Exerpt: Chemosabee: A Triathlete’s Journey Through the First Year of Breast Cancer
I had been following a tiny palpable lump in my left breast since a physical exam in July of 2005. I had multiple mammograms, ultrasounds, and physical exams. The lump was barely visible on the mammogram; it was a tiny speck on the ultrasound and was not large enough for a needle biopsy. To me it felt like a piece of grit or dirt but hardly what I would call a lump. The doctors suggested either surgery to remove it or surveillance with continual three month follow-ups.
Paul, my husband and a physician, urged surgery, but I opted for surveillance. I was in the middle of my triathlon coaching season and was training and guiding blind triathlete Nancy Stevens. As Team Nancy, we had completed six triathlons and now had a chance at a World Championship title at the ITU Honolulu Age Group World Championships in Hawaii. If we won, we would be the first all-woman blind and sighted guide duo to win a championship. If I had surgery, I was afraid my recovery time would keep me out of the pool and in turn compromise Nancy’s ability for a world championship. I wanted to be strong to guide Nancy, and I was just as excited for my first ever visit to Hawaii. And besides, at fifty-three, I was as healthy and fit as I’d ever been. So I chose to wait.
Team Nancy went to Hawaii on October 6, 2005, and we won gold in the Visually Impaired Women’s Division at the ITU Honolulu Word Championships! Nancy Stevens has won many medals in her athletic career but I believe this was one of the sweetest. She endeared herself to the crowd when she climbed up on the first place podium and stood backwards to the crowd until I turned her around! Paul and I spent the next week playing Hawaiian tourists, complete with a red convertible, snorkeling, and sunsets on the beach. It was everything I had hoped for.
With my triathlon season over I settled back into my fall routine of work, family, and recovery exercise. I made an appointment with my doctor to check on my lump. My first surveillance ultrasound showed the lump had decreased in size and was even less palpable than in previous months. I took this to be a good sign and quite honestly I put the whole thing out of my mind. I think my doctors and husband did too.
I continued with my life until one morning in April 2006, I gave myself a breast exam and realized the piece of grit in my left breast was now pea size. It was hard and solid. I could feel it. Paul could feel it. There was no doubt that it was the same lump and it had grown.
Within twenty-four hours Paul and I arranged a consult with our local surgeon to remove the lump. No more waiting. No more surveillance. Time to get it out. We scheduled surgery.
We called our sons Chas, twenty-three, and Marco, twenty-one, at college at Duke University, in North Carolina to notify them of my pending surgery. We are family of no secrets and we wanted them to be part of the process.
On Thursday, April 6, at Valley View Hospital, in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Dr. Randy Ross successfully excised a 7mm tumor. That’s less than a centimeter in size and about the size of a grain of rice. This is considered a very small tumor. Unfortunately, the biopsy revealed “infiltrating carcinoma with mixed ductal and lobular features” aka breast cancer. The next surgery revealed that the tumor was very aggressive and the cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes. I was now in Stage II breast cancer. Within the month I discovered I was positive for the BRCA 2 Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancer gene. I truly thought that my luck in life had run out and I should start writing my last will and testament.
During the first week of my diagnosis I had my first decompensation. I could not keep up with the phones and email messages coming to me from friends and family. The yellow pad by my phone filled with lines after lines of well wishers–all with “call me back” requests. It’s usually not my nature to ignore phone calls but I just couldn’t keep up. Each phone call took time and though I appreciated the concern, the avalanche of love came with a price. At one point, I simply looked at my yellow phone pad and started to weep
It was at this time that the non-profit website CaringBridge came into my life. The site proved to be quite therapeutic for me. I would look forward to the end of each day to make a quick note about my daily cancer journey. From hospital diagnosis, to shaving my head, to first chemo treatment, to my “breast recall” and reconstruction, to the final “one year survival” entry, the journal became my ally in healing.
Together we made it through a complicated year of ups and downs. I remain to this day optimistic and confident that I have done all I could, with all I have, to put cancer out of my body and mind. I remain humbled by the outpouring of support from my family, friends, and community. I thank all of you who stood by my side. Without you I would not have survived the year nor be here to share this journal.
In November, 2008, with two years of recovery under my belt I published my story Chemosabee: A Triathlete’s Journey Through the First Year of Breast Cancer. The book is a compilation of my journal writings, photos, and words of wisdom from my friends and family during the difficult year following my cancer diagnosis.