Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
(#23 in a series)
“My worst fear of getting breast cancer was just about to become reality … I had a gut feeling about it.” It was quite by chance that when rubbing the skin along the edge of her bra one weekend, 41 year-old Melissa Stukenborg Paskvan felt something strange.
As she inspected further, she recalls her disbelief at the discovery of a grape-sized lump under her breast. By Monday morning she was on the phone and by Tuesday she had a mammogram. When the mammogram failed to give a detailed result, an ultrasound confirmed the presence of an ominous lump. Clearly not one to sit around wasting time, Melissa requested an immediate needle biopsy. A few days later she had an official diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer. That gut feeling was right.
One day you’re nonchalantly rubbing an itch and before you know it you’re told you have cancer. It can happen just like that. [5 Things About Breast Cancer You Should Take to Heart]
Taking on Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
Melissa lost her father to melanoma, and her family history includes a maternal great aunt who had breast cancer. Asked if she was aware of triple-negative breast cancer before her own diagnosis, she replied, “No, I never heard of it. I didn’t know about different types of breast cancers.”
Treatment included a lumpectomy, chemo port surgery, eight rounds of chemotherapy, and 33 radiation treatments. Both Melissa and her doctors are optimistic about her prognosis, but she’s not taking anything for granted. A well-balanced diet and exercise have taken on greater importance.
Her doctors mentioned genetic testing to see if she carries the BRCA gene, but didn’t push the issue. After her treatment regimen was complete, she learned more about the BRCA/triple-negative breast cancer connection. She had to make a decision about genetic testing. Her health insurance would likely not pay for the expensive test, and should that test prove she carried the gene … what would she do with that information?
With no daughters, the focus would turn to aggressive tactics to avoid a recurrence of the aggressive cancer. “I didn’t want to open up that can of worms,” she says. “I’m healthy right now and why mess with that, knowing the recommended course of action is bilateral mastectomy and ovaries and tubal removal. I chose not to know.” She will, however, go along with the recommended annual ovarian ultrasound.
And There Goes the Job
The toll of cancer and treatment hits cancer patients hard. Melissa lost her job of 20 years after an extended medical leave, and her second and third jobs also “faded away,” as she put it. Cancer has crippled her financially, she says, draining the family’s savings and adding to their debt.
Health Insurance: Just When You Need it Most …
High school sweethearts, Melissa and her husband have been married for 19 years and have a nine-year old son. At diagnosis, Melissa had health insurance with a $1,500 deductible. A few months later, her deductible was raised to $3,000 and, in early 2011 to $10,000. A “pass the hat” collection raised $2,600 to help cover some deductibles and co-pays. Eventually, her husband left his job of 18 years for one that offered a better policy.
“I feel like I’m putting my health in jeopardy,” Melissa says. She sacrificed having some tests and follow up care so as not to add to the medical debt, even trying to opt out of a clinical study because her insurance did not cover all associated expenses. She will, however, continue to follow up with her chemotherapy oncologist.
Next: “I won’t back down.” / Why You Need to Learn about Triple-Negative Breast Cancer