Liz's Breast Cancer Story

Hi! My name is Liz and I was diagnosed at age 34. I've been an ICU nurse for 11 years and have two sons, ages 6.5 and 8. On February 4, 2018 I went to the doctors after feeling a lump on the underside of my left breast. The physician assistant advocated for me to have an ultrasound and mammogram that same day. I waited 3 hours in the radiology waiting area until it was my appointment time. I had the ultrasound first, the tech found the lump, and immediately got the Radiologist to look at it. As a nurse, I knew this was a bad sign. The Radiologist said that no matter what it should be biopsied and needs to be removed. They had me sit back in the cold mammogram waiting area. Other women were there in their hospital provided shirts that opened in the front. A breast health coordinator came out and introduced herself to me. She asked what surgeon I wanted to see. Everything was moving so fast! I sat there with tears in my eyes and frantically text messaging my husband and friends who could help me with the next steps. Next, I had the mammogram, which was cold and painful. Again, I was told to sit in the cold mammogram waiting area. The Radiologist came back out to get me and asked to meet with me in an office. He told me that he needs to biopsy the mass and that we could do it right now. The biopsy was fast and I was sent home with ice on my breast and an appointment with a surgeon for the end of the week. All I could do was cry when I got home. I knew I had cancer even before the biopsy results were back. 

Two days later, on February 6, 2018, my worst fears were confirmed. I was diagnosed with stage 2 grade 3 of 3 invasive ductal carcinoma ER-positive and HER 2 positive. I read the results myself and immediately went into survival mode. About an hour later, my primary care doctor called to give me the results I had already read. I made an appointment with a medical oncologist who was suggested by a friend who is an oncology nurse practitioner. The next day, the surgical oncologist called me to introduce herself and schedule me for a breast MRI that same day. On February 8, 2018, I met with a genetic counselor and the surgical oncologist. I listened to what she had to say and what she recommended but went into that appointment with my mind made up on a bilateral mastectomy. The following weeks were filled with numerous doctors appointments, meeting a plastic surgeon, more tests, and preparing my life for after surgery. I struggled with how to talk to my boys about breast cancer and how all our lives were about to change. I met with a child psychiatrist who gave me some amazing resources and suggestions on how to talk to my boys about cancer. On March 15, 2018 I underwent a non-nipple sparing bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. Thankfully the lymph nodes were negative so I did not need radiation. I had people taking care of me whom I work with. I struggled with being the patient and not being the nurse. I underestimated how this surgery would affect my arm strength and my day to day life. 

On April 4, 2018, I had the first ultrasound of my heart (needed in order to monitor the side effects of the immunotherapy). I will never forget it. I was in tears the entire time due to pain. The ultrasound teach offered to stop but I needed to continue in order to begin chemotherapy & Immunotherapy. Many of my patients have frequent ultrasounds of the heart and I don’t think anything of it but now I understand why they are uncomfortable afterwards. On April 12, 2018, I had a port-a-cath placed. On April 18, 2018, I had my first of 4 rounds of chemotherapy (Cytoxan & Taxotere) and began Herceptin. The side effects I experienced after each round was a loss of appetite, mild nausea, and fatigue. 24 hours after each chemotherapy ended I had to self-inject Neulasta to help my body produce white blood cells. For two days after the Neulasta I was experienced bone pain that did not go away with hot packs or pain medicine. Losing my hair was scary but in survival mode, I didn’t allow myself to grieve. One morning the clumps of hair falling out were huge and I asked my husband to shave my head. On April 27, 2018 I began to have dull abdominal pain that wouldn't go away. I drove myself to the hospital in the middle of the night while my husband stayed with my sons. The pain turned into severe pain not relieved by narcotics. A CT Scan showed I was having acute appendicitis and had my appendix removed on April 28, 2018. On June 20, 2018 I finished chemotherapy. 

On June 23, 2018, I participated in a local cancer walk with a large group of friends. I had participated in previous years just for fun but this time it had so much more meaning to me. Throughout this journey, I had some amazing friends who brought countless meals over for my family and offered to organize play dates with my boys. I was able to return to work mid-July. Returning to work with no hair and wearing a hat was anxiety provoking but once again I stayed in survival mode. I was now again a nurse but I looked like a patient. I have to continue with Herceptin infusions every 3 weeks until the end of April 2019 and frequent ultrasounds of my heart. I began Anastrozole in July and a monthly Lupron injection in August. These hormone therapies will continue for 5 years. Afterwards, the plan is taking Tamoxifen for 5 years. Recently, at a routine appointment with my medical oncologist, I began crying. I still felt overwhelmed. I felt that chemotherapy and major surgeries were completed so I should like it is over. But it isn’t and it probably will never be over. This stage of treatment is my new normal. 

I think often times people see breast cancer is over after a woman has surgery and/or chemotherapy. Breast cancer is so much more. It is not only surgery and chemotherapy and radiation. It is a body altering diagnosis. It is hormone changing and life-altering. I am a nurse who had to learn to be the patient. This diagnosis changed some of my relationships but also strengthened other relationships. It can be a lonely diagnosis. I am thankful to have found a community of women who have gone through this journey. Ultimately, I learned I am stronger than imagined.

 

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