By: Danielle Pascente (D)
Special Thanks: Aunt J (AJ)
We are nearing the end of Breast Cancer Awareness month and I have been putting together something that is very meaningful to me. I had the opportunity to interview my Aunt, who was diagnosed with breast cancer 3 years ago. She will talk about her story, the hardships she faced, and overcoming this disease. She is now cancer-free and ready to talk about her experience. Now without further adieu…my interview with Aunt J.
D: At what age were you diagnosed and how did you find out? (was it through a yearly exam, check-up, blood test?)
AJ: I was diagnosed at age 49 with Stage one ER+ invasive breast cancer. The way I found out was that my left nipple was inverted. It had only been like that for a week or two (at least that I noticed). My dental hygienist told me at my annual dental cleaning that she had breast cancer that summer and she really hadn’t told anyone, but she told me. I told her about my nipple and she said I should definitely get checked. When I called for a screening Mammogram (it had been about two to three years since last one). They told me because of the symptom, I needed to see my ob-gyn first for a diagnostic test. So that’s what I did. The diagnostic screening test showed nothing as I have very dense breast tissue. But because of the nipple they decided to pursue and do an ultrasound. That showed a suspicious area. They then did a core biopsy, (NOT fun) and determined that I had cancer in the milk ducts, but it was one and small. They set me up for a lumpectomy and was then to have radiation. Two days before that surgery they did an MRI and found another tumor, so they decided a mastectomy was the best course of action. After that and the pathology test I actually had 3 tumors so it was a good thing I had my breast removed, as it probably would have come back.
D: I am so thankful that action was taken right away. How important do you think it is to get an annual checkup?
AJ: I think a yearly exam is very important, but most important is to know your body and what it looks and feels like so you can notice any differences. If I had ignored that symptom I might have had a worse outcome. Do your shower exams to check for lumps and look at your breasts every now and then to see if the skin has changed or some other thing has changed. I also was very fatigued before my diagnosis, but I figured it was just my job. Now I know it was probably the cancer. And weirdest of all, my dog Cooper became very affectionate and would come up and snuggle by my chest when sleeping and sniff my breath. I think he knew that I had cancer. So don’t ignore your pets when they start behaving differently towards you. They may know something you don’t. He started to relax a bit when I told him I’m taking care of it and when my cancer was gone, he knew and stopped sniffing my breath. I do miss the snuggling though. Now he puts his butt in my face and lays along my body. Not so much face time!
D: If you had known about a ways to optimize breast health years ago, would you have taken it?
AJ: To be honest…probably not, as I am not a big advocate of taking pills and potions. I’ve heard that vitamin D can reduce risk, but I just am not fully convinced that is what I want to do. I take my Tamoxifen which is a cancer/chemo drug to prevent recurrence, plus I’m trying to eat more organically for a better quality of food.
D: Eating organic is a great start! Besides Vitamin D, do you think there are other ways to optimize breast health?
AJ: Yes. The obvious ones are not smoking and not drinking too much. But I feel there are a lot of environmental factors that can have detrimental effects on your health. In my case I have some bad habits, but I also think Bisphenol-A in plastics (I did ALOT of reheating in microwave with plastics) and the environment and type of work I do played a large part as well. A Study found that women who work shift work, like I did, have a higher incidence of cancers. I feel that taking care of yourself and eating right will go a long way to keeping any cancer at bay.
D: I couldn’t agree more. Although I’m going to have to be more aware of the microwave. I can’t tell you how many times I reheat things in tupperware daily! Would you mind talking about your experience after being diagnosed?
