We all know this to be true, and as the year’s pass, we all know someone who has been viciously attacked or they have been attacked themselves. I remember when I was younger the first time hearing the C word. I didn’t know anyone personally who had been affected. But as the time went on, the older I got, the closer to home cancer came.
Here’s my story.
It’s Christmas Eve, 1998. I just got out of bed. Incredibly excited and a little worried I would not get everything done for the day. I had a very excited two-year-old who was asking to get out of her toddler bed when my phone rang. I ran to get her out of her bed and then to get the phone.
“Hello,” I said.
“Ang, listen to this message and tell me what you think it says,” my dad responded in a frantic tone.
My dad put the receiver to the answering machine. Understandably the message was garbled as it came across the phone lines, but what I did hear was “Leukemia” and “Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia”. I remember standing in my bedroom in a state of shock, staring at my bedroom wall while the room seemed to close in on me. Thinking WTF is wrong with a doctor that he would leave this kind of message on an answering machine, let alone on Christmas Eve? Once the message ended, my dad asked me what I heard. And for a moment, I didn’t want to answer. Not only did I not want to confirm his worst fears, I didn’t want to confirm mine, and somehow speaking those words out loud would make them real. I did some research in the following days and found if you are going to get Leukemia, this would be the one to wish for.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a typically slow-growing cancer which begins in lymphocytes in the bone marrow and extends into the blood. It can also spread to lymph nodes and organs such as the liver and spleen. CLL develops when too many abnormal lymphocytes grow, crowding out normal blood cells and making it difficult for the body to fight infection.
The term “chronic” means that the disease develops slowly. The abnormal lymphocytes take longer to develop and multiply. A disease like CLL, therefore, may take several years before it becomes serious. Comparatively, the progression of acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is very quick. ALL may advance in a much shorter period.
One year later, my father-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away 6 months later.
2 years later my mother-in-law was diagnosed with cervical cancer and left this earth one year later.
One year after that, my grandmother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died 3 months later.
Fast forward to 2008, my dad has had virtually no symptoms from his CLL. I had almost forgotten he had it. One Tuesday morning, my dad called me again with unsettling news. This time to tell me he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was a little less freaked out over this because I knew this was a fairly treatable disease. As was true to form, he had it removed and all was well.
Several years later, my uncle would be diagnosed with kidney cancer, having to have one removed.
In fall of 2011, my dad’s Leukemia became a warmonger in his body. Those lymphocytes began a full force battle with his spleen. It became abnormally enlarged. Removing it wasn’t an option. The words we hoped we would never hear, CHEMOTHERAPY and RADIATION became our lifeline, our only hope to hold off the disease another year. He began a regimen of both. Unfortunately, my dad’s body was not able to withstand the effects of this type of Chemotherapy as it caused his body to nearly shut down with each dose. So after about a year of being admitted to the ICU after each treatment, the doctors decided his only option was to continue with just radiation. Fall of 2012, my dad was in and out of the hospital with pneumonia. It became so regular that he could recognize his own symptoms as they were starting. A couple of days before Christmas in 2012 my dad was sick. He promised me he would call his doctor after Christmas because he didn’t want to spend it in the hospital. The very next day we took him to the ER because he could not breathe. They did a lung biopsy and discovered he had lung cancer. For the second time in my life, I felt like the walls around me were closing in. Those next 7 months were vicious. My father’s body was attacked by not only his Leukemia and lung cancer, but liver and stomach cancer, as well, he fell and broke his hip and in May of 2013, had a heart attack, all the while fighting to survive with chemotherapy. In June, after discussions with his doctors, he decided to stop taking chemo. He died July 13, 2013.
A year and a half ago, my 80-year-old aunt was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She is fine today, having had a hysterectomy.
