extends into a large or central vein. The port is accessed through the skin with a non-coring needle. It is intended for long-term use. No routine care is needed when not in use, although it may need to be flushed if not used for more than a month at a time.
Near as I could tell, most of the patients were middle-aged or older, some had hair, some did not. I was grateful not to see any children present. Some folks looked exhausted, but the mood in the room was surprisingly upbeat. It was amazing to be among these people undergoing such powerful treatment … hopeful and, for the most part, smiling.
I wondered about the lives of my fellow patients. Did they have someone to help them through this ordeal? Were they all alone?
Next: Chemo Hits Home
We were home by 12:30, none the worse for wear. I spent the rest of the day feeling amazingly well. By the following evening, the drugs began to hit home. I was exhausted and felt like crawling right out of my own skin. Another day and my stomach declared its revulsion. Suddenly food looked, smelled, felt, and tasted nothing short of disgusting. At age 51, I was about to have my very first fight with food. The relationship between food and me wouldn’t be the same for a long time to come.
As the weeks and months passed, my husband would sit by my side through all but one treatment, when my daughter accompanied me. Even at my insistence that I could go it alone, as many other patients did, he wouldn’t hear of it. He’d be there for treatment, he’d be there for every doctor appointment, he’d be there through every sick moment. He would see me through baldness as he had through losing a breast. He’d laugh with me, share with me, and love me, just has he had before cancer reared its ugly head.
It may seem like an odd thing for a person with cancer to say, but I am a very fortunate lady.
Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Series
#1 The Lump in my Breast: Meeting the Enemy
#2 Most Breast Lumps are Non-Cancerous: Would mine be?
#3 The Mammogram, the Ultrasound, and ‘the Look’
#4 The Biopsy and Breast Cancer Confirmation
#5 A New Twist: It’s Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
#6 Before the Mastectomy: Planning for the Future
#7 Mastectomy Day: What it’s like to lose a breast
#8 After the Mastectomy: Unveiling and Staging
#9 10 Odd Things to Say to Someone with Breast Cancer
Access the up-to-date Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Series
Breast Cancer in the News
Aggressive Breast Cancer Linked to Low Levels of Vitamin D
Take Action! Sign the petition: We can end breast cancer by 2020
Author’s Note: This is article is part of a series chronicling my first-hand patient perspective of life with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer. Without being overly self-indulgent, I hope to convey the raw emotion that comes with such a diagnosis… and the process of living with and beyond it. Entries will appear in Care2 Causes and in Care2 Healthy & Green Living. Follow on Twitter @AnnPietrangelo