Excerpt from A Race for Life
The words "infiltrating ductile carcinoma" burned a hole in my entire being. Wild and uncontrollable panic seized me. I could not believe what I'd just heard. "Oh, NO!" I cried, "Oh, no, no..." The haunting words of the diagnosis of cancer echoed repeatedly in my head as I fought back the dizziness and nausea.
Just minutes before, while waiting to hear the results of the biopsy from the pathology lab, I was so sure, in fact, certain, that the offending growth was benign. I kept telling myself everything was going to be just fine. Hadn't I done everything I was supposed to? There was no one to scream "NO FAIR!" to!
I'd always eaten a "well-balanced" diet and had sworn off "red meat" years before. I'd gotten "plenty" of exercise and, in fact, even run marathons. I had frequent medical check-ups that included mammograms and had religiously done my monthly breast self exams.
How could this have happened? Why me? Things like this only happen in movies - or to other people. I'd always led a somewhat uneventful life - healthy, successful, playing by all the rules. I'd even been dealt a good hand in the game of life, having frequently been told how attractive I was and that I had a nice body. I was well educated, held an engrossing, well-paying job which involved traveling all over the world. I had two bright, beautiful and successful children.
So why this avalanche of devastation? It was both a life and death sentence for me. "Life" because there's still no real cure for breast cancer, and "death" because breast cancer is a major killer of adult women, striking one out of every nine or ten American women.
"My God, what do I do now?" I asked the two surgeons who were attending me.
"Surgery the senior surgeon said "I'd recommend a modified radical mastectomy since the tumor was so large."
I'd watched the surgeons carve a chunk as big as a golf ball out of my breast. Thinking that I must be exaggerating the size of it in my mind, I tried to diminish the image. No. it was still horribly big, no matter how I visualized it.
The type of surgery the doctors recommended would remove the breast that remained after the biopsy, the fascia covering the chest muscles, the skin covering the breast area, the nipple, and all the lymph nodes in the axilla, or armpit.
About this time I felt betrayed by my breasts anyway, so there was no problem in getting me to agree to the surgery ... not even twice. When the surgeons suggested that at a later time they take the other breast, I was ready to hand them both over, although I was given no assurance that this would save my life.
The doctors (there were now three of them in the room) shook their heads and said, "We don't know if you have three months, three years, or how long. We don't know IF it has spread or how FAR if it has. We certainly don't know WHY; we just don't know...
Adding to my anxiety was the fact that when I came in for this last check-up, the doctor, looking at the plainly visible lump in my breast , asked with great concern in his voice, "Why did you wait so long to come in?" I went into instant panic and at the same time flew into a rage.
"What do you mean, 'wait so long'?" I screamed. I was ' just here three MONTHS ago and was told this.... this..." I was sputtering by now. 'They told me this lump was only scar tissue from the previous biopsy." Six months before, I'd tried to tell them that this "scar tissue" was growing, but I was repeatedly reassured that it was not, and that everything was normal.
"Never mind," he said, "We've got to schedule another biopsy right NOW."
I suddenly realized that the previous biopsy a year earlier had missed the lump. Now may be TOO LATE!
Having breast cancer was bad enough! To find out that the cancer had been growing in my breast for over a year because of the inexperience, ignorance, or arrogance of a doctor was almost more than I could bear.
With eyes brimming over with tears, I was experiencing the worst moment of my life. I wanted to scream, yell, hit out, rage, vent my fury, roll over and die.
"Hey, wait a minute," I thought. "Roll over and DIE?" I was fighting to LIVE. I was going to fight this death sentence with everything I had. And, yet how could I afford to get angry at the very people I was turning to, to help save my life?
If I had only a short time remaining, I needed to get busy. I had a lot of work to do. Thus began my Race For Life!
Detaching Me from My Breasts
Unfortunately detaching me from my breasts wasn't that simple. But, it wasn't that difficult, either. When checking into the hospital for the surgery, the nurses who helped me unpack were amazed to see three complete sets of running clothes, three sweat bands, two pairs of running shoes, and not much else. I didn't bother with bras and regular clothing, feeling that I wasn't going to be needing them. They shook their heads as they walked out of the room.
