There’s no burying the lede here, since it’s right in the title: I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.

While jokes were made that the week of the US presidential election felt like waiting for biopsy results, I was *actually* waiting for biopsy results – and America definitely got better news than I did.

No matter which way it went (the biopsy, not the election), I knew I would want to write about what happened, not only because writing is cathartic for me, but because I have no doubt that someone, somewhere will be helped by the information I can share. While I’m no mega-influencer, I still want to do my part. I also know that already there have been things I was glad I had learned about in advance, without ever knowing it would be helpful, for example from Amy Robach’s cancer memoir Better: How I Let Go of Control, Held On to Hope, and Found Joy in My Darkest Hour (if you didn’t already know, TV journalists are my celebrities), and there were also things I wished I had read about ahead of time, like what to expect at a biopsy, so sharing is the way to go for me.

I’ve already been overwhelmed by so much support, and I can assume that my readers and followers will have many of the same questions that my family members, friends and colleagues had, so I figured a breakdown of FAQs would be a useful way to kick things off…so here we go!

{This is probably a good time to note that nothing I ever share should be considered medical advice or professional information; strictly my own experience and understanding of what my doctors tell me.}

How did you find it?

There’s a short version and a long version – and you’re getting the long one!

This past July, I did a self-exam (which I do not do routinely) one night while lying awake in bed. I found a lump, and within days I had seen my family doctor and been to the hospital for my first mammogram as well as an ultrasound. (Note that the experience of a mammogram is not something to be scared of, based on my experience, and I’m told that it’s even more uncomfortable for those with smaller, more dense breasts like myself. There was even a moment of levity when the technician asked me, “Do you find your breasts typically feel fairly hard?” and I responded that I had never felt anyone else’s so I didn’t know!)

The spot that my doctor and I had both felt turned out to be a fibroadenoma (as my doctor had speculated), which is a benign tumour, and I had multiple cysts as well. This wasn’t new, as a few years ago I had been for an ultrasound to check out another lump I had found, which turned out to be a cyst too.

I was told to come back for a three month follow up to check in again, which took place on October 29th. Even though my appointment was fairly early in the morning and I might have been able to make some switches and arrive late to work, I was wild and crazy and booked off the morning. I even managed to schedule an interview after my appointment with Off Script author (and newly elected MP) Marci Ien about her book. The technician did her thing, and didn’t show any signs of concern – except for the fact that the radiologist seemed to be running late. Eventually she told me to go ahead home to do the interview, and that they would call me to come back if the doctor wanted to check me out himself…a call which I received while driving home. After my chat with Marci, I turned around and headed back to the hospital and the radiologist did another ultrasound to check out something he had noticed on the images: a very small mass that could be another fibroadenoma or could be cancer. He said he could usually tell the difference on an ultrasound but this one was a bit abnormal and didn’t look exactly like either, so he wanted to do a core needle biopsy…right then and there.

I will admit that part freaked me out, because I had no warning and no time to Google what to expect at a biopsy. Would it hurt? How long would it take? Would I be okay to go to work after? Would there be any side effects? The technician and doctor were both amazing at answering questions and explaining things as the procedure moved along, and the answers are: The only pain was the very quick prick of the needle to freeze the area, the actual biopsy part (he took two samples) took only a couple of minutes, I was allowed to go back to work for the afternoon (with a little ice pack in my bra) and only experienced some itching as the freezing came out, and while there can be more serious side effects like bleeding, the worst one for me was a huge bruise from the freezing needle! When I removed the bandage a few days later, the area where the biopsy had been performed was perfectly clear skin with just a couple of dots on it – yet the bruise from the freezing is still visible today!

I was told that my family doctor would receive the results within five business days, and that she would let me know. Those were a looooong five business days (one week total). Halloween helped to pass the time, both at school and home, and of course the nonstop election coverage.

How did you learn it was cancer?

I had spoken to my family doctor’s secretary to let them know to be expecting the results, and I was told that the secretary would likely be the one to call me with the all clear, but the doctor would want to speak to me herself if the news was bad…so I was bracing myself.

At the end of the day last Wednesday I received the call…that the doctor would like to see me the next morning. That was my answer.

My mom waited in the truck (my husband had offered to take me, but I had a sinking feeling that he would need to take off work in the future to help support me) and I went into the office. When the doctor came in and asked how I was, I responded, “Scared,” to which she replied, “Unfortunately it is bad news. It’s cancer.” While she did brace me for what the worst-case scenario could be, she seemed to feel that we had caught it as fast as we possibly could, given that it wasn’t remarkable enough three months ago to be an immediate concern. (A “lobulated piece of tissue” was noted in that spot on the previous ultrasound report, but didn’t seem suspicious.)

I do want to note here that while many people have responded to me with, “Wow, I never do self-exams; I need to start!”, and I’m certainly in no position to discourage that (though my tumour isn’t actually something I discovered myself), there are differing views in the medical field about the value of self-exams (as well as early and/or frequent screening, especially for those not at risk) but I want to do a bit more research before explaining further – look for that in a future post!

What stage is it at?

We don’t know for sure. The pathology report indicates the tumour is smaller than 2 cm, which would suggest Stage 1, but an important factor for classification is whether or not it has spread. The usual area to check first would be the lymph nodes under the arm, and the ultrasound didn’t show anything abnormal there, but we won’t know until the surgeon goes in and more testing is done on the nodes.

What is the treatment plan?

Surgery is the first step, with radiation likely to follow.

