Dena’s Story

denaI’m Dena. I’m a 45 year old single aunt and dog mom. My mom is a 30 year breast cancer survivor. She was diagnosed at 40 and underwent a single mastectomy and chemotherapy. Because of that family history and my own very dense breasts, I have been getting screened with yearly mammograms for over 10 years. In hindsight, I wish I had done more, because what good are mammograms with very dense breasts anyway. In December 2017, at my appointment with my nurse practitioner, I showed her a small lump in my left breast that I had felt. She sent me for a mammogram and ultrasound. I had those tests done on February 14, 2018, and I remember being so relieved when the radiologist came in and told me there was nothing to worry about it, the mass was just a mound of very dense but normal breast tissue. It had probably even been there for some time but was more noticeable to me now because I had lost 100lbs in the prior three years so a lot of fat was gone from my breasts.
Over the course of 2018, I continued to work on my fitness and lifestyle changes and didn’t think much about the growing lump in my left breast. I didn’t really seem to notice how progressively  bigger it was getting, until December 2018 when it started becoming painful. When I had my annual with my nurse practitioner that month, she was alarmed at how much it had grown and said she wanted it looked at again and that she wanted me to see a breast surgeon regardless of the radiology results. Somehow I still wasn’t overly concerned about this lump that I had been told was normal breast tissue. I went through Christmas, my first trip to NYC, a bad cold, and then finally made my radiology appointments at the same facility I had been to the prior year. On January 18, 2019, I had bilateral 3D mammograms and bilateral ultrasounds. A different radiologist came in the room this visit and palpated the mass herself with the ultrasound wand and confirmed that this was still just a dense mound of normal breast tissue and there were no suspicious findings on either report. When I got the official report back a week later, it mentioned further evaluation by a breast surgeon given family history and I remembered my nurse practitioner saying the name of the doctor she wanted me to see. I called to get an appointment with Dr. Reed and was told that due to the doctor’s busy caseload I would have to have a referral. My doctor’s office put the referral in and I was able to get an appointment with Dr. Reed’s PA, Cindy, on February 20, 2019. I went in that day, not super concerned, just ready to establish a relationship for more thorough screening with a breast surgeon. Cindy and I went through the motions of setting me up as a patient that would be followed regularly and she offered for their office to do another ultrasound of the mass that day which I wanted. I went to the the ultrasound room with the tech, Amanda, and everything changed forever. Amanda saw what she thought was a mass. This elevated me to the top of Dr. Reed’s charts.
Coincidentally, Dr. Reed and my sister-in-law, Shelley, were high school classmates and are still friendly. Shelley immediately messaged Dr. Reed to be on the look out for my chart and that I was really scared. Before the end of the week, we got the call to come back in for a biopsy on Monday, February 25, 2019. Cindy said she still wasn’t overly concerned about the mass and there were a number of benign conditions it could be. Monday morning, Shelley met me for the biopsy. Dr. Reed’s reaction to the tissue extracted was “this is not normal breast tissue, this is funky” and that did not leave me with a good feeling about the direction we were heading. Two days later, on February 27, 2019, she called with the results, “it is positive for cancer.” Invasive Ductal Carcinoma to be exact, ER/PR+ HER2-. She said it was the good kind to have and that she felt it was treatable and even curable. We scheduled an appointment for the next day at her office to discuss everything. My mom, my two brothers, my sister-in-law, my best friend and I piled into her office to discuss the details of my diagnosis. I remember being completely overwhelmed and sad. I was so sad and so scared for days. I was desperate for surgery to get this thing out of me and desperate for the testing to give me more information about the extent of the disease. I could barely eat for days. That weekend was my best-friend, Cameron’s, birthday, and I know it was miserable for her. We spent the day together, but I was just a shell of myself. I struggle with OCD and anxiety and all of the thoughts and fears in my head were overwhelming me no matter how positive I tried to be. She kept reassuring me that I had a good prognosis and needed to focus on that but I just couldn’t wrap my head around anything positive. It certainly didn’t help that two weeks before my diagnosis, a friend my age had lost her battle with colon cancer. Thankfully, the genetics testing, CT, bone scan and breast MRI were all scheduled for the next week and each test came back with a good result. The breast MRI showed one lymph node with a suggestion of cortical thickening so I prepared myself for lymph node involvement. The next step was to get a surgery date and fast.
With those tests behind me, I started having a better outlook. The best thing I did for myself between diagnosis and surgery was continue to work and continue to go to the gym and/or yoga every evening. There were days when I couldn’t eat all day but exercising made me feel so much better that I’d be able to eat a full meal afterwards. I have a made great friends at both my gym and my yoga studio and just being in their company helped my spirits tremendously. I also really wanted to prepare my body the best I could for surgery, so I kept plugging along. My last yoga class was the night before surgery and she let me pick the playlist – reggae. The day after I was diagnosed, I also made an appointment with my psychiatrist’s office. While I take an anti-depressant regularly for my mild depression and OCD symptoms, I needed something more for anxiety and for sleeping.
