When Worst Fear Becomes Reality, Find Your Inner Strength
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
“I won’t back down.”
Now 44, Melissa blogs about her experiences and is involved in many breast cancer awareness events. She helped put together a private triple-negative breast cancer support group on Facebook and, together with her oncology nurse and the mother of another triple-negative breast cancer survivor, formed a support group.
Melissa offers her heartfelt thanks to The Victory Center, a cancer wellness service center that welcomed her in as part of their family through their breast cancer support group and various relaxation programs. She began attending just after completing treatment and trying to find her “new normal.” It’s helpful, she explains, to be surrounded by people who have walked in your shoes.
Despite the financial toll, despite the physical toll, despite the emotional toll, Melissa does what many cancer patients do. She keeps going. To the newly diagnosed, she has this to say, “You have a long and hard fight ahead of you. Be strong, stay positive, and stay focused on your health … you’ll find the inner strength in you to get through this.”
“I now live for the moment,” she says of her newfound perspective of life. That’s something many cancer patients report feeling, but should give everyone pause. None of us knows how long we’ll be here. The past has its place, as does the future, but to live in the moment is to truly be alive!
Why You Need to Learn about Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
“We need to keep triple-negative breast cancer awareness in the forefront, for it is striking younger women, especially African-Americans. It is often undetected by mammograms, so please do your monthly breast self exams and know your body … if you suspect a lump, don’t wait,” advises Melissa. “Consult your doctor immediately… early detection is your best defense in beating triple-negative breast cancer.”
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
#10 Cancer Battle Plan Phase 2: Chemotherapy
#11 5 Things I Love About my Very Expensive Health Insurance
#12 10 Simple Gestures of Kindness with Healing Power
#13 Half a Year on Chemotherapy and Taking Nothing for Granted
#14 Breast Cancer Treatment: Weighing Reward and Risk
#15 The Radiation Decision, The Long Road, The Badge of Honor
#16 The Healing Power of Nurses
#17 Grieving Son Recounts Mom’s Battle with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
#18 Searching for “Normal” After Cancer
#19 “Did You Beat Cancer?” they want to know
#20 5 Things About Breast Cancer You Should Take to Heart
#21 Living with a Grateful Vibration
#22 Cancer Survivor Says “Let Go of the Little Stuff”
Access all posts in the Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Series
Ann Pietrangelo is the author of “No More Secs! Living, Laughing & Loving Despite Multiple Sclerosis.” She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and a regular contributor to Care2 Healthy & Green Living and Care2 Causes. Follow on Twitter @AnnPietrangelo