Right after the diagnosis my mom and I were sitting on my basement couch (Dad was on his way back from taking Eva to a dentist appointment – I truly do not know what I would do without my parents) and Mom noted that I seemed to be handling things very well, and that it was probably because I like to have a plan, and there was one: Meet the surgeon (I got the call that afternoon with an appointment for five days later, which seemed reasonable to me) and go from there. I could do this.

This afternoon I had my appointment with the surgeon, and he has ordered an MRI to be a bit clearer on what’s going on in that breast before he operates. If he sees anything else he wants biopsied there will be a further delay, and if not we will be able to go ahead and get surgery booked within a couple of weeks. Both the MRI and followup with my surgeon are booked for next week.

How did your girls react?

When they arrived home from school, my husband was already there, which was an indicator that something was amiss. (They still talk about coming home the day their Grandma died and seeing bags of buns on the kitchen counter – which we had picked up since my husband’s siblings were on their way over to discuss arrangements – and how that was unusual enough to make them suspicious that something had happened!)

They’re 14 and 12 and pretty mature so I had already told them that I needed to see the doctor to get biopsy results that morning, but had downplayed the possibility that it would actually be bad news. The afternoon of my diagnosis I told them very matter-of-factly that the tumour ended up being cancerous, that I was going to have surgery to remove it, and that I was going to recover and be just fine. There’s no reason for any of us to believe anything else at this point.

How is your husband?

I’ll make this short as he doesn’t relish appearing on the blog (he has always joked about starting one of his own, called “This Dad Hates”). He’s a very pragmatic man, and I think held out hope that the biopsy would be negative. 80% are, after all, and I wasn’t high risk, but unfortunately I was the one in five to receive a diagnosis of cancer. He handled it very well and has been extremely supportive (humour is his go-to strategy), and fortunately we both agree that being positive and maintaining routine while we can are the best ways to go about this for our family. One friend, who went through cancer herself, said her husband recommended that mine “build something”, and while he’s not a builder per se, he did put a great deal of effort into putting together beautiful Christmas pots and setting up lights the weekend after the diagnosis!

While many have asked about my husband, I also want to note how amazing my kindergarten partner and “work wife” Sarah has been every step of the way too, as I brought my phone from room to room with me and taught with my ringer on for the first time ever!

 

 

Is there anything I can do?

I haven’t even “announced” my diagnosis publicly (i.e., on social media) until now, but after just sharing with family members, close friends and my school staff I have received an outpouring of messages of support…and truly, it means a lot. I appreciate hearing that people are thinking of me and praying for me (one friend sent the prayer above), and since I do have a hopeful prognosis at this point the messages telling me that I’ve got this and I’m going to pull through are encouraging (though they might not be for someone in a more dire situation). One example (of so many) that brought tears to my eyes was a message from Carolyn MacKenzie, cohost of The Morning Show, who sent support and let me know, “you’ve become a very important member of our family.”

If you’re worried that you don’t know someone well enough to reach out after a recent diagnosis, or that you’ll look nosy (something that has held me back before) my recommendation is to stick with statements, not questions:

I just heard the news – I’m thinking of you. (Excellent.)

I just heard the news – are you going to lose your breast? (Not so much.)

It’s also thoughtful when people say “no need to reply” – while I’ve kept on top of that to this point, I might not always be able to. At the moment the emotional support is really what I appreciate most, though insights from a couple of friends who have been through cancer themselves were really valuable, and hearing from a doctor friend that I’m in good hands with my surgeon, and that “watching him work is like watching an artist” sure helped too!

The night of my diagnosis I let my coworkers know that it would probably be best for me (as a cry-at-the-drop-of-a-hatter) not to talk about it at school, which they’ve been great about (sending their support in emails or texts instead) but I actually found I have no problem discussing the factual kinds of things I’m talking about in this post at work; I just didn’t want to be inundated with the sad eyes and sympathy several times while trying to get through a day in kindergarten!

As my surgery approaches and I tackle a “Part 2” of this story, I will share the sorts of things that are helpful at that phase, and if there are any other questions you have that might be valuable for me to address, please reach out and let me know!

{Disclosure: The photo I used in this post was actually taken three days before my ultrasound and biopsy, when I was at a different hospital for an MRI for a completely separate and relatively minor issue. I still thinks it works to illustrate the content.}

10 comments on “My Breast Cancer Story: Part 1 (With FAQs)”

  1. I’ve been down this road a few times myself as you know. The best advice I can give is to stay positive, advocate for yourself at all times and take the time to recover fully! At one of my appointments following my first diagnosis another patient hugged me and said, ‘You are my sister now in this battle.” I have never forgotten that moment. So welcome Kate to the sisterhood. You do not fight this battle alone.

    • Thanks, Marguerite! I sure didn’t apply to join this club but it already does feel like a special sisterhood (though of course no hugging now – darn COVID!)

  2. Went through this 4 years ago and the bright side is how quickly things get dealt with. I had a lumpectomy and some lymph nodes removed (with a drain, yucky) and radiation. So far so good and on tamoxifen! Take advantage of all the support, let people take care of you! Thinking about you during this stressful time!

    • Thanks for sharing this, Diana – sounds like I may be on a very similar path! It definitely helps to hear from people who have come out the other side.

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Kate. Your vulnerability, strength and positivity are what make you a woman everyone can read happily and relate to. This post was undoubtedly hard to write and post live, but it will help so many. My thoughts and prayers are with you during this time.

    • Thanks, Julia – I truly do hope that by writing about it I can help someone else. And I appreciate the thoughts and prayers!

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