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An Unwelcome Lump on Mother's Day

A Mission Viejo woman recounts her experience with breast cancer--its detection, removal and aftermath.

October is breast cancer awareness month. Mission Viejo Patch is running a series of stories from cancer survivors. This one comes from Mission Viejo's Sheri Felten, who participated in Relay for Life this year on the team of Spoken Word Church of Rancho Santa Margarita.

Going to take my mom and the family for dinner to a restaurant by the beach. I’m in the shower doing my thing. My soapy hand glides over my breast. What’s that? I rub my breast again. It’s still there. I knead the mass on my right breast. At least there’s no pain. I don’t remember that yesterday…..my mind races to find a reason for the lump on my upper left quadrant of my right breast.

I dry off, still feeling the lump, still processing what I have. Wrapped in a towel and dripping hair, I go to the living room where my hubby is watching TV.

“Feel this” I open the towel. After a couple of pokes he says “It feels like a strained muscle.” “No” I reply, “boobs don’t have muscles”. Hubby looks up. “Well you better have it checked out.”

I’ve never been that keen on going to the doctor’s. I will put off all those female check-ups as long as I can. It had probably been close to 2 years since my last mammogram. Now I have a sense of urgency. I need a mammo NOW.

Monday morning I call my OB/GYN office for an appointment. Great, no openings for 3 weeks. I book an appointment and then call my Primary Care doctor. She can see me on Tuesday. At least I can get a mammo referral from her.

Tuesday comes around and the lump is actually going down. My Primary Care doctor can still feel it, but it’s not as large as it was on Sunday. Strange. She gives me my referral to the Breast Center. I call from the car and get an appointment on Friday.

Friday consists of the basic torture of the mammo. I show the tech where the now nonexistent lump was. After the doctor reads the images, she orders the tech to do some different angles. I lost count after 6. Now the doctor wants an ultrasound. I am escorted down the hall to a darkened room. The doctor comes in. She is very pleasant and reassures me not to worry. She shows me the place of suspicion as well as a couple of small cysts on both breasts. She finally decides she wants to do needle biopsies on both breasts. “Just out of precaution” she says.

Friday, May 20, 2011. The first of many tests. I had two needle biopsies on the two cysts, one on the left and right breast. The third area was a core biopsy of the suspicious area from the ultrasound. The whole procedure took about 2 hours and was done with local anesthetic. I drove myself home, with a tightly wrapped bandage and instructions not to do anything physical for 24 hours. Results would be ready in about a week.

I was calm about this whole process. I knew God had this situation and my life under control. I was expecting the results to be normal and get on with life.

Friday, May 27, 2011. The start of the summer season with a three day weekend. By 5pm I was not expecting any phone calls about the tests. My cell rang at 6:30pm. It was the Breast Center doctor. The cysts were benign but the core biopsy came back abnormal. Not normal, not cancer. Abnormal.  She recommended a surgical biopsy by a surgeon. Now I was a little nervous. Not a good way to start a holiday weekend.

Thursday, June 23, 2011. Consultation with the surgeon. My first thought was, this guy better be good. I had to wait long enough for this dang appointment. He explained the whole procedure and I would be admitted as a same day surgery patient. Again, he reminded me the area of concern is probably nothing.

Surgery was scheduled for Friday, July, 15. In between several vacations we had planned for the summer. I actually enjoyed the beach house we rented. It had a great calming effect hearing the sound of the ocean beating on the rocks. I kept those thoughts as I lay in bed waiting for my turn under the knife with a guide wire poking out of me and my hubby by my side.

My post op appointment did not go as planned. The surgeon calmly told me I had cancer. He explained it was in the milk ducts, a stage 0. The quarter size piece of breast that he removed did not have clean margins. The good news is seemed contained to the ducts. There was talk of a lumpectomy and radiation. And referrals to radiation and oncology. He was presenting my case to the “Tumor Board”. WOW, I’m special. My mind was spinning now. My mom had gone through radiation for throat cancer. It’s not fun.

But I still knew God has I plan for me.

The next month was a whirl wind of appointments with several doctors. Each one gave their opinion about my cancer. There were more ultrasounds, x-rays, blood work and MRIs. The final consensus was mastectomy. I totally agreed with that plan. After surgery it would be decided if radiation was needed.

I had total trust in the doctors and their plans to remove that cancer. A few people thought I should get a second opinion. But I felt I had received the best care possible. Even though stage 0 cancer is not life threatening at this point, why wait for it to become life threatening? I liked the 98% survival rate I was given.

Thursday, Sept 8, 2011. That date will forever be etched in my mind. I had a right breast mastectomy. Yup, my boob was going to be cut off. I admit, I was scared. My doctors meticulously planned a skin and nipple sparing mastectomy, since my cancer was deep into the breast. That would make the final results better and less cosmetic reconstruction would be needed. Four hours later, I had no breast tissue on the right side, 4 lymph nodes removed and a tissue expander in its place. Lab results came back saying my nodes were clear. The cancer ended up being 10cm long, that’s 4 inches! The good news was no other treatment was needed. Thank you God!

I’m not going to lie. I was in pain. A lot of pain. By week three and I felt depressed and cried at the doctor’s office. They tried to be encouraging. I thought I was so much stronger than that. But that was my only breakdown in this whole affair. After that week things started to slowly get better. Two surgical drains that were very annoying were removed. I had to empty them and record the fluid amounts. Movement in the right arm was painful. I had and continue to have neuropathy across a large section of my body. At first it was burning pain, then pins and needle pain (I thought a porcupine took up residence in my arm pit), now I experience itchiness and numbness. And lots of doctor and physical therapy appointments. I couldn’t drive for several weeks so I relied on my dear hubby. Heck, I couldn’t put my hair into a ponytail for weeks.

After 3 months of the tissue expander and “fill” appointments, I was ready for my final silicone implant. The tissue expander was not fun either. It was filled with saline and felt hard as a rock. There were times it was hard to breathe because it was pushing on my ribs. Twisting or turning movements also caused digging sensations. Over time it got better but I was so anxious to have my second surgery.

Thursday December 15, 2011. My final surgery was here. I was actually excited. The final chapter of this breast cancer story. I was home four hours later. I was sore and had some pain, but not like before. The Christmas holiday was here and I had a lot to be thankful for.

I am thankful every day for the family and friends who were praying and helping me through all of this. I thank God every morning when I wake up that He gives me another day on this earth. I am thankful that the treatments for breast cancer are so advanced that hearing the diagnosis of breast cancer is not a death sentence. If my story can encourage one woman to get a mammogram and not put it off, I have done my job.  I look forward to becoming an old woman with lots of stories to tell my grandkids.

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