Monday, October 25, 2010

Cancer Sucks!

Those of you who have known me since 2008 or before are aware of my past participation in the Breast Cancer 3-Day with my friend, Kathy--in Kansas City in 2006, Seattle in 2007 and the Twin Cities in 2008. (I probably asked you for money.) During that time, we produced a periodic newsletter to share our training and fundraising progress as well as information about breast cancer.

In most issues we had a feature called "Profile in Courage" which was about someone who was fighting breast cancer, or who had survived it or who had lost their life to this $%$#ing disease. These articles were often contributed by people we know about someone they loved. In at least three cases, the person who was featured was fighting the disease and has since lost the battle. I'm sad to say, tonight I learned of a fourth.

Karen passed away on Friday. I didn't know her well. In fact, I didn't know her at all until we featured her in our newsletter in May of 2006. Her daughter and niece submitted the article. She was a co-worker of Kathy's. She was one of our biggest supporters. She volunteered with us at Starlight to help us raise money. She was at our vendor party last fall to support Kathy and Kathi in the Phoenix walk (I retired). She read every newsletter and, I found out last year, shared them with her daughter and family.
She was a strong woman, a loving mother, and a doting grandmother. Below is her Profile in Courage.

Profile in Courage—Karen McCommas
(Contributed by her daughter, Amanda Dey and her niece, Shelly Ballesteros)

Breast cancer awareness has always been part of our family - our maternal grandmother had a bilateral radical mastectomy long before either one of us can remember. Her victory over breast cancer provided proof to her daughters (and granddaughters) that being diagnosed with breast cancer was not a death sentence. For the females of the family that meant monthly breast self-exams and regular mammograms.

My mother (and aunt), Karen McCommas, was no exception. She performed her self-exams and had regular mammograms until we moved from Texas to Kansas in November 2005. I had given birth just before the move and as always, my mother was there to help. Instead of finding a job immediately she took care of my newborn for six months. She then began her job search— after temp jobs, leaving a permanent job, and then waiting for insurance to kick in at her current employment, it had been around two years since her last mammogram.

In August 2006 she discovered a lump on the side of her left breast. The biopsy results came back positive for breast cancer. By September 2006 she had a left mastectomy with a second surgery to retrieve lymph nodes that were missed during the original surgery. The lymph nodes showed almost complete replacement of normal cells with cancer cells so the treatment plan was an aggressive one.

Every two weeks she received chemotherapy and then would give herself injections every day for 10 days following treatment. She scheduled her treatments for Fridays so she could rest over the weekend and return to work on Monday. Even after sleepless nights and all the side effects of the chemo she still went to work every day. She is still going through Radiation treatment which should be finished by May.

Throughout it all, Karen has maintained that positive and bubbly attitude we know and love her for. She has never complained, never let being diagnosed or going through the various treatments get her down or prevent her from living her life. Karen is an amazing woman, full of courage and an enormous amount of strength.

Having breast cancer has never prevented Karen from the joys of being a wonderful Nana to my very active 2 ½ year old. She has been the epitome of strength – reminding us all that no matter what life gives you, you can overcome any obstacle.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Waiting Game

I'm not good at waiting. Whether it be waiting for the pizza delivery person to arrive or waiting for water to boil, I'm just not patient. But, I'm especially not good at waiting for medical tests.

On September 17 I had my annual screening mammogram. On September 20 I got a call from the breast center letting me know they saw a "density" on my right breast. They explained it's probably nothing and could be anything, but they wanted me to come in for a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound. I scheduled the next available appointment, which was September 30.

I woke up on September 21 and realized there was no way someone as anti-waiting as I am was going to make it until September 30 without driving myself bonkers. I understood it was almost certainly nothing, but sometimes you want more than "almost." Especially if you've watched your sister go through breast cancer treatments. So, at 8:00 am I called the breast center to see if there was any chance I could get an earlier appointment. They told me to come in at 9:00 that day. Peachy!

I was glad to hear them say that I would have some sort of an answer right then. Yay! No waiting! I had the diagnostic mammogram first. In case you're wondering, the experience is pretty much like a screening mammogram except they compress it more and they focus on a specific area. When they looked at the pictures, the density wasn't as clearly defined, but the doctor advised that I go ahead and get the ultrasound just to be sure.

On the way to the ultrasound, the gal who escorted me asked if I had been called back before. I hadn't. After all my previous mammograms I had gotten a letter in the mail saying that everything was A-OK, come back in a year. I was a little annoyed that they went off script this year by calling me. She said, "you're probably freaking out, then." I said I wasn't (much) and that I kept reminding myself that it was probably nothing. She told me to keep reminding myself that, because it usually is nothing.

