November 28, 2018
My Story - Ann Loonam
In November of 2012 I found myself putting off my annual mammogram which I knew I needed to take care of. I have an extensive family history of cancer, and my Mom had just passed way from metastatic endometrial cancer a few months earlier. As a result, catching up on my medical appointments was not a high priority. Though in hindsight, it certainly should have been.
My Dad died in 1986 from prostate cancer when I was a junior in college. One of my sisters has had thyroid cancer and all three of us girls in my family have had skin cancer. My brother is the only one in my immediate family who has not had a cancer diagnosis.
After my initial mammogram, I was called back for additional imaging. This had happened a couple of times before, and I wasn’t all that concerned about it. When I walked into the imaging area, the same technician greeted me who had done the initial mammogram. She asked me ‘do you know why they wanted you to come back in?’ My response was something along the lines of ‘I’m guessing they just needed more images.’ Then I saw the computer screen with my mammogram up on it. I could see the two spots as bright as day, one larger than the other.
I almost asked her why they had let me go after the initial scan, but I was paying more attention to the gut feeling that this was not going to be a routine ‘go back’ situation.
More mammogram images were taken, then I was told an ultrasound would be needed. At this point thinking I would be in and out of there in 15 or so minutes had gone out the window. The ultrasound was conducted, and it was after that when the radiologist came in and sat down. He said in effect that there were some spots that looked ‘suspicious for cancer.’ He told me a biopsy would need to be done, and asked since I was there already did I want to do it then or come back another day?
I opted to have it done then since I was there, I figured it would work out better that way. Then I went to a small changing area to prepare for the biopsy and waited for the procedure room to be prepped. That’s when it hit me, I most likely have cancer. The disease that took both of my parents from me and my Mom four months earlier.
I have 3 siblings, 2 live out of state, and my other sister an hour away. I sent a text to my sister in Oregon saying, ‘it looks like I have breast cancer.’
The gut feeling I had was correct, it was cancer. This was confirmed after the biopsy by my primary care doctor. I wasn’t surprised, I was numb and a little stunned. The official word was stage 2, triple negative breast cancer, and after genetic testing the brca2 gene defect as well.
What followed was the treatment that did not go as planned. It was to be surgery, chemo, then radiation. Being triple negative chemo is not an option, I had to undergo that. After the first surgery, the margins weren’t clear, so I was given two options: go back in and do a re-incision to get the margins clear or go straight to a mastectomy. I opted for the re-incision. From the time of my diagnosis I was hoping and praying that I wouldn’t have to undergo a mastectomy.
After the second surgery, I had a call from the surgeon who let me know the margins still weren’t clear, and that a mastectomy would be necessary. I sat there and let the word sink in, mastectomy. My sister was visiting and helping me after my second surgery and after I hung up with the surgeon I asked her to let my other two siblings know what the new plan was.
What was awful when I look back now, is that I started chemo not long after hearing this news, knowing that when I was done months later I would have to undergo a third surgery. A double mastectomy and have my ovaries removed due to the gene defect. The cancer was on the right side, but I saw no reason to have a one-sided mastectomy with my family history, what followed was months of nausea from the chemo that nothing, and I mean nothing, helped. Debilitating bone pain in my legs that was so bad I could literally hardly stand it. I had made it through 10 infusions of the second chemo drug and had to stop before I could complete all 12. I was in so much pain and so miserable that I just couldn’t do it.
There was no ‘final chemo’ celebration, no bell to ring, no signs stating that I was done with photos taken, etc. It came to an end when I called the nurse and told her in tears that I couldn’t come in that day as planned for chemo, I had given up, the side effects were too extreme.
After some time to recover from chemo (about a month or so I believe) it was time for my last surgery. Honestly, I had been in such a fog of grief and sadness that thoughts of that final surgery hadn’t really been top of mind for me. At that point, I just wanted to get it over with.
What followed the final surgery was the biggest surprise to me. I felt relatively ‘good’ for a month or so then came down with pneumonia. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had pneumonia, so it had been a long time. After that, it was one virus or illness after another. It wasn’t the ‘every day will feel like your birthday’ feeling that a friend and fellow survivor had told me during treatment.
After seeing an integrative MD who got me on a supplement regiment to rebuild my immune system did I find out that stress takes a terrible toll on the immune system, and that I went into 8 months of treatment broken down in a variety of ways. No one had told me that before I started treatment, and herein lies the biggest issue I had with my oncologist. I had asked her after seeing the integrative MD, who used to practice at the same medical center coincidently, why she didn’t have me see her when I was so nauseous, and nothing helped? Her response was, ‘but you were so sick.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My response was something along the lines of ‘that is why you should have sent me to see her.’
Not having that important piece of information, knowing the state of my health before treatment is what I so wish had been handled differently. It’s important in my opinion, for anyone undergoing such harsh treatment for a terrible disease, to know what kind of shape they are in looking at the big picture beforehand.
What I would do if I could go back and change anything would be to have seen Dr. Pujari before chemo, gotten set up with some supplements to help my immune system and to detox from the medications. I can’t say for sure, but I would assume chemo would have gone a bit smoother, and I wouldn’t have ended up getting sick so much post-treatment.
Fast forward to today when I recently celebrated being cancer free for 5 years, a major milestone. A big takeaway from my cancer experience is that I don’t want what I went through to be for nothing, I learned a great deal post treatment and that’s what I share with others.
A couple of years ago I set up my Luckygirlbyann FB Blog page and Instagram to share with others what I learned along the way post cancer and other topics I am passionate about.
What helped me get through my ‘year of living cancerously’ was the vision of a bridge and getting to the other side of it. Using the word ‘journey’ to describe going through what cancer patients do every day, did not resonate with me from the beginning. That bridge turned out to be a lot longer than I had planned on or anticipated but I did eventually cross it, and for that I am grateful.
This wonderful quote helped me a great deal throughout my treatment and beyond "Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.” ~ Mary Anne Radmacher.
Instagram - @luckygirlbyann