Two weeks before my 36th birthday I noticed a small lump in my left breast on routine examination. At the time, I was an internist spending part of my clinical practice at the Breast Consultation Clinic at John Stroger Hospital (formerly Cook County Hospital). I saw women with breast lumps and abnormal mammograms every week and knew the physical characteristics that favor a benign mass versus cancer. I felt my own small lump and felt reassured — it was oval-shaped, smooth, had clear borders, moved easily around the breast and wasn’t tender.
I concluded that my breast mass was unlikely to be cancer and decided to wait until after my final examinations (I had returned to school to pursue a second master’s degree) to have a formal evaluation. It was my husband who changed my mind. “Just do it for me,” he said. I promised to call my radiology colleagues in the morning and schedule a mammogram.
Imagine my surprise to see the mammogram images. I had three abnormal masses in the left breast that warranted biopsy. I was reminded of the admonitions I give to all of my patients: “Always get a breast mass evaluated by a professional as soon as possible!” Doctors are often the worst patients, and in this case,it was my husband (and English teacher by trade) who had the good sense to remind me of standard medical practice.
The day after my 36th birthday I had a mastectomy for early stage breast cancer (ductal carcinoma in-situ) that was found on biopsy. I opted for a mastectomy (with reconstruction) instead of a lumpectomy for two reasons:
1. Only 1 of the 3 suspicious masses (the one I could feel) on the mammogram could be biopsied (the other 2 were close to the chest wall and impossible to reach) and I didn’t want to worry that we had left cancer behind in the breast.
2. I am inherently a small-breasted woman and doing a lumpectomy would have left me sufficiently disfigured as to require reconstructive surgery anyway.
However, for most women, lumpectomy with radiation would be a preferable option. The breast cancer outcomes are the same. This underscores the importance of making a medical decision that fits your personal needs and clinical context.
My mastectomy went extremely well and I was ready to head home the next day. My recovery was slower than I had anticipated and filled with uncommon complications like “axillary web syndrome” and a large pleural effusion that required hospitalization and multiple drains of fluid off of my lungs.
Throughout it all, however, my husband was always at my side providing incredible support and love. My journey brought me closer to my husband and to the dear friends and family that helped me along the way. My experience with breast cancer also taught me how to, for the first time in my life, “let go and let God.” I am inherently an obsessive planner and believe that life is what you make of it. It was a humbling and growth-filled experience to not be in control and to allow myself to be at peace with whatever plans God had put in place for me