Blogging about life in Minnesota, raising our six kids with Down syndrome while battling Breast Cancer.

Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor in the morning the devil says, "Oh shit! She's up!"

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Remember that one time when I had cancer?

Two years ago today I posted this. Its been months since I've read it, because I cannot read it without tears stinging my eyes. I remember that person. The one who was so scared and couldn't breathe for what seemed like days. I remember the way the words, "I expect this to show you have cancer" cut through the air like a razor blade. I remember trembling in a way I didn't know was humanly possibly and being unable to make it stop.
Two years. I'm a different person now. I am a woman who survived cancer and it changes you. Cancer made me stronger in some ways, and weaker in others. It made me more compassionate and willing to step out and be kind to others in a way I that had never occurred to me before. Before cancer. My life is now "before cancer" and "after cancer".  If you haven't had cancer you won't know what I'm talking about, and may accuse me of being a bit dramatic. You don't know. You can't know. I chose to share my story with you anyway. A story which prompted many of you who had been stalling to get your mammograms done. (and two of you being diagnosed with cancer!)

So, here it is. My words from two years ago, from that time I found out I had cancer.


Audrey saved my life.

My new daughter, who we just brought home, saved my life.

I had to have a physical for my adoption. This is standard procedure and required. I've had the same physical four times now, as every adoptive parent does. My doctor reminded me I was due for my annual mammogram. I scheduled it for a few weeks later then, in the excitement of getting ready to travel I missed the appointment.  I would have forgotten again but this time Dean reminded me. His previous wife had breast cancer and he wasn't happy with me for skipping a mammogram last year.

Dean insisted on coming along for my 9:00 appointment then we would get a coffee afterward before dropping him off at work.

 First I had the mammogram done. Nothing like having your breast pulled down all the way from your chin!!! The imaging screen was behind me, out of view. When all the images were taken the tech put them up on the screen so she could make sure they were good images and nothing needed to be re-done. I turned around to see them myself.

Suddenly I couldn't breathe.

This didn't look like my mammogram from 2 years ago. No. No it was very different.

The radiology tech said she needed to have the radiologist review the films. When she returned she told me I'd be having an ultrasound. I was brought to a little waiting area while they got the ultrasound ready.

There were a couple other women waiting with me, all of us in our white, scratchy clinic robes. I wondered if they were just getting screened. I wondered what they knew about their breasts. I wondered if they were as scared as I was. 15 minutes ago I wasn't scared, now I was petrified.


The tech put the wand to my breast. I asked her to turn the screen a bit for me so I could see. I was in school for a year for sonography. I didn't finish (we adopted Asher instead) but I was there just long enough to know what I was seeing on the screen. "That's not a cyst." I said.

In my head I was screaming, "Oh my GOD that is NOT a cyst. I know that is not a cyst."

Breathe Leah. Just breathe.

I went back to the little waiting area again, but this time I was alone. There were no other women waiting because they had their mammograms and got to go home.  It was only a minute before the nurse came back to get me. "Do you have anyone with you today? The radiologist would like to talk to you."

I wanted to vomit. They don't ask to talk to you, and if you have someone with you, when everything is all good. This was not all good. I could feel it, all the way in my bones. Every cell of my body screamed "RUN!"

I waited in a small conference room while the tech left to retrieve Dean from the lobby. I noticed a box of tissues on a nearby desk and quickly grabbed a handful, shoving them into the pocket of my scratchy robe.

Dean came in and sat down by me.  I couldn't talk. I wanted to vomit. I was afraid if I opened my mouth some kind of floodgates would open and the result would be really bad. And then the radiologist, in her white lab coat, stood before us, the tech at her side with her blonde pony tail and her pink and purple scrubs.  "I've reviewed your mammogram and ultrasound. You do have a mass there that is small, but it needs to be biopsied."

That is when my world started spinning.

I buried my face in Dean's chest and sobbed.

But is where the doctor didn't follow the script that was in my head. It was at this point she was supposed to say, "This is just a precaution. Chances are this will come back fine."

But she didn't say that. She just stood before us, waiting patiently while I composed myself. She said nothing.

She told us we would have the results back by noon tomorrow (Friday).

The radiologist and tech left to prepare the procedure room while Dean and I sat and waited.

"I can't have cancer." was all I could whisper. It was all I could think.

Couldn't this biopsy wait until Monday? Let me digest this for the weekend? do not waste any time here. This is a breast clinic and this is what they do. There would be no waiting.

Just a few minutes later they came back to get me. Dean disappeared to the lobby while I laid down on the exam table. The radiologist put the ultrasound wand to my breast and I stopped her. "You see these all the time. What do you expect these biopsies to show?"

She took a breath. Her words were gentle and soft, but very firm, very clear. "I am honest with all my patients. You're scared and you want to know so there is no reason for me to be vague. I expect this biopsy will show that you have cancer."

"I need a number. Can you give me a percent?"

"Well...I would say I'm 95% sure."

And then I cried. One of those silent cries where you want to say something, I needed to say something, but my throat was too tight to talk and...again...I couldn't breathe enough to talk.

"I'm ok. I'm ok. I'm ok....." I said. While I tried to breathe.

And then I told her why I was upset. About our family. Audrey. Everyone. I can't have cancer.

I cried some more.

Finally I said, "Ok...lets get this done."

The doctor was so patient with me. How many times has she had a freaked out woman on this same table asking the same questions?

She put the wand back to my breast and I told her what I understood of the image on the screen. "You would have made a good sonographer." she said.

