A conversation with my mom, a breast cancer survivor, at Christmas 2020.
Me: Hey Mom, do you remember Breanne? My old friend from back in the day? I was thinking about her recently and looked her up. She just went through some really intense treatments and surgery with something called Triple Negative Breast Cancer. I googled it and it’s this really aggressive cancer with fewer treatment options because the cancer tests negative for hormone receptors and hormone therapies don’t work on it. It’s more likely to spread and the recurrence rate is high after treatments.
Mom: That’s awful, she’s so young. I’ll keep her in my prayers. I haven’t heard of TNBC either. It must be pretty rare, if I just got through breast cancer and it was never mentioned. I didn’t even know there was more than one type of breast cancer. Isn’t that crazy?
I remember vividly the day I found out something serious was wrong with my health. It was a chilly morning in February. Mike had just gone off to work and the kids were at my in-laws. I made my way into the city to meet with a lactation consultant. I had called for an appointment with my OBGYN the week before and mentioned that I had expressed some blood, and having just finished breastfeeding my baby girl two months prior, the receptionist assumed this would be a lactation-related appointment and did not give me an urgent appointment spot. With this in mind, I was confident the symptoms were a clogged duct and perhaps an abscess from mastitis and I’d be given some antibiotics and be sent on my merry way.
The LC examined my breast and seemed quite concerned when I showed her that this was deep red blood and not milk being expressed and I showed her the hardening on my breast which I assumed was the clogged ducts. She quickly left the room and returned with a doctor who gave me a breast exam. “Don’t panic,” the doctor said after examining me, “but this type of bleeding is never normal. I’m referring you to a breast surgeon and need you to get imaging ASAP.” I was shocked I knew I had lumps but I had just a mammogram over the summer and a physical in the fall (due to health concerns I’ll touch on in another post) and nobody was concerned about the lumps and bumps.
You see the problem with large and dense breasts is that the standard “lay back on a table examination” isn’t effective, she couldn’t even feel the lumps until I showed her by sitting up and leaning forward.
All I know, is no antibiotics were given and the serious look on their faces as I cracked jokes and tried to keep things lighthearted still haunts me a bit. So much so that I immediately applied for life insurance (spoiler: I was denied coverage).
The following week I went for a mammogram and ultrasound. As I waited to be called in I posted a photo reminding people to still get mammograms even in the pandemic still trying to keep things lighthearted. My mom had just gone through breast cancer when Vivienne was born. She had a double mastectomy with reconstruction surgery and is able to take oral meds and completely avoid chemotherapy or radiation. It was a tough recovery for her, but she is thriving now, surely being only 35, I could get through it too.
I had the mammogram, and laid down to make small talk with the ultrasound tech as she got me prepped. We had gotten to know her over the summer when I came in for imaging due to pain in my other breast. Having just turned 35, insurance approved me for imaging of both breasts, but I was only given an ultrasound of the non-cancerous breast because (go figure) that’s the one I had pain in.
It’s important to note here that women with dense breast tissue should always have ultrasounds of both breasts following mammograms. This should be the standard of care. It was not for me.
As she imaged my breast, the tech and I chatted for a good 20 minutes about the crazy election that had just taken place and what a year 2020 had been. What I remember most from that conversation is her telling me what an absolute mess my breast was. The head of breast imaging came in to take over the ultrasound and recommended biopsies of three different areas of my breast and a swollen lymph node under the arm. I would have to make an appointment at the office in Farmington where they perform the biopsies and surgeries, and they were booked almost two weeks out. The thought in my head at that time was “well shoot, my mom didn’t have that many suspicious areas, this isn’t good.” I called my mom in tears as I left, the appointment, all I remember saying was after a global pandemic, two miscarriages, and poor health all year, could this really be happening to me?
After another long week until I could finally meet with the breast surgeon. I went alone to the appointment thinking it would just be a quick consultation until I could get the biopsies done. She was, however, able to do a biopsy of the largest suspicious area right in her office, and told me the results would be back the next week. She sent me for genetic testing that afternoon, and then I met my sister for a much needed shopping date to get my mind off of everything. It was our first time really doing mindless shopping since the pandemic started. We went to some home goods stores and ended our night at TJ Maxx, where I bought a scalp shampoo massager, a new shower cap, and some hair ties. I knew of exactly two people that had breast cancer and had gone through chemotherapy with hair loss. I had just been told this could be cancer, during a pandemic, holding the hand of a stranger while they stuck a needle in my breast. It clearly hadn’t crossed my mind that this might be the type of cancer that requires these treatments. I shake my head in disbelief every time I look at that darn shower cap now.
It was late afternoon when I got an email from Quest Diagnostics that my results were ready. I had signed up to get results on bloodwork back when we were going through infertility treatments, and when my son was sick. We didn’t know my pathology report would also be done by them and I’d have the results of my biopsy available before I could hear from the surgeon.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen.
I was finishing up work (from home) for the day and Mike was heading to pick the kids up from his parents house. I called him immediately and asked him to stay at his parents house with the kids. I knew getting these results at home by myself was something no one should have to go through, but I didn’t want my children to have to see me breakdown and I simply could not wait until the doctor’s office opened the next day. Our 4 year old had been picking up on too much lately with all the stress the year has brought and I couldn’t bear the thought of him seeing me upset, nor did I think I could put on a brave face through dinner and bedtime.
All too familiar with lab reports, I opened them immediately and scrolled down to the diagnosis, already knowing in my heart it was cancer. Invasive Ductal Carcinoma it read, but it was followed by a lot of NEGATIVE testing and for a brief moment I had hope that this was a good thing. I dialed the breast surgeon’s office and explained my situation to the after hours answering service, asking if a doctor on call, ANY doctor, could call me back. I was told she’d relay the message but that they did not usually call back after hours in situations like this. I never heard back from anyone.
I made some phone calls to two friends in the medical field, and had to put one of them, my next door neighbor and lifelong friend, in the terrible position of telling me that I had breast cancer, and the negative tests results meant it was Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
Well I knew all about Triple Negative Breast Cancer now. I called Mike to break the news to him and asked that he stay with the kids at his parents for dinner. My Dad was calling on the line line and I could barely breathe as I told him the news in between sobbing. He and my mom showed up at my house a little while later to sit down and interpret the pathology report line by line with the help of Dr. Google.
I took a Xanax that night and was fortunately able to have a deep and dreamless sleep, the last good sleep I’ve had since my cancer journey began.
I'm Jayne, a 30 something Executive Assistant living in New England with my husband, Mike, our sweet miracle baby and our Labrador Retriever. I have a passion for nontoxic living. I love coffee, recorded TV, baking, red wine, vegetarian cooking, online shopping, fashion & beauty.