Looking back now, I credit the Algonquin Hotel in St. Andrews, N.B. for helping me find my breast cancer.
I was attending a conference at the hotel and gearing up for a busy day when I hopped in the shower. The hotel showers do not have those puffs that I use at home to wash myself. Instead, I grabbed the hotel bar of soap. My soapy hand grazed over the underside of my left breast and there it was. The dreaded lump. And it was big — just a wee bit smaller than a golf ball.
How the hell did I not notice that before? I poked and prodded at it as if that would make it go away. I swallowed my panic. It can’t be cancer, I told myself. It’s just a cyst. It’s fine. I just had a clear mammogram four months earlier for God’s sake.
It was not fine. It was cancer and all I could think was: this cannot be happening to me. I have two daughters who need me. I’m too young. My grandmother had breast cancer, but it doesn’t really run in our family. Neither my mom nor her seven sisters or any of their cousins have had breast cancer. I’m pretty active. I eat well. I use chemical-free shampoos and creams.
I asked my oncologist: How did I get this?
“I don’t know,” she said.
Breast cancer is a sneaky, insidious, unpredictable and relentless disease that we still don’t know enough about.
There’s the rub. Breast cancer is a sneaky, insidious, unpredictable and relentless disease that we still don’t know enough about. And as I discovered, when you open the door to breast cancer, you find about ten more doors, each with ten more doors behind them. So many different kinds. One woman I met had two lumps in her breast, each a different kind of breast cancer requiring a different treatment.
And breast cancer treatments are ugly f&#king business — surgeries and scars, toxic chemo and radiation burns, potentially life-threatening side effects from the treatments that are supposed to help you. Lost hair and rotted fingernails. Sore muscles and swollen limbs. Endless needles and radioactive dye. Puffy, glassy eyes with no eyebrows or lashes. Chemo brain. Whispering to your husband in the middle of the night that you are afraid to fall asleep in cause you die in your sleep.
Despite all that, I’m thankful that treatments do exist for the type of cancer I have and grateful to be finished those treatments. More women with breast cancer are living longer, but survival rates vary widely depending on various factors — what kind you have, the size of your lump, the grade of your cancer and whether it’s spread to your lymph nodes.
If you’re lucky enough to get one of the more common types, treatment options are available to help improve your chances to live longer. Too many types — especially those affecting young women — don’t have many treatment options.
And, despite all the medical advances, the hard truth is, if breast cancer comes back to another part of your body, it is incurable. You can still live for years after that, but you will remain in treatment until it finally kills you. On average every three days in New Brunswick in 2015, a woman died from breast cancer. Every three days, another mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, grandmother, aunt etc. — gone. In New Brunswick alone.
My type of cancer is common, and I am utterly thankful that it had not spread to my lymph nodes before my surgeon removed it. However, my lump was big; my grade is unpredictable and it’s not clear whether I will benefit from the hormone therapy commonly used to prevent recurrence. I’m envious of those women who have smaller lumps (“lump envy” I call it) and grateful I didn’t have more than one lump or a bigger one or a more uncommon type.
Take a lesson from me: even if you have regular mammograms, check your breasts for lumps once per month, especially if you have dense breasts.
On average every 1.5 days in New Brunswick in 2015, a woman was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I was one of them. Not a statistic I ever wanted to be.
I wish I had found my lump earlier but am thankful I found it when I did.
So, ladies, as we gear up for Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the CIBC Run for the Cure across Canada, take a lesson from me: even if you have regular mammograms, check your breasts for lumps once per month, especially if you have dense breasts. Lumps are easily missed on mammograms if breasts are dense.
Toss out those shower puffs, for the love of God. I shudder to think about what would have happened if I hadn’t picked up the soap instead of a puff at the hotel that day.
Don’t leave your breast health to chance.
We need to find more and better treatments. We need to find a cure.