She painted my breast with antiseptic. She explained she would be inserting a needle with novocaine (or some other numbing stuff, I don't even remember.) and it would hurt a little. It did hurt, but not as much as my tooth last month. Then she inserted a second needle for deeper numbing behind the lump.

"Next I'm going insert a special needle. When I'm in the right position I will activate it. It makes a loud clicking noise but it should not hurt. If it hurts please tell me." The whole procedure looked just like this.

Courtesy Mayo Clinic Health Library
I waited for it to hurt. My whole body tensed up with the waiting.


I tried not to jump but I did anyway. It sounded like a staple gun. There was a small tugging sensation, but no pain.

"I need to do three more just like that. I will tell you each time so you don't jump."

I asked her to show me the sample that was taken. It was about an inch long, and a thick spaghetti noodle. "There's my cancer." I thought.

I started taking deep, cleansing breaths like when I was in labor. Long, deep breaths to take me somewhere else. To a beach, with sunshine. Anywhere but here.

"Ok. Here is the next one."


I exhaled. I didn't know I was holding my breath.

"Alright. This will be the third. I'm activating now."


"Ouch. That one hurt a little bit. Not bad. Like a pin prick."

"That was the deepest one. This last one you should not feel at all. Activating now."


"There. That was the last one. Now I'm going to place a small metal clip, about the size of a grain of rice, into the lump. This marks it for future reference so if a new lump were to appear we know this is the original one."

The tech bandaged me up. Then the doctor asked if I have a picture of my kids. I showed the pictures I took back in August, then of Audrey on the day she was removed from the institution. Skinny, with her head shaven and in ratty clothes. Then I showed her a recent picture. "She's beautiful." we said together.

"This is a small lump. I can't say for sure until we have the biopsy results back, but typically this is treated with a lumpectomy and 6 weeks of radiation. Very rarely is chemotherapy needed for this type of lump. Six weeks of radiation won't stop your life. You'll be a bit tired, but it doesn't knock you down like chemo does. I expect that you'll be meeting with the oncologist and surgeon on Monday. But sweetie, you are going to be ok. This will likely show a very slow-growing cancer. Its gonna be ok! YOU are going to be ok."

I hung onto those words. No, I clung to them as if they were a life-ring tossed to me while I bobbed and floundered in the ocean.

They handed me a bright yellow sheet of paper with post-biopsy wound care instructions, then walked me back to the small waiting area. There were three other women waiting. I sat down in a chair in the corner. I started to cry. I couldn't stop. The tears just kept coming. Here were three women, waiting for their own  mammograms, and here I sat, golden ticket in my hand, sobbing. One woman wiped a tear from her eyes while the other two hid behind their magazines. I realized I was freaking them out and tried to compose myself. I picked up a magazine. What does it say? I couldn't really focus on the words or content. There is a puppy in the picture. Cancer. Do I have cancer? I don't like how the room on this page is decorated. What will the biopsy say? I couldn't concentrate on anything but the words screaming inside my head.

Yet another tech came to get me for another mammogram. This one is needed to make sure that little metal clip is in the right place. As she started to position my breast on the plate, my whole body started to tremble. Like I was freezing only I was dripping with sweat. "I need to sit down." I said, and she quickly moved a chair to me. Apparently I was a bit pale. I just needed a minute. Just a minute. Why was I shaking all over? I realized I was a bit shocky, probably from being really tense about feeling pain during the biopsy. Probably from just being told I have cancer.

I needed to talk to Dean. He didn't yet know what the doctor said in answer to my questions. He didn't know the doctor said this was going to show I have cancer.

We took the couple of mammo films that were needed and I was finally allowed to get dressed. I got into the changing room and pulled out my phone to text my sister. My hands were shaking so bad I dropped my phone twice. I sent her some garbled text about "its not good."

I walked to the lobby and spotted Dean. He came to meet me as my phone rang. It was my sister. "I can't talk now." I said, and hung up on her. I couldn't breathe. I was starting to hyperventilate. I wanted to away...I felt trapped. "Get me out of here." I mumbled to Dean. Really, I needed him to lead me because I didn't know where to go because I couldn't think.

We left the lobby of the breast clinic, and the eyes of others waiting, and stepped into the bigger, main lobby of the clinic. I lost it. Never in my life have I cried so hard. Dean just held me as I sobbed. I felt my legs give out under me and Dean held me up. Through choking breaths I told him what the doctor said. That she expected this to be cancer. "I can't have cancer!" I cried. I cried so hard. Dean cried with me and held me, there in the lobby of the breast clinic. And I became aware of women coming off the elevators, moving into and out of the clinic, going about their business, seeing this woman freaking out and knowing in an hour that could be them. Or for some, that was them just months ago and they know. They know the shock. The disbelief. I didn't want to be part of them.

Finally, after several minutes, I was able to catch my breath. Everything about today was about breathing. It was so hard to breathe all day. I had to call my sister back. I looked at my phone. A little over an hour.  In one hour I had a mammogram, and ultrasound, a biopsy, and found out I probably had cancer. It was only 10:30 a.m.

Yesterday I was fine, today I have cancer.

1 comment:

KT said...

I started reading your blog a few years ago, as I'm the stepmother of a young adult with Down syndrome and I was looking for nuggets of wisdom or help in living everyday with Grace. I remember when I read this post originally and thought, "I can't even imagine." Fast forward to three months ago and I went through the same thing (although with much more waiting in between MRI/ultrasound/needle biopsy.) I appreciate your ability to be frank about cancer and so many other things.