My story begins one evening in early February 2004, while I was lying in bed watching TV. I usually watch TV downstairs and fall asleep and then wake up to go to bed, but not this night. I became conscious of my hand feeling a lump in my right breast. I do not know what precipitated this, because I was not in the habit of doing monthly Breast self-exams like I should have, so I checked the left breast to see if I felt the same thing, and I didn’t.
Every year I would make an appointment with my wonderful and best Gynecologist at Kaiser, Dr. Fox, who I have gone to since I began coverage with Kaiser in 1980. I had been in to see him for a Pap smear and a mammogram the previous July 2003, and everything was fine. Now when I reflect about this moment, I can’t help but feel that someone was looking out for me and trying to get my attention. Since I am a person of faith, I will call this person my Guardian Angel. I had an appointment scheduled in a few days, on February 9th with my primary doctor, to have Cryosurgery on a precancerous spot (Actinic keratosis) on my arm. This was my third spot and the result of having fair Scots-Irish skin, previous sunburns, and the lack of sunscreen when I was young. So I had a few days to fret over the lump and then on my appointment day, I mentioned the lump to Dr. Coco and he told me there was probably nothing to worry about and I was sent to have a diagnostic mammogram on Friday, February 13th.
I am not a superstitious person, and Friday the thirteenth is lucky in our family, because my husband, Stan, was born on Friday, June 13th so I wasn’t particularly concerned. They take more pictures for a diagnostic mammogram, so I was prepared for that, but the technician kept taking me back for even more, because she said she could only get a piece of it. I asked her what she meant by that and she said that there was something else under my arm that she was trying to get on the x-ray. Now I was prepared for the lump in my breast, but not something under my arm too! The day after my 59th birthday on February 19, I received the abnormal mammogram post card from Radiology. Biopsy was recommended for both the right breast mass and the Axillary lymph node (the “it” the technician was trying to get on x-ray). I was given the choice of a surgical biopsy or the minimally invasive breast biopsy. I chose the minimally invasive procedure which is called a stereotactic core biopsy and was scheduled with Dr. Wadley on March 4, 2004, at Point West. The reason I chose this procedure was because of the recovery time period.
This was not a good time for me, because I was working a long term substitute teaching job at Cordova Meadows Elementary, while looking for my first permanent job as a new teacher. I don’t suppose there is a “good time” for having breast cancer. In addition, the word “surgery” scared me because my only surgery experience was having my tonsils removed when I was 2 years old. Dr. Wadley and the nurses Pat and Lois were just terrific and calmed my apprehensions and before I knew it, the procedure was over. I started thinking about some things that I wished I had done. My “shoulda” list went something like this: I should have remained thin and not gained weight. Every decade that I hit, 30, 40, but not 50, I had dieted and exercised to my idea weight. I was thinking that I should not have skipped doing that at 50, because then maybe I wouldn’t be there, but Lois and Pat told me they had seen plenty of thin women come through there having biopsies too. I also thought that I should have put more effort in trying to breastfeed my sons. It wasn’t as popular when my sons were babies.
After my biopsy, my husband drove me home and I told him to go back to work, because I was fine. My instructions were to put ice on the incision for the rest of the afternoon and evening. I followed the instructions implicitly and was using a timer to put ice off and off every 15 to 20 minutes until bedtime. However, I got far too zealous while putting the ice on and off and the ice froze to the gauze bandage and lifted up the pressure bandage. Well, it started bleeding and it was very scary, because even though it probably wasn’t that all that much blood, when you see it oozing out like that, and I was home alone too. So, I tried to remain claim and remember what I learned in First Aide and applied pressure and, after what seemed like a long time, it stopped bleeding. By then the bandage was completely soaked through along with one of my favorite blouses, so I called my husband and asked him to come home and take me to Emergency, because of course, it was after hours by then and the medical offices were closed. I had to have the bandage replaced and the ER doctor wrapped me up in a bandage around my chest to apply pressure once again.
This was on a Thursday and my very last class that I needed to complete for my Professional Clear Teaching Credential was scheduled for Friday evening and all day Saturday. I had decided to take this last class through UC Davis Extension and instead of classes over the course of a semester, you attended classes on three weekends and you were done. This being the case, I couldn’t miss any of the three weekends. I had agreed to have the biopsy on March 4th, because they assured me I would be able to attend that last class session. So even though I had the bleeding episode, I put on a big blouse to cover the body bandage, and was on my way. I was very motivated! I had the dream and goal to be a teacher for a very long time. I knew I wanted to be in a caring profession and when my son Matt fractured his tibia and fibula in the 7th grade playing soccer, I thought I wanted to be a nurse. However, I never felt really comfortable around hospitals and I thought that might be a downer to a nursing career so I began to think “teacher”. In addition, I love entertaining by singing and dancing and a teacher is “on stage” everyday, all the time. A plus is that I have a good sense of humor and no one should step foot inside a classroom without a sense of humor. I just love my job as a teacher and I find it so rewarding in many ways. My husband was a fighter pilot in the Air Force for 14 years. We had two sons and I was a stay at home mom and loved it. When my younger son, Matt, started kindergarten, I decided to finish my B.A. I had less than 30 units, so technically I was a freshman and had three years of studying ahead of me.
