My Breast Cancer Journey Continues

My Sister

A year after my breast cancer diagnosis, my older sister was diagnosed with the same type of breast cancer. Fast growing, and aggressive. She had a mammogram shortly after I told her about me, and there was no sign, yet less than a year after that, the tumor had grown so much that the docs couldn't get clean margins. She had a mastectomy. She also had lymph node involvement and was told that if she was given very aggressive treatment, she might live 2 more years if she was lucky.

Fortunately, she went to another doctor who created a very aggressive treatment plan. He also did the infusion method, which sounds to me like a really good way to administer chemo drugs. She was hooked up to vials of the drugs for a three day period every 3 weeks and the drugs were infused slowly, constantly over those days. She took adriamycin, cytoxan, methotrexate, taxol and 5FU - quite the cocktail. Then radiation and tamoxifen.

As of this writing, she is a couple months shy of being a 14 year survivor. YAY! Life

Changing Mammogram

Two years after this, when I went for my annual mammogram I was told there was a new mass in the breast that had cancer before. This mass was deep in the breast, and surgery would be required to find out what it was. I opted to have a bilateral mastectomy regardless of what this turned out to be. My sister (who lived in another state) came for moral support when I had the surgery. Of course she also brought her new boob with her, which was an amazing feat of plastic surgery. It looked and felt just like a real breast. Looking at her and not knowing, you would think something was different, but never would you guess that thing was created from abdominal tissue. It was quite heartening to me with the decision I had made. The mass wasn't cancer, but rather the lumpectomy scar tissue had drastically changed due to a fever I had as the result of an infection that almost killed me the year before. Back when I had cancer, they didn't do the Sentinel Node Technique, but rather took out as many lymph nodes as they could find, resulting in no immune system in the affected arm. The docs caution you about injuries to that arm and tell you to keep an eye on any injury in case of infection. I had cut my finger on a tape dispenser, a very minute cut that produced only a few drops of blood. I watched it, it never got red at all. Three days later I had an unbearable back ache (which I had been prone to well before cancer entered my life) and went to get a pain shot. As I was leaving, I just happened to mention to the doctor that my breast, chest and upper arm were very red. I thought from the stress of the back pain. The doc took one look and checked me into the hospital. I was asked if I had a living will. I said yes, why? They wanted to have someone bring it to the hospital.

What? Why??

They said the infection was very close to my heart and very serious. Apparently a nasty old bacteria got in that little cut, traveled up my arm to where the tissue was weakened from radiation, and settled in. I was in the hospital for 4 days being pumped full of antibiotics. Very scary! Cancer would take at least months to kill me, and this little germ could have done it in hours. Freedom The bilateral mastectomy wasn't too bad, and I lost 8 pounds in one fell swoop!. After being a double D cup, having no breasts was rather freeing. No more bras, no more dents in my shoulders from straps, no more upper back aches from the weight. I didn't get any prostheses, but after about 3 years, the novelty wore off and I got tired of being flat chested. I opted for tram flaps rather than implants, not that implants were a viable option for me since radiated skin tends to break more readily than it expands. I couldn't have 2 tram flaps because I had a gall bladder scar that prevented getting the muscle on that side up to my chest for the blood supply. So, I had 1 tram flap and 1 free flap. With a free flap, the tissue is completely removed from the muscle, and blood supply is obtained from a vein in the back that's brought around to the front. It requires a lot of micro sewing to get it working. There was only 1 doctor in town that could do a free flap, so I had 2 surgeons, 1 for each side. The surgery went quicker than expected, so instead of an 8 hour surgery, it was only 6.

Recovery

The hospital stay for this was completely unpleasant for a number of reasons, one of which was all the tubes and monitors I was hooked up to. The free flap had to have it's own monitor attached because of the possiblity of the tissue dying, and then they'd have to get that off my body pretty quickly. The pain from this type of surgery is really bad - so bad in fact that pain drugs don't have much effect. My sister has an extremely high pain tolerance, and she told me it was the worst pain imaginable (the thought of this pain also contributed to me waiting so long to do the surgery). Fortunately, not long before I had the surgery, the docs realized (duh) that if they put in an epidural high up in the spine, they could keep the patient completely numb from the chest down. I had no feeling below my collarbone, and hence couldn't walk - not that I'd be able to with all the tubes anyway - so I was in intensive care for 3 days. Except for the fact that you don't get any sleep in intensive care, it wasn't bad at all - no pain whatsoever. After 3 days, the pain gets down to a level that can be controlled by medication and I was moved to floor where I could actually sleep. That is to say I could have slept if the person in the bed next to me didn't have some strange and noisy issues and the nurse wasn't such a {bad word}. I was pretty cranky from lack of sleep, and at 2:30 in the morning I called my husband and told him he had to come get me. He tried to reason with me about this, but I kept telling him "if you love me you'll come get me". Twenty minutes later I hear him telling the nurse that he doesn't know what's going on, but it better be fixed fast. My husband is 6'4" and rather intimidating, and he had the staff scrambling. The woman next to me - and her male interpreter who was sleeping in a chair - were moved to another room, a competent nurse was assigned to me, a sleeping drug was obtained and my wonderful husband slipped out sometime after I fell asleep. My new chest lumps are not great - without clothes on, there is no question that these aren't breasts. However, they do make my clothes stick out in the places they're supposed to, they don't sag like my old breasts did and I still don't have to wear a bra. It would be nicer if they were better, but they are perfectly good clothes bumps.

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