I found the lump in February, 1990. Buried deep in my left breast, it was rock-hard, the size of a BB and it hurt. I wondered if it might be cancer. Like blue eyes and a sense of humor, the disease runs in my family. But not breast cancer. And not me. I was too young. OK, I had recently turned 40, but I was healthy. I worked out three times a week and I was almost a vegetarian. My next physical was only a month away. I’d have it checked then.
In March, my surgeon told me the lump was ‘nothing to worry about.’ My mammogram was clear, he said. The pain was a good sign, too. ‘Cancerous lumps are rarely painful,’ he assured me. “Women’s breasts are full of lumps, and 90 per cent of them are benign.’ This cautious young surgeon had removed a benign tumor from my breast three years earlier and always took time to answer my questions. So I trusted him.
As spring turned to summer, the memory of my doctor’s reassuring words grew fainter. The lump was growing. Or was it just my imagination? I began to worry. I checked my breasts over and over: in the shower, before I went to sleep, when I woke up. By September, the lump was the size of a pea. Once more, the surgeon insisted it was ‘nothing,’ but, patting me on the shoulder, said he would do a biopsy just to make me ‘feel better.’
When I awoke from the anesthetic that Friday afternoon in late September, my husband was standing by my hospital bed, looking sadder and paler than I’ve ever seen him. The surgeon had gone, so Tom had to break the awful news: “The tumor is malignant.’ I was numb. I didn’t believe him. How could I have cancer? I felt fine. But as his words sank in, I felt as if a dark, heavy shroud had fallen over me. Cancer. Here was my death sentence, gently delivered by my husband. We went home and I cried for days.
The biopsy showed that I had invasive
ductal carcinoma, an aggressive form of breast cancer. But the tumor was only half an inch across, and my breast could be saved. A lumpectomy, combined with radiation therapy, the doctor said, would be as effective as a mastectomy. Next came weeks of anxious waiting to see if any cancer cells had escaped to my lungs, my bones or my brain. With little confidence left in doctors, I felt very vulnerable.
I was lucky. There were no signs of cancer anywhere else in my body. But it took more than three months of surgery, bone scans, Xrays and blood tests to establish that, while at the same time I underwent daily radiation treatments. Between appointments, I dealt with my fear and anger. Anger at the surgeon whose stalling may have taken years off my life, and at the oncologist who patronizingly—and incorrectly—told me that radiation has no side effects. With the support of my family—especially the endearing opti-
mism of my children, Alana, then 14, and Paul, 10—and my friends, I tried to ground my emotions with facts. I read medical journals and self-help books. I lightened the mood with comic novels and funny videos. I meditated. I prayed. I went to the edge and back.
The fear of a recurrence resurfaces from time to time. But, in the end, cancer made me stronger. It helped me cut to the chase. When I thought I was facing death, what I wanted in life became perfectly clear. And it even surprised me. I once imagined that, given six months to live, I would travel to the pyramids or maybe ride the Orient Express. Now I find joy in everyday things, like a smile or a hug, or simply feeling a bitter wind hit my face and revelling that I’m still alive.
Sharon Doyle Driedger is a Deputy Chief Researcher at Maclean’s.
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