8 THINGS I WISH I HAD KNOWN BEFORE MY WIFE WAS DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER.
My wife, Becky, spent the last year battling breast cancer. She suffered through chemotherapy, radiation, and a double mastectomy. Last week, about a year and two months after first being diagnosed, she finished her breast reconstruction, and is now going through the expected emotional reactions. This is a woman who has been through many traumas, and after coming this far, she seems stronger than ever.
It wasn’t easy, though. Below, I’m going to share part of our story by outlining eight key points that we learned the hard way. I’d like to stress that I’m NOT a doctor or a medical specialist. We learned each of these points the hard way: experience. I hope my musings can help future patients by better preparing those who are at the beginning of their own journeys. A lot of these things are known, but here it is from my perspective.
If the first two points manage to help someone catch a tumor in its early stages, even better.
Again, I AM NOT A DOCTOR, NOR DO I CLAIM TO BE. THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. BE SURE TO VISIT YOUR PHYSICIAN FOR PROPER DIAGNOSES AND TREATMENT.
EARLY DIAGNOSIS CAN GIVE YOU AN EDGE.
1.EARLY DETECTION: HAVE A PRIMARY CARE PROVIDER YOU TRUST, PART 1.
How many times have we heard that early detection is key? Becky’s cancer was found quite by accident by Dr. Ullah, our PCP. Becky went in for a routine check-up –one that she came very close to cancelling because she felt it wasn’t necessary. Prodding her to go to that appointment was one of the best decisions I have ever made. While she was there, she complained of back pain. Dr. Ullah examined her back, then noticed that she had some swollen glands in her neck. Being the cautious fellow he is, he asked, “When was your last breast exam?” She said, “About 18 months ago.” He decided to give her one right then and there.
That’s when he found the lump.
2. BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY: HAVE A PRIMARY CARE PROVIDER YOU TRUST, PART 2.
Finding a lump wasn’t all Dr. Ullah did. The mass was buried under thick knots of tissue; he had to poke around for a while. The fact that Becky possessed not only thick tissue but naturally cystic breasts made coming to a conclusion even tougher. Becky admitted that her OBG might have found the same lump over a year and a half ago, but the OBG assumed it was nothing. Dr. Ullah, however, is much more conservative. He didn’t care that Becky was only 37. He didn’t care that she had no history of breast cancer in her family. He simply didn’t like the lump. Something seemed wrong to him. Therefore, he sent her for a mammogram and an ultrasound.
We received a 99% diagnosis immediately after the imagining tests. Both her radiologist and her surgeon admitted that many PCP’s would have dismissed the lump due to Becky’s relatively young age and lack of family history. But you know what? The lump was measured at 3 cm, and further testing revealed it to be a stage 2 tumor. The radiologist was also cautious, taking biopsies of the lymph nodes under her arm because he didn’t like the way they felt.
This is how we learned that the cancer had already begun spreading to those nodes.
All of this means they caught the disease *just* in time.
The moral: most of us don’t like going to the doctor. We don’t like undressing to be poked and probed and stuck with needles, and we really don’t like the idea that the doctor might find something. But have your regular check-ups, get suspicious things looked at, and don’t settle for the idea that “it’s nothing,” if you think it may be something.
3. DON’T BE AFRAID TO SEEK A SECOND OPINION.
This goes without saying if you hate a diagnosis or a suggested course of treatment. But even if you’re comfortable with your physician’s plan, never be afraid to consult other professionals. Until you ask, you don’t know what other forms of treatment and technology you might be missing. Different people possess different knowledge, and there are all kinds of treatments. Our oncologist (the doctor who regulates chemotherapy) specifically told us we could seek a second opinion if we so desired. He even went as far as to say, “I won’t be offended.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LEARN YOU HAVE CANCER?
4. SETTLE IN FOR THE LONG HAUL.
A diagnosis of cancer is just the beginning of a long, challenging ordeal. Let me be clear: cancer is a life-changing event, and not one that ends anytime soon after your diagnosis. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. It’s not a quick excursion; it’s a journey. Your life is going to change. Visualizing yourself beating the cancer is a good practice throughout treatment, but accepting that you’re about to face a tough road and steeling yourself for the experience is critical. Identify the people in your life whom you can trust, the ones who plan to take the entire journey with you. This is going to be a battle, and the best approach is to take it one phase at a time, one day at a time, one step at a time.