On the ultrasound they spotted a small nodule. I saw it on the screen, but I didn't ask the technician any questions about it. She escorted me in silence back to the breast center. I tend to crack jokes when I'm nervous (or any time I get a chance, really) so when we walked past an exam room that had a treadmill in it, I said, "At least none of my tests today involved a treadmill." She laughed.

Back at the breast center, the radiologist confirmed the presence of a "suspicious abnormality." A biopsy was recommended and my doctor's office would be calling me about that. She asked if I had questions. I was sure I should have about a dozen, but I asked none. She said if I came up with any, I could ask the nurse when she called or I could call them. She handed me a pamphlet about breast biopsies and I headed out the door. The gal who escorted me to the ultrasound spotted me in the hall and asked, "well, did it go alright?" I didn't know how to answer. I smiled, "yes, it went fine, thanks."

Yes, it went fine. At this point, I still realized it was probably nothing. 80% of all breast biopsies are benign. Yay! But, please God, make me one of the 80%, thanks!

I had to wait a whole day to get the official order from my doctor to schedule the biopsy. Of course, I wanted to schedule it for the next moment possible, and they were happy to oblige...except the next moment possible was October 4. Twelve long days away. Seriously? OK. This non-waiter was going to have to learn some patience. Like now!

I spent the next few days reminding myself that it was probably nothing and that even on the off chance it was something, it was pretty small, thus nothing to worry about. Early in the waiting period, I was about 96-97% sure it was nothing. But, by about day 6, that grew to about 99.99999999%. But the waiting was still getting on my nerves.

A week before the biopsy, a nurse from the breast center called to walk me through the procedure. It went something like this. "You will be getting an ultrasound guided core needle biopsy. They'll find the lump again on the ultrasound and the doctor will mark where she wants to enter your breast. They will numb you with lidocaine. The doctor will make a small cut where she will enter with the instrument. The instrument has a core needle, or hollowed out needle on the end and she will use it to collect samples. It will make a clicking sound when she collects a sample. She'll deposit the sample in a container and then go back in to collect a total of 3-6 samples. When she is done, she will insert a titanium marker so that we can watch that spot on future mammograms. We'll apply pressure for 10 minutes to stop the bleeding. We'll cover with steri-strips. Then, we'll take you in for a mammogram so we can get a new baseline for your right breast. Bring a supportive bra that you can sleep in because you'll need to wear it for 24 hours. Any questions?"

I don't remember what questions I actually asked, but the one that was reverberating in my brain was, "Really? You're going to give me another mammogram after all of that?"

Anyway, the day of the procedure finally arrived. I was told to arrive 45 minutes early, so I did. I'm not sure why that was necessary unless they wanted me to get really familiar with their waiting room. Luckily a friend had come along so the wait went quickly.

They called me back on time and had me change into the lovely short smock thing they provide. Then, I had to wait for the ultrasound tech. More waiting. But, it wasn't a long wait. She took me back to the room and explained that they suspected it might be a papilloma, which is benign, but would probably need to be removed. But, there was a chance it was nothing at all. That sounded good to me. It sounded like worst-case scenario is that it's benign and needs to be removed.

She went on to describe what would happen during the procedure and it was pretty much as described a week earlier by the nurse. Pretty much. When she got to the part about the needle, she said, "Oh, and we have this new instrument we're going to use today. You'll be the first one we've used it on. Instead of having to go in multiple times to collect samples, this instrument collects multiple samples on one insertion. We've never used it on a human before, but we've used it on a fake breast with peas."

Really? Really.

I'm all for the latest gadgets and gizmos when we're talking computers or ways to make my tv-watching experience better. But, do I really want to be the first person whose breast they've used an "instrument" on? Well, OK. Even better, a representative from the company who makes this fine instrument was there and wanted to observe so I had an extra person in the room.

The procedure was pretty much painless. (Even the post-biopsy mammogram was pretty pain-free.) When they injected the lidocaine, they could tell by the way the lump behaved that it is probably just fibrocystic changes or something...not a papilloma. But, they'll test the tissue to be sure. Waiting on those results as we speak. As they inserted the titanium marker they assured me it wouldn't set off the metal detectors at the airport. I asked if I could at least brag to my friends that I have a titanium breast. They said I could. Be jealous. (It's a tiny little ribbon shaped marker.)

So, now all that is left to do is wait for the official word. I am not at all anxious about it, but looking forward to the official news and an end to the waiting.

(Reminder: October is national breast cancer awareness month, so I feel inclined to remind my gal friends that if you are due for your annual mammogram, schedule one soon!)