Running to the Operating Room
On the morning of surgery, the head nurse walked with some pre-operative medication, drugs routinely given to relax them and make them sleepy. The bed was empty!
"My God," she said to the nurses aide, "she's run away! And we thought she was taking this so well."
I'd been told the day before that the pre-op medication would be given to me at 5:00 a.m.. I'd set my alarm for 4:00, crawled out of bed, slipped into my running clothes, tip-toed down the shadowy hills, and escaped into the still-dark hills surrounding the hospital.
I covered six miles, enjoying one of the most satisfying runs ever. All the fear, tension, stress, anxiety, and even the anger, seemed to drain away and be replaced by a powerful feeling of being an Army general in charge of waging a war on a battlefield, my chest!
The surgeons (four of them now!) were the colonels in charge of the operating room front; the nurses were in charge of the mop-up operations; and the rest of the medical support personnel, with their needles, tubes, and various area-s of expertise, were awaiting their call to arms.
At the end of the sixth mile, I was ready to do battle. As I turned back to the hospital and approached the entrance, I was shocked to see my surgeon just arriving. He was even more shocked to see me!
"What in the world are you doing here?" he asked incredulous. I actually felt a pang of guilt, because they would never have given me permission to run if I'd ask.
As it turned out, the staff most certainly would not have allowed me to run. When you run, you sweat. Sweating causes dehydration. On the morning of surgery, you can't eat or drink anything from midnight on.
So, here was a sweaty, thirsty, and dehydrated patient "presenting", as they say, to surgery. The head nurse was chewed out for not keeping a closer eye on her charge, and the surgeon told the anesthesiologist to pump some extra intravenous fluids into me to compensate for the dehydration. Under the influence of the numbing pre-op medications, I muttered, "See! No problem with running the day of surgery..."
Reaching for Recovery
The surgery went very well. I was wheeled from the operating room to the recovery room. As I was coming out or the anesthesia, I was already thinking about doing the exercises that the American Cancer Society's Reach to Recovery support group recommends. Because I was still pretty numb, I was raring to go. As I was trying to lift my arms, the surgeon walked in.
"What are you trying to do?" he asked, looking very perplexed.
"I've got to get started on my exercises!" I told him.
He patted me on the shoulder and said, gently, "I think we can wait a couple of days.
"Oh, OK," I said and immediately fell back to sleep.
The next time I awoke, I COULDN'T move my arm. Each time I tried, there were sharp, stabbing pains. I tried for a while to just "gut" through the increasing pain, but then I had this fuzzy series of thoughts: this is only temporary; there's no point in suffering like this; I might as well be comfortable; that's what pain medication is for; and I succumbed to the call of the medication and slept.
The next day I was feeling a lot better and began to wonder when I could run again. When the doctor came by to check on me that morning, I asked him.
"As soon as you feel like it."
"Well," I replied, "when do you think I'll feel like it?"
He chuckled and said, "Oh, knowing you, probably in a couple of weeks." He beamed as though he thought that was just wonderful news, and I was thinking of all the conditioning I'd lose in not being able to run for two whole weeks.
After he left, I got out of bed and started walking up and down the halls, preparing my body for a possible run the next day.
That night I awoke a number of times, the pain still intruding on my sleep. My body required more medication and more time. The second day after surgery, I was still a little weak and shaky on my feet.
"Damn," I thought, "will I EVER get back to running again?" It had been two whole days but it felt like a month!
On the third day, however, I felt great! "Today's the day!" I announced.
I think the poor nurses were in awe of this running-obsessed patient and yet totally supportive. I asked for a wide elastic bandage to wrap around my chest. They brought me a 12" wide Ace wrap which they then helped me swaddle myself so that nothing could move, not that there was much left to bounce anyway. But when the bandages were snug around me, I found I could move with a lot less pain.
Triumphantly, I walked out of the hospital and broke into a tentative, gingerly jog. It felt wonderful! Tears came again to my eyes, but this time they were tears of joy!
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