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Breast cancer is the most common female cancer worldwide, in both the developed and developing world, with roughly two million new cases being diagnosed every year. Both incidence rates and survival rates vary greatly from country to country. In the developed world, five-year survival rates can be over 80 percent. It isn't hard to find women for whom breast cancer is now little more than a distant memory. Breast cancer is a beast that can be battled and subdued, and quite easily in fact. Though your doctor will tell you all of this when you are diagnosed with breast cancer, the diagnosis is still scary as hell — for you, and for your loved ones.
What's it like being diagnosed with breast cancer and going through the treatment process? What does the aftermath look like? What do those battling breast cancer, and their loved ones, need to know? SteadyHealth spoke one woman who went through the whole process, in order to help others prepare for the battle ahead.
From Broken Bra To Partial Mastectomy
Kathryn, who was 46 and premenopausal when she was diagnosed, didn't find out about her breast cancer in your typical way. A mammogram she had undergone six months before the diagnosis came back perfectly normally, and though she had a family history of breast cancer, Kathryn was not worried. Then, when she was at a cocktail party to celebrate her husband's promotion, her bra malfunctioned. Luckily ever-prepared, Kathryn retreated to the rest room with her hand bag and the sewing kit she always had inside it. Trying to sew the bra back up while still wearing it, she felt a lump.
"I assumed it was an infected pimple or something and though I took note of it, I definitely didn't suspect cancer," Kathryn shares. "When it was still there a few weeks and a menstrual period later, I decided it was time to go to the doctor." What happened next?
"It was all a rather long process, actually. The biopsy and the body scan took ages to get scheduled. I was diagnosed on the first day of the fall, but didn't have surgery until after Christmas." Kathryn had surgery (a partial mastectomy) to remove the tumor she had spotted herself, and though the doctor initially said the cancer hadn't metastasized, a subsequent biopsy revealed that the cancer may have spread. Then came the Intercavitary Brachytherapy, which is internal radiation. Chemotherapy came after that. Kathrtyn had a dummy bulb placed inside her breast when she had the surgery.
"After the insurance approved the Intercavitary Brachytherapy the dummy apparatus was removed and the MammoSite brand apparatus [which facilitates internal radiation] was placed inside," Kathryn told me. She was told the procedure wouldn't be painful, and that it would be done as an outpatient procedure, after which she could return home. "It was actually horrifically painful, I bled everywhere and I should have realized then that the surgeon was an incompetent buffoon."
Next came the Brachytherapy using the MammoSite apparatus. This form of therapy has some distinct advantages, as Kathryn explained: "Doing Brachytherapy is supposed to prevent patients from being over-irradiated and keep the treatment time to just a few weeks or less. Only the area around the tumor gets radiation and it is targeted and internal instead of hitting the entire breast with radiation from the outside. I was told this would be a very easy, safe, effective way to get the treatment and I would not have the skin burns external radiation can cause."
Sounds good, but Kathryn's surgeon installed the device incorrectly, and instead of receiving treatment in an easy, safe and effective manner, the installation process left an open wound directly into the breast — something that ended up resulting in a severe staph infection that nearly killed her.
"I did OK with chemo once they got the mix right," she said. "Many suffer extreme nausea, but I didn't. I did have to have people help me walk, suffered vertigo, and couldn't feel my arms and legs. Once the medical team realized I was experiencing an allergic reaction to one of the ingredients, and they switched the chemo up, it was so much better. My hair did fall out, and I had itchy bubbles appear all over my scalp. The hair did grow back — curly, while I had straight hair before."
Kathryn's story demonstrates that breast cancer treatment will not always proceed in the textbook manner you will read about when you ask your doctors or Google what's next. Yet, years after being declared cancer-free, she's still here, and the breast cancer diagnosis no longer plays a significant role in her daily life.