5. BE PATIENT WHEN WAITING FOR TEST RESULTS.
Cancer isn’t just a one-and-done diagnosis. There are many test, labs, and results. Some will take longer than others.
First, we learned that Becky had a lump in her breast. Then, we had to wait for the ultrasound and mammogram. After the imaging, we learned that she, in all probability, had breast cancer. Then, we had to wait for the biopsy to learn what sort of cancer it was. Then, we had to wait to speak to the surgeon before we had some idea of the staging. Prior to that appointment, I didn’t know if my wife had an early-stage, localized tumor, or a stage 4 metastasized tumor that has spread to other organs. They did get her treatment started in a relatively prompt manner, but even that had to wait until after we’d met the oncologist and heard his plan. This series of long, painful weeks was one of the scariest and anxiety-inducing periods I’ve ever been through.
It goes even further. Becky underwent chemotherapy before the surgery to remove the tumor, so it wasn’t until after the bulk of her treatment that the mass was sent to the lab for dissection. This means that we didn’t really know the true and final staging of the tumor until much of the ordeal was over.
There will be a lot of questions, and it will take months to reach all the answers. I know it’s a difficult way to live, but my advice is not to drive yourself crazy waiting for tests and results. In the meantime, live your life. One day at a time.
6. IF YOU NEED TO CRY, DO IT.
Coming to terms with something like this is dreadful. With the battle looming ahead, now is not the time to repress your grief. If you’re the patient and you need to cry, then cry. If you’re the spouse, cry. Do so if you’re the parents of the patient, or the children, or a close friend. Everyone involved will need to be strong down the stretch, so let it out now. There’s no shame in this. Some days will be harder than others. Sometimes the emotion will be stronger than your ability to hold a smile. On these rough days, feel what you need to feel.
Other days will be better. Just take them one at a time.
7. LIVE ONE DAY AT A TIME
Notice a trend? Don’t think about “What if…?” “What then…?” and “When will…?” The only way to survive a fight like this is to take everything one step at time. When you’re in the diagnosis phase, try not to think about the staging phase. When you’re in the staging phase, don’t leap ahead to the treatment phase. Trust whatever doctors and methods you’ve put your faith in, and deal with whatever is happening at this moment in time.
8. BE A SURVIVOR
This is choice that YOU make. Not long ago, I asked Becky if she sat around post-diagnosis wondering, “Is this was the end?” She said she didn’t. From the beginning, her plan was to undergo whatever torment lay ahead in order to rid herself of cancer. She never questioned the fact that she would live on in the aftermath.
Becky isn’t the only cancer survivor I’m close with. Nearly five years ago, my aunt was diagnosed with an enormous sarcoma that was thought to be fatal. She underwent horrific, radical treatments, figuring, “If I’m certain to die anyway, what do I have to lose?” At some point, though, she chose to survive. She decided to beat the disease at any cost. Today, she’s been cancer-free for close to five years. Will it come back, as the doctors predict? No one knows, but she continues to live her life one day at time, for as long as she can.
Obviously, cancer takes countless lives, but until every physician you visit tells you, in no uncertain terms, that nothing more can be done, the fight goes on. We can’t predict when we’re going to die, and with cancer the odds can tip either way. However, we have the technology to treat the disease better than ever. Trust your medical team to do their part. Your part? Beat the damn thing.
Two more things:
SHARE YOU EXPERIENCE
I have other thoughts regarding the treatments phase of the experience. I may or may not post them. Until then, there are many stories similar to mine and Becky’s. Despite that fact that Becky seemed “too young” for breast cancer, after she was diagnosed, we came across and endless stream of stories just like hers.
SUPPORT CAN BE FOUND ALL AROUND YOU
You’re going to battle; don’t be afraid to send a rallying call! You may be surprised at how many people come out of the woodwork for you… and which ones are the most supportive.
If any readers want to share their own experiences with cancer, please do!
Spouses, take note: I promised her that if she had to shave hear head, I would do it to, even though I had never gone bald. It was an extraordinary moment of bonding between us.