Last February, I went in for a diagnostic mammogram because of pain I had been experiencing. This was the second time I had had this done in 3 years. The first time, all was fine, I was told sometimes, women experience pain. This time, I had expected/hoped to hear the same. After the mammogram, I figured I would head into another room to have a sonogram, as I did the first time. Only, they put me in a holding room to see if the radiologist wanted any further scans. Sitting in that closet of a room, I knew something was up. I had had pain in my left breast for about 6 months and I was berating myself for not going sooner. After about 10 minutes, the tech. came back in and said the doc wanted more scans. I went into the room and turned so my left side was at the machine, waiting for her to guide my breast onto the cold table. Only, she didn’t. She told me to turn so that my right side was against it. I was completely confused. I told her, no, this is the side that hurts. She said, but we see something on the right side.
This diagnostic mammogram lead me to a biopsy, the doctor told me it was a flat epithelial atypica. I could remove it or leave it in and come back in 6 months and monitor it. NO choice here. I had it removed.
Flat epithelial atypica is a proliferation of epithelial cells in the terminal duct-lobular units (TDLU) of the breast. Sometimes this neoplasm is called ‘columnar cell hyperplasia‘ due to the architecture of the growth pattern. It tends to grow in a ‘flat‘ pattern, without any strange build-ups or unevenness, and tends to grow into ‘columns‘; growing taller without growing wider. Flat epithelial atypica can grow to a thickness of 5 or 6 epithelial cells, as opposed to the normal thickness of the breast duct lining of about 2 cells. It is generally considered to be a benign neoplasm, although there is still some debate as to whether or not flat epithelial atypica is associated with a very low grade ductal carcinoma in situ. There can also be functional breast complications with flat epithelial atypia as it does tend to cause the terminal duct lobular units to become distended, and to partially or fully block breast ducts.
Due to family history, my doctor suggested genetic testing. Last July I did as instructed and had a consultation with a genetic counselor. It was determined I had a 47% greater chance of getting breast cancer than the general population. They told me I needed to see the breast cancer center every 6 months. Last November I had a breast MRI and next month I get another diagnostic mammogram. I have to follow this schedule until they deem I no longer need to. Yep. I was completely freaked but at the same time comfortable. Does that make sense? They removed what they saw. So I felt safe. And my world was no longer tilted… until yesterday.
At work yesterday (Friday), I was on the phone when a coworker asked how long I was going to be because my mom was on the phone. She told me not to hurry because my mom was giving her a cooking lesson. Laughing, I told her to tell her I would call her back.
“Hello,” my mom answered.
“Hey, you called?” I asked.
“What are you doing tomorrow? I need to speak with you and your sister.”
Now, stupidly, I thought my mom needed to talk with us about our step-dad. He has dementia and is getting worse day by day.
“I have an appointment from 11-1.”
My mom said, “I need to talk with you and your sister without daddy around.”
I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. I could not breathe.
“You went to the doctor today, didn’t you?”
“What did they say?”
My mom hesitated for a few seconds.
“MOM. WHAT did they say?”
“I have breast cancer. It is in my ducts. I have to have a mastectomy next month.”
Stopped. My world stopped. And for the third time in my life my world tilted. One, MY MOM HAS CANCER. Two, her cancer is in her ducts which is where my lesion was removed, my odds have just doubled, but so did my daughter’s odds.
I have two dear friends who have or have had breast cancer. One survived and one is battling.
#CancerSucks it invades, it destroys more than just bodies, it destroys hopes, dreams, and communities. In 18 years, I have gone from not knowing anyone who had cancer to having cancer invade 9 people whom I hold dear.
Can we stop focusing on borders, pipelines, and being offended by reviews? Rather than only those in research and academia, what would happen if instead, the world focused their energy on finding a cure for cancer? Aren’t our children, siblings, parents, and friends important enough? Stop with the trivial. Cancer is cunning. It slips in when we are not looking, it invades and destroys. Shouldn’t that be our focus, stopping the invasion?
I will probably fall off the radar (more than I have since I started back to working full-time) in the next few months… because CANCER will be my focus.