AJ: At the time of my diagnosis, my husband Paul lost his job of 17 years. So it was a double life whammy for us. One would think you would freak out, but it turned out for the best. Paul was able to be there for my surgeries and recovery, which was a tremendous benefit. I never really felt that this was a life threatening thing, so I didn’t get too stressed out about it or feel like I was going to die. When something like this happens, you deal with it and just keep moving forward. The pain of surgery, and reconstruction was difficult, but the drugs that were given helped tremendously with the pain. I had time off from work so I was able to keep my job. They did tests for BRCA1 and 2 and I was negative on the gene. They did what’s called an Onco-DX test that factors all of your stuff and gives you a number that calculates the risk of the cancer returning. My number was so low that they said I didn’t need chemo and because the breast was removed, no radiation. That made a HUGE difference in how I felt and recovered. I think the chemo would have killed me! And I got to keep my hair. That’s hard for a lot of women. I’m not overly happy with the appearance of my reconstructed breast and I have some lingering, burning pain around the implant, which I’m not sure is completely normal. I will have to go back to plastic surgeon to find out.
D: It was obviously a very difficult time for you, and I’m happy Paul was able to be there for you. I credit you for being so strong during this and remaining as calm as you said you were. Are you cancer free now?
AJ: Yes, I am now three years cancer free. I have my third year Mammo and yearly MRI this Wednesday and then see the oncologist next week. I suspect it will be clean. Catching it early made all the difference.
D: That is such great news and I will continue to pray for more positive news after your upcoming appointments! All in all, has this experience changed your life in a positive manner? Do you feel like a stronger person?
AJ: Yes to both questions. I’m trying to live my life with more gratitude. I also found out that when the going gets tough, I’m very good at keeping a positive attitude. I practice that even on a daily basis, because if you don’t, I think that harms your healing process. I’ve always kind of considered myself to be a strong person, especially under stress. Paul and I have both gotten stronger, not only with my cancer but with his 3 near death experiences as well (but that may be for another blog interview). We are trying not to take each other for granted and we try to be respectful of each other, and help each other out when one of us is having an off day. Now that I’m retired it’s even better! 😉
D: It sounds like you both are doing great and I commend you for your positive outlook on life. I truly do believe that staying positive is an overall easier way of living—no matter what the case may be. I continue to wish you all the health and happiness in the world and I thank you for taking the time to talk about your experience.
AJ: Thank you Danielle for giving me the opportunity to share my story. My case was was very lucky. We caught it early. I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation, which takes a toll on your body. I must say though that the Tamoxifen I take for preventing breast cancer has it’s own risks. It can cause endometrial cancer. Go figure. I had an ultrasound done in December of 2010 that showed thickness of my endometrial lining, which can be an indicator of cancer. So with the guidance of my ob-gyn we did a complete hysterectomy to prevent that type of cancer. I had eight fibroids and polyps and cervical inflammation along with many cysts on my ovaries and fallopian tubes. The good news— no cancer. So it was a really good thing for me to have done. No periods, discomfort, and she also found a small intestine adhesion with a big kink that later on could have caused huge problems. It has helped with my digestive problems. Foods move through my system much better now. All in all, life is good! I don’t dwell on the cancer because it will come back or it won’t. I choose to believe it won’t. I can’t live my life in fear and many have worse cases than mine. I just wish that more women would get themselves checked earlier. I read the obits and see someone young has died of stage four breast cancer and it just makes me wonder…. Did they ignore their symptoms? Were they in denial or fear? Don’t be, because catching it early is the real key to long term survival. The tests and procedures are a lot less worse fate than the possibility of catching it too late.
D: I think the message we can take from all of this is to create a healthy life early and be sure you have an annual check up! By simply taking care of your health and putting the appropriate kinds of foods and nutrients in your body, you are already decreasing your chances of getting cancer. I know for sure I slack in the department of getting an annual check-up both at my general doc and gynecologist. I have heard way too many times that if it weren’t for early detection, it may have been too late. This motivates me to be more proactive about even just getting that yearly physical. I hope anyone reading this can gain some knowledge and appreciate the insight AJ gave us. I couldn’t be more happy my Aunt is cancer free 🙂 LOVE YOU AJ