I married young at 20 and did not finish college first. We were stationed at Homestead AFB, near Miami, Florida. My husband decided he did not want to stay in the peacetime Air Force, because it wasn’t much fun. He had two combat tours in Viet Nam where he got to do what he was trained to do and really enjoyed the flying. After Viet Nam, he was an instructor in the F-4 Phantom, delegated to the back seat of the airplane behind his student, and not enjoying flying anymore. So at age 38, he became a mid-life career changer and we moved to Sacramento. Since he didn’t stay in the Air Force for 20 years and retire, I went to work too and got a job with the State. My boys, Matthew and Stephen, were ages 8 and 12. I completed my senior year at CSUS while working full time, so it took me three years to do it, and I finally got my B.A. in 1983. In 1985, I applied to the Teaching Credential Program and was accepted. I changed my time base to half time with the State, helped my husband in his Accounting practice the other half, and then squeezed in the first semester of a three semester program for the credential. At the time I didn’t know what I was going to do for the third semester which was a full-time student teaching commitment, because I would have to quit working. So after completing the first semester, I realized that I was over committed and was probably not doing my best at any of my three jobs, and I asked for a leave of absence from the program and decided to put it on the back burner for a while. Sixteen years later in 2001, I decided to finish that dream and goal that I had for so long, and began working on a Multiple Subjects Teaching Credential at CSUS. I was in the Natomas Center which was a 4 semester night program where I could work full time up until the last semester, which was all day student teaching. This kind of opportunity was not offered in the 1980’s.
My last year with the State, I was promoted to supervisor and retired in March 2003. I completed my student teaching in the Spring Semester 2003 and got my Preliminary Teaching Credential in May 2003. I was 58 years old. My sister-in-law gave me a book marker at Graduation that said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” (George Eliot) I enjoyed my 20+ years working for the State, but after supervising that last year, I decided that I enjoyed working with children acting like children better than adults acting like children. After graduation in 2003, I started substituting while looking for a permanent position. There was a glut of teachers and jobs were not easy to find. I also decided to work on the three classes that I needed to take to get the Professional Clear Credential. I thought the clear credential would improve my chances for getting a permanent job.
On April 2, 2004, between the biopsy and the Mastectomy, CSUS issued my Professional Clear Credential. I realized my dream in spite of breast cancer. Dr. Wadley was going to be out of town and he told me that Dr. Brown from Point West Radiology would call and give me the results of the biopsy. When Dr. Brown called me she said that I would have to wait an additional 10 days for my report, because it was referred to Stanford University. I asked her what percent of cases were referred and she said around 10%. I did not have a good feeling about this at all. On March 19, Dr. Wadley called me to tell me that I had breast cancer and that he was referring me to a surgeon. This is where misfortune turned to fortune, because that surgeon was the wonderful and caring Dr. Bodai. My appointment was on March 31, and I found out that I had Infiltrating Ductal Carcinoma, Stage IIA, in my right breast. I still didn’t know about the status of the Axillary lymph node, because Dr. Wadley was not able to biopsy that by the stereotactic core biopsy procedure.
Dr. Bodai explained my diagnosis and options of having either a Lumpectomy or a Mastectomy. I decided on the Mastectomy, because I was pretty sure in my mind that the Axillary node was cancer too, and I didn’t want to have radiation in addition to chemotherapy. I thought one of them would be quite enough, thank you. My Mastectomy was on April 13, and out of the nine lymph nodes tested, cancer was found in only one, the Axillary node tumor. I was so thankful, because it could have been a lot worse. Dr. Bodai and the Breast Health Center at Kaiser take care of every need that you have. First off, after diagnosis, they send you home with a satchel full of information and resources. In fact, when you see someone walking around the clinic with this satchel, you know this person is a new member of the one out of eight that gets breast cancer group. My nurse friend Rita laughed when she heard I was going to “drain training”. I was so thankful that I had this training, because I felt very comfortable and prepared to take care of the drain and didn’t have any problems. I also used this knowledge again when I had the two surgeries for Breast Reconstruction, because a drain was put in each time once again.
