Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
(#4 in a series)
Breast biopsy day has arrived. Stephanie, the ultrasound technician from yesterday was back, and she and Dr. H prepped me for the procedure. The ultrasound would be used first to help pinpoint the two masses. I shivered as a cold antiseptic was spread all around the breast area.
I was positioned with my right arm behind my head and tilted over slightly to my left, oddly putting me in mind of a glamour shot. I wish. A local anesthetic was given with a needle. That was a first for me. Needles in the breast.
The actual biopsy procedure was uncomfortable and strange. The larger tumor was easy to get to, but the smaller one was situated deeper and difficult to reach. The loud clicking noises were unsettling, but Dr. H and Stephanie kept up the chatter, keeping me quite at ease.
It lasted longer than I anticipated, the needles probing the tumors to find exactly the right spot that would give the doctors the information they needed. I wondered what my husband would think if he could see what was happening to me. I swear I saw “the look” again. Dr. H and Stephanie likely already knew that I had cancer, but were in no position to confirm. I appreciated their professionalism and their amazing bedside manner.
Prior to the procedure, I was told that a mammogram is usually taken immediately after biopsy so that the biopsy sites can be recorded for future reference. Dr. H said he thought he’d “let me off the hook” for the mammogram. He said it kindly, with a soft smile, his hand gently touching my shoulder. Now I’m not the world’s best face reader, but I figured he didn’t need a mammogram because he knew that particular breast would not be around much longer. That was the moment I knew, at least internally, that I had cancer.
We were disappointed to find that we had to wait until an appointment set a full five days later to receive the results. An eternity. During that time I would work and attend a few social functions, all the while thinking about the future of my right breast, and my life.
The Purpose of a Breast Biopsy
From Mayo Clinic: “It may take a few days before your biopsy results are available. After the biopsied breast tissue has been studied, the pathologist writes up a detailed report containing information about the tissue samples taken. The pathology report includes details about the size, color and consistency of the tissue samples, the location of the biopsy site, and whether cancer cells were present. If breast cancer is present, the pathology report provides important information about the cancer itself, such as what type of breast cancer you have and whether the cancer is hormone receptor positive or negative.”
Next: A Call from the Doctor, Telling the Family, and… ice cream
Breast Cancer Confirmation
The day before our appointment to receive the results, our caller I.D. identified an incoming call as coming from our general physician’s office. I knew, from past experience, that Dr. R does not personally make phone calls to patients unless it is very serious business indeed. Upon answering and hearing his voice, I knew we were in for a world of bad news.
“I have the biopsy results and I wanted you to hear it from me first.” A pregnant pause followed. “…You have a malignancy and it’s very serious. Things are going to move very quickly now. I would expect you to see a surgeon by week’s end, and you can count on chemotherapy and maybe radiation. You’ve got a tough fight ahead of you.”
He hadn’t used the word cancer, but I wanted to hear it. “So… I have… cancer?”
Hesitation. Then, “Yes.”
Jim, hearing my words, quickly joined me. We held the phone between us while the doctor explained again. He said we were in for a lengthy and difficult process, but he would assist in any way he could.
How could this be? I never felt healthier in my life! We looked at each other in disbelief, then fell into a long embrace.
Next: Telling the Family, and… ice cream
Time to Tell the Family
How do you tell your family that you have cancer, especially if you live hundreds of miles away? And when is the right time? I certainly didn’t want to worry anyone before the biopsy results, and we still didn’t have a lot of information, but the time to tell those closest to us had arrived.
I wanted to make sure I was composed before making my first call, which would be to my adult daughter. I sat at the kitchen table for several minutes, phone in hand, trying to gather my courage, when she called me. I echoed her happy hello, but she knows me all to well. “What’s wrong, Mom?”
I started to speak, but there was a catch in my throat. “Give me a moment.” I didn’t want to do this to her.
“I was just diagnosed with breast cancer.”
The brief guttural sound that came from her throat broke my heart. We both regained our composure and had a frank discussion. In her heartfelt and very analytical way, she worked through her questions and offered up her love and support. My two sons were equally loving and concerned. How I hated burdening them with this news!
How do you call your elderly mother — who lives alone — and tell her you have cancer? I couldn’t. Instead, I placed another call to someone who could help. “I need my big brother,” were the first words out of my mouth. Explaining the diagnosis and my concerns about telling Mom by phone, my brother agreed to deliver the news to her in person. What an awful thing to have tell you mother, and what a loving thing to do so for your sister.
As evening rolled in we settled on the sofa to watch television. We thought about making popcorn, which is our cherished ritual. “I wish we had some ice cream,” I thought out loud. So after a few moment’s discussion about the wisdom of junk food at 9:00 p.m., we decided that if you can’t go out for ice cream on the day you learn you have cancer, when can you? Ice cream it was.
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
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’
Access the up-to-date Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Series