By: Patty Murray, Chairwoman and Co-founder of Hope for Two…The Pregnant with Cancer Network
When driving home after my initial cancer diagnosis 20 years ago, all of the trials and losses in my life flashed before my mind. I silently screamed, “God, didn’t I endure enough? Didn’t I meet my quota?!” But what I had only begun to learn then and KNOW now is simply stated… THAT THERE AREN’T ANY QUOTAS YOU FILL FOR EITHER THE BAD OR GOOD EVENTS IN YOUR LIFE. That is why I believe follow-up doctor visits and scans are vital.
While in a waiting room at a major cancer center where I was seeking a second opinion for my next course of treatment in 1996, I overheard a secretary making phone calls to patients who have missed their follow ups. When it was my turn to be summoned to the window, I asked her if it is a common occurrence that so many people either forget or choose not to come back. Her answer of “Yes, it is sadly more typical” made my head reel. Why would people miss appointments? At the time, my doctor visits and treatments were my lifeline. I was physically doing something to eradicate the disease.
After completing 11 months of treatments, I felt like a raft out to sea- lost. However, the check-ups began. For the first 3 years we either had a physician’s appointment or scan practically once a month. At first these visits were comforting- I was doing something again to prevent recurrence. Slowly, however, as time passed, the comfort was replaced by near paralyzing fear prior to each visit. Finally, my patience wore thin one day after waiting over 2 hours for a medical test and doing this check-up routine for 36 months straight. I stood up and began to walk out. My husband caught up to me but not before I blurted, “Why am I doing this? All they are going to tell me someday is that I have cancer somewhere.” I expressed these feelings to my oncologist but he compassionately disagreed with me. He said that generally one of two things will occur at a follow up- be told that you are cancer free or that, since you have been consistently going to appointments and scans, you have an early stage cancer and can be cured again. So for 18 years I trekked to each one and was advised that I was cancer free.
However, last April, after a routine breast MRI, they called me into the radiologist’s office. Her initial remark was revealing, “When did you have your first breast cancer?” I knew I had breast cancer again- Stage 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. It never showed up on the mammogram that followed. Instead of feeling shocked or depressed, I was ANGRY. I had already done the breast cancer thing- right?! Since I had a lumpectomy and radiation in the same breast before, I needed a mastectomy. No chemo or radiation was recommended, and, since it was estrogen positive I will be on a hormone suppressant for either 5 or 10 years. This didn’t seem to make sense to me as I was robbed of most of my estrogen by being thrown into chemotherapy induced menopause at age 35. Shouldn’t this count for something? Although I had minimal amounts of estrogen floating around in my body to begin with, the tumor was ironically estrogen positive.
Again, no quotas for anyone and sometimes life just doesn’t make sense. But humor and perspective help you get through it all. Ironically, my husband and I shared a deep laugh at the breast surgeon’s office last May. The doctor had made 10 minute DVD’s of each type of breast cancer to be viewed before seeing him. While popping in the DVD for Stage 0, which I didn’t have, the nurse added, “If you are to have breast cancer, you want this one since it is totally curable.” Minutes into the tape the nurse bolted into the room, “Sorry this is the wrong tape.” After she left, we laughed out loud. It was either that or to cry. But there was no need to be upset. I beat it once and will do so again.
Fortunately, I was given a strong dose of perspective days before my surgery. I had already had the requisite tests performed at the hospital such as an EKG, blood work, etc. when I received a phone call from my primary physician’s office. They wanted me to have an additional blood test. This seemed strange. I did so and in the opening moments of my Doctor’s appointment, my nurse said, “Too bad you are going to have to cancel your surgery.” “What?” I cried. My doctor came in and told me that the initial blood work from the hospital showed a very high white blood cell count and evidence of “smudge cells.” “The cell count has to go down considerably before performing surgery,” he said. He explained that my blood results were consistent with a type of leukemia. My world went spinning again. I had to wait 30 long hours for the results of the second blood test. The doctor personally called and said that the white cell count, while still high, was within the acceptable range and no smudge cells. Surgery was still on. I was so happy just to have breast cancer and not leukemia as well. Funny, huh, to be happy to only have one type of cancer- but that was my reality. The high counts were probably attributed to an infection I had while visiting my son while he was studying abroad; I had just come home. Perspective helps and so does carrying on with “Life”.
So, life does not have a quota system, where once you’ve met a threshold of trials in your life, the rest is clear sailing. It doesn’t happen that way. But, thank God, it doesn’t happen that way with the happy events either. Therefore, keep up with your follow-ups and check-ups. Life is truly an amazing journey. Some trips are filled with beautiful sunsets and memorable events and others are dotted with the occasional flat tire or something worse. We are lucky enough to be on the ride. Until next time, we should all “be happy we’re here,” as my Mom used to say to us as kids. And isn’t she right? ✿