The plastic surgeon’s office initially gave me a surgery date of April 24, 2019 and I immediately contacted my breast surgeon with concerns about this being too far out from diagnosis. She agreed. Because of her friendship with my sister-in-law and because of what I had been through with the delayed diagnosis of a year, she pushed the plastic surgeon’s office and kept a close eye on the hospital’s surgery schedule. She was able to get me a surgery date of March 20, 2019, the first day of spring. I elected for a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction using silicone gel implants. I only had five days notice for the surgery, so I didn’t have much time to research and gather the things I’d need post-op. I think I did really well with what I did find. Those few days, I stayed so busy, readying myself, and spending time with friends and family, that I had no time to dwell on the actual surgery. It was just something that had to be done.
My best-friend, Cameron, picked me up at 7am on the morning of surgery. I had to be at the hospital early for the sentinel node biopsy. That was done and we were in pre-op by 9:30am where my dad met us. I got to spend some time with him before the rest of my family arrived. At around 11:30am, I remember saying good-bye to Cameron as she walked out of the pre-op room and a nurse saying to me she was going to put a little something in my IV. Next thing I know, my eyes slightly open and I hear my plastic surgeon over me saying “okay, everything went great, lymph nodes were clear” and I could see a wall clock that read 4:30pm. I was stunned. It was over. I missed it all. I couldn’t wrap my head around the clear lymph node, I had convinced myself it had spread. I was moved to my room and visited with my family until around 9pm. I was comfortable overnight but didn’t sleep much due to constantly having to get up and go to the bathroom because of the IV fluids and the nurses emptying the drains. I was awake at 6am when the doctors started making their rounds and they both cleared me to go home. I ate breakfast at the hospital and was out of there by 9:30am. I brought a small pillow with me for the car ride home to hold against my chest and I do think that was helpful for the first few car rides.
I felt much better than I expected I would in the days after surgery. I had full range of motion in my arms immediately and slept pretty comfortably with the wedge and u-shaped body pillow I purchased. My 12 year old niece came over and helped me out the first weekend and my sister-in-law set up a meal trains with meals brought to my mom and I every other day for three weeks. The Saturday after surgery I went on a short trip to the grocery store with Cameron that nearly wore me out but it was good to get out. On Sunday, my niece and I spent a little time outside in my herb garden. I settled into my routine of carrying my body pillow from couch to bed, bed to couch by Monday and was in good spirits. I had a lot of visitors the first week and doctor’s appointments on Tuesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, I was even able to get out for lunch with my mom, my aunt and my 97 year old grandmother. By the following weekend, I was exhausted. I have stayed exhausted. I can’t seem to get my strength back. It is very frustrating.
Week two has been a very different week. A week and 1/2 after surgery, the drains started to become so worrisome I could hardly stand them. The stitches in my arms were pinching and the tubes in my chest were painful. I had long run out of pain medications and was strictly taking ibuprofen. I can maybe handle one activity per day and then I’m completely wiped out. This is making me feel down. I want my stamina back. I have loads of endurance normally. I want that life back. This constant run down feeling is causing my mind to wander and make me sad. I just feel crummy. The drains finally came out yesterday much to my relief and I expressed to my surgeon how I’ve been feeling. He said I’ve had major surgery and need to take it easy. I asked a friend who’s been through this if what I’m feeling is normal and she assured me it is. She is also my yoga instructor and I’ve made plans to go sit in at her beach yoga class Monday evening even though I can’t participate. Another friend of hers will be there who had surgery the same day as me, so we’ll just be sitting there soaking in the vibes and lifting each other up.
I’m also planning to go back to work some next week. I’m a paralegal with a pretty light desk job. My boss is very supportive and does not expect me to do any more than I am able or to be at the office any longer than I am comfortable. I will play it be ear through the week and do what my body allows me to do. Yesterday, Cindy, from my breast surgeon’s office called with my Oncotype DX score. It is 18. 18, right in the gray area. That is not what I was praying for. I will meet with the oncologist soon and discuss the best options for me with regard to chemo. I already know that at least seven years of tamoxifen is in my future.
I have too many friends who are survivors. I was lucky to have so much support and guidance prior to surgery and after. With that said, this can’t be a 1 in 8 disease because I can look around me and see at least six, my age, under 50! What they told me when I was first diagnosed, was that those first few days would be the worst. They were right. The unknowing is so hard.  I’m new to this journey and I’m learning as I go. I’m doing the best I can to arm myself with knowledge and hope so I can cope in the healthiest way and handle each curve ball thrown. I realize this is a marathon and not a sprint and I’m trying not to be bitter over what I have lost or the fact that I lost 100lbs and got myself into the best shape of my life only to get cancer. What everyone says to that is, thank God you got you are in the shape you are in now, or how would you be dealing with this? Which is true. I also was able to get nice underboob scars because of all of the extra skin from weight loss, so there’s that little silver lining!  I was supposed to go visit a friend in Boulder on Memorial Day this year and run the BolderBoulder 10k. Not happening. But I will push to run in the other races I’m signed up for later this year. I’m planning to walk a my first post-surgery 5k next weekend on the 13th. I’m going to give my all!
Much love, Dena
aka auntdstrong / ovaunt

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I was diagnosed with Stage IIIA Grade 2, HR/PR positive HER2 negative breast cancer at age 31. I am now NED!

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