Before my eyes, last week, my life flashed in front of me. The anxiety that permeated my very being is different than the scare I felt yesterday, when a giant extension ladder fell off the top of the box truck in front of me on the highway. Sure, my heart catapulted upwards into my throat providing an instant gagging feeling and surge of adrenaline as my mind processed the speed of the escaped ladder careening towards my vehicle at least sixty miles per hour or more. As I swerved to avoid the now skidding trajectory, I thanked my guardian angel for allowing me the sense to have at least four to five car lengths between my car and this truck. Scary? Yes. Was I more freaked out with my medical incident of last week? You bet I was.
What happened last week, you ask? I thought I may have cancer again. My life literally flashed before my eyes and the fear of my children and husband growing up without their Momma and wife became surreal.
People assume because I remain in remission from my cancer, that all is well – including me. Heck, that girl is six years out from finishing her treatments…..why is she *still* talking about her cancer? Another friend innocently remarked, “Well, you hit that five year mark, why would you have cancer again?”
Recently, in the past year, I finally graduated to what I call the “big girl” schedule for my oncology follow ups – I only have to go annually now. Yes! Once a year visits to ensure my health remains solid going forward versus the every three month schedule I was on for five years. As much as I wear these oncology graduation milestones as a badge of KickAss, there is a little piece of me that has a heightened sense of anxiety that I only see my miracle workers once a year. A year is a VERY long time in Cancerland.
Last week, I confidently announced that I was going to walk into my oncology visit for my first annual checkup in my typical badass style. I was going to give love to my beloved doctors and be on my way in a half hour or less. After all, I have been working out at least three to four times a week and my nutrition has never been better. I finally have my joint pain under control, whether it is from the remnants of my chemotherapy collateral damage or actually from the rheumatoid arthritis. It has been several years since I have felt this good.
BOOM. CRASH. SREEECCCCH.
The sounds of my world coming to a skidding halt after I pointed out what I thought was a little nothing lump on the back of my neck.
On sight, my medical oncologist believed it to be clinically benign, but in Cancerland everything has to be proven otherwise…meaning a biopsy has to be done to ensure that a strange lump is non-cancerous. In triple negative breast Cancerland, I have recently learned that all bets are off – this disease is a beast in and of itself and everything, I mean everything, must be ruled out for cancer regardless of how much time has elapsed since treatment. Oy.
My doctor said she would schedule a fine needle biopsy for me and we would get it done. Fine. I was calm and collected. No big deal. I remain healthy, I thought to myself. Moments later, my doctor came in and announced that pathology was on their way over within fifteen minutes. Cool. Let’s just get this done today.
The pathologist walked in and promptly asked if she could perform the biopsy with no lidocaine, as it causes the area to swell and make it harder to obtain a sample. Sure. I have had three kids with no pain meds, what’s a little needle to the back of my neck. Eek.
After jabbing the needle around the lump in my neck, the pathologist seemed slightly frustrated. The lump was hard and dense, not allowing her to get any tissue sample to review under the microscope. Did I mind if she tried again? Sure. The latest images of The Walking Dead entered my mind again as I let this sweet, petite woman jab yet a second needle around the back of my neck. Thoughts permeated my brain like: “Is she close to my jugular?” “Boy, I have been hanging around the gross kids and their stupid movies too long now!” “Oy, what the hell….why is this lump hard and what does this mean?”
The pathologist was not successful in obtaining a tissue sample from the second biopsy. Two neck stabbings down and no results on what this thing was in my neck. I kept my cool. Previous fire drills (aka medical scares) have allowed me to try to remain calm and collected until my medical team gives me a reason to be otherwise. (Okay, my bowels were starting to gurgle!)
My medical oncologist returned and said we need to figure out how we will biopsy the lump so we can know exactly what it is. After she left the room again for a brief period of time, she returned but this time with my beloved surgical oncologist a step behind her.
“Ohhhh, look who I happened to find strolling down the halls!” She exclaimed. The partially retired Chief of Surgical Oncology, two steps behind my doctor; the man who helped to save not only my life, but the life of my unborn child. After I jumped up to give my beloved doctor a hug, I then took pause……they’ve brought the big guns in. Holy poop. I started to debate myself: Dr. Q and I have a special bond, is he here because he loves me and wants to be sure I am okay? Dr. Q is top notch and knows his way around Cancerland….did my other doctor bring him in because…..well, you know……my heart-rate quickened.
Long story later, the big guy decided I needed a punch biopsy and right then and there. He would do it himself, in fact. As relieved as I was to have my savior there and to do the procedure himself, my nerves were on high alert. In fact, during the biopsy itself, I had what I consider my first panic attack. I nearly stopped the biopsy because my heart was pounding OUT OF MY CHEST. If I ever felt like I was having a heart attack, it was at this very moment when my doctor was carving a hole into my neck.
After the punch needle biopsy, my doctor sat down and sighed. With that sigh, he shared with me that triple negative breast cancer can metastasize to the skin. Wait, what? What the what, what? I fiddled with my hearing aid to be sure I heard him correctly.
Post treatment I have been coping with the fear of a recurrence; after all, triple negative breast cancers usually come back in the liver, lungs, brain, bones…….but the skin? That was a new one for me. A quick jaunt to my Triple Negative Breast Cancer forum on Facebook and the question posed was met with countless women who have had skin metastases from all over the world, including those with neck nodules. Holy crap. I quickly jumped off the internet for a bit as it is not the most reassuring place for someone who thinks they may have cancer.
Fortunately, for me, I have some of the best care in the world and despite the fact that my life flashed before my eyes while waiting for results, I got the call from the Big Man himself and heard the magical words every cancer survivor longs to hear: your tumor was non-cancerous. Phew. Phew. Phew.
Despite being six years out from treatment and feeling as healthy as I have been in a very long time, the journey through Cancerland is never quite done. Despite my risks of recurrence going down significantly after five years post-treatment, there is still a risk of recurrence of my disease. I will carry that with me for some time forward.
The thoughts that I am beyond my cancer were resurfaced last week and the feelings made me very vulnerable. Wait, I am the advocate now! I help mentor women through their breast cancer! I am sooooo done with my cancer.
Eff. I had a bit of a reality check last week. Any thoughts I had of moving on from the pink world were firmly re-implanted in my very core. Despite the fear and the vulnerability, I do hope that my experiences shared will alleviate the thoughts of another who is going through the same thing. In the meantime, I will press on and continue to make healthier choices for me and my family. There’s way too much life to live before it flashes before my eyes.