I was provided with a great “Patient Care Following Mastectomy” manual which answered my questions and helped me take care of myself after the surgery, information on Chemotherapy, Radiation, Recovery, Reconstruction, and even a Jobes Clinic on site. I referred to Dr. Bodai’s outstanding book, “I Flunked My Mammogram!” throughout the course of my treatment. After my surgery while recuperating, I started to interview for a teaching position. I didn’t know if anyone would want to hire a 59 year old breast cancer survivor, with no previous experience. In May 2004, I got my first job teaching Second Grade at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Elk Grove. School would start in August, but because I had the tumor in the lymph node, I had to have Chemotherapy. My wonderful and kind Oncologist, Dr. Wu, had a baby that fall, but she was there helping me through this experience all the way. Dr. Wu prepared a chart from the Mayo Clinic indicating my chances of being alive in 10 years without cancer at 68% by receiving chemo every three weeks, and up to 76% if received every two weeks. One of the side effects of the every two weeks was fatigue. I started talking to friends who had chemo and all of them opted for the three week treatment, so I was a little apprehensive about it.
I called my brother in Salem, Oregon who is a scientist and whose opinion I value and both he and my husband (I value his opinion too!) convinced me that I needed to try the every two week treatment and if I couldn’t do it, then revert back to the every three week one. This way I would know that I had done everything possible to get well. On June 4, 2004, I started the every two week chemotherapy. Another one of the advantages of the every two weeks was that I would be done in 16 weeks instead of 24 which put it into September and school would be starting in August. Two weeks later on June 11, I went in for Chemo #2, but my blood count was too low, so I had to wait until June 24 for the second dose. Dr. Wu put me on Neupogen injections to boost white blood cells and this helped a lot. Once again, I was thankful for my Kaiser coverage after I saw what the drug cost each week. I have never liked needles and giving blood, but I can honestly say that I am over that now. I never thought I would be able to give myself shots either, but that was before breast cancer. Everything went along very well every two weeks until August 19 when I went in for Chemo #6 and my count was way too low again. Dr. Wu gave me the choice to either stop chemo until my count went up again or to have a blood transfusion.
This was very scary, but I didn’t want to lose my 76% survival chance that I was striving for, so I went in on Sunday morning, August 22 to receive 2 units of blood. School would be starting the next day on August 23. I had to go to a Back to School event that afternoon after the transfusion, but I made it. Besides, how many new teachers get “new blood” the day before the school term starts! I finished the last two Chemo treatments #5 and #6 in September and overall did pretty well on chemo. I didn’t have nausea or extreme fatigue, and I was able to continue to teach. I attribute this to the fact that I was in good health with no chronic problems, except for having cancer. In fact, the only two days I missed that entire school year were the two days in September when I received my last two treatments. I am so grateful and appreciative of my Kaiser health coverage especially after going through a cancer experience. I received the best health care possible from excellent doctors. The final step for me was Breast Reconstruction and I decided on the implant procedure.
I was referred to the wonderful and amazing Dr. Lim. I didn’t want to miss any more school so I asked to have the surgery over the summer. I also had a two week trip planned for the summer of 2005 to Eastern Europe with a group of friends. Right after school got out I was on jury duty, then my trip, and when I got back my surgery was scheduled for mid August. In addition to having the expander put in for the implant, I had a breast lift on the other side. This required three weeks to recuperate. The first week I was out was our teacher in-service week, but the other two weeks were the first two weeks of the new school year. I felt a little guilty about being out, but I had a good sub and besides, I needed to do this for myself. So the third week of school I began the new school year with my new little students. Again, I was thankful for no complications and other than the time out for the two surgeries, I didn’t have to use any sick days my second year of teaching. On February7, 2006, I went in for surgery to replace the expander with the implant. All went well and I was able to be back in the classroom after 7 days.
I had the same great sub teaching for me, so the students were in good hands. At Assembly on my first day back, all my students wore pink shirts, even the boys, and they held up pink hearts, with the inscription “We Missed You”, in their hands. They all shouted welcome back, Mrs. Brown! I cried, and it was wonderful to be back, because I really missed them too. I was amazed that the boys would wear pink, but the moms told me that they found shirts which had sayings like, “tough boys wear pink”, or “my other shirt is in the wash”. I was very pleased with my reconstruction and I feel whole again. I decided from the moment I was diagnosed with breast cancer that I would share what was happening to me with everyone. My husband who is a private person could not understand why I would want to do this. Many blessings have come to me by sharing and talking about having cancer.
This year in May I formed a team, raised funds, and walked in the Komen Race for the Cure. Strangers would come up to you, give you a hug, and ask how many years you have been a survivor. It was a wonderful uplifting experience. I also walked with my Curves group for the American Cancer Society’s, Making Strides Against Breast Cancer last October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. My family, my friends, the staff at school, the parents, the students; everyone has been so supportive, kind, and loving. I do not know why this happened to me and why I am a survivor, but I appreciate life more now. When I was young, I was always looking forward to some future age or time. When my husband was on duty away from home, I was always wishing away time till he returned. Now I’m no longer wishing away. When I was striving toward my goals, I know that I didn’t stop to smell the roses often enough along the way. I now celebrate the gift of life, by cherishing each relationship and living fully each day God gives me. Follow your dreams, girls!