A lot of people have asked about the specifics of my diagnosis and treatment. This post is for them. For the rest of you, here’s a quick overview:
After many, many, many tests I was diagnosed with high grade invasive ductal carcinoma. It is either stage 2B or 3A. I am on week 3 of 20 for my chemo, which will be followed by surgery and radiation.
I am a 41-year-old, white woman with little to no breast cancer in my family. My dad had pancreatic cancer in his 80s. I may have had a great grandmother who had breast cancer. That’s about it. Cancer just wasn’t on my radar.
I went to my family doctor when I found a lump. He sent me for a mammogram and further testing and so it all began.
Once you find out you might have cancer, treatment doesn’t start immediately. Doctors do a lot of testing to figure out the best plan for your treatment. It makes sense, in hindsight, going into treatment with the most information and choosing a holistic treatment plan – but I just wanted it out of me. Instead, there were weeks and weeks of tests and so many trips to the hospital.
First I had a mammogram and ultrasound at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue. It was there that I first heard that I probably had cancer. Over the next few weeks I had all of these tests through Swedish Hospital:
- 1 ultrasound biopsy (3 locations marked with metallic clips)
- 1 MRI
- 1 MRI biopsy (1 location marked with a metallic clip)
- 1 PET/CT scan
- A genetic blood test
- An EKG
Did you know that if an IV doesn’t go into your vein, it will go into the soft tissue around it? I learned that during my MRI biopsy when they injected me with a contrast solution and then couldn’t see it in the scan. They had to do it all over again and I had to elevate and ice my arm for a few days after.
The testing has been the most challenging part of my journey thus far. I had no idea what to expect; no idea what was going on in my body. J couldn’t come with me for most of the testing, due to COVID, and then we’d have to wait on a phone call for the results. Those were very long weeks filled with many tears and worry.
My official diagnosis is high grade invasive ductal carcinoma. It is either stage 2B or 3A, depending on how they define the two lumps in my right breast. If it’s one big lump, then it’s stage 3A. If it’s two smaller lumps in the same area, it is stage 2B. I also have one lymph node that is cancerous.
Given my age and my family history, the hospital had me do a genetic test but I did not have the genetic mutation they were looking for. My cancer is “triple-negative” which means it doesn’t respond to estrogen, progesterone, or HER2 protein. This cancer is more common for women under 40, which is likely when mine started. It is because of this that my doctors decided to start my treatment with chemo, aka neoadjuvant therapy. During my tests, I had metallic pins placed inside the tumors so that if the tumors shrink too much to be seen (aka down-staging), the doctors will know where they were.
Treatment … The Road So Far
As I have said here before, I have a really awesome team at Swedish taking care of me. So far my team has been Dr. Claire Buchanan, surgical oncologist, and Dr. Erin Ellis, medical oncologist. I have also worked with Sarah, Dr. Ellis’ scheduler, and a variety of nurses and technicians who help make my life much easier.
I am three weeks into my treatments and here’s how a normal treatment day goes:
- First I go to the lab and have them access my port and do a blood draw (second floor)
- Then I go see Dr. Ellis (right) who already has my test results. She checks in on how I’m doing and then modifies treatment as needed (fifth floor)
- Finally, I go to treatment (third or fourth floor)
At my chemo treatment, they give me pre-meds to help prevent side effects from the other drugs. I get a steroid injection, Pepcid (antacid) and Benadryl. Then I get a Taxol infusion which takes about three hours. Every 3-4 weeks I also get Keytruda, the drug that I wrote about here.
The treatment goes surprisingly fast, considering that it’s a half-day event. I go into a semi-private room curtained off from other patients, sit in a lounge chair, and get hooked up to an infusion pump. I keep my hands and feet in an ice bath to ward off neuropathy – tingly hands and feet. J comes with me to every treatment and we usually bring lunch, even though they have snacks for me there too. I usually read, play video games or stream something. I’ve tried to nap, but so far it hasn’t happened.
I have treatment every Wednesday. Sometimes the steroids keep me up that night. Sometimes Benadryl makes me sleepy. I haven’t really figured out a pattern yet, though I am usually more tired over the weekend.
I will be on Taxol and Keytruda for 12 weeks and then they’ll switch me to Adria and Cytonxan every other week for 4 cycles. I haven’t looked into these drugs very much, but it sounds very likely that they will affect me more than my current drugs. When that happens, my medical team wants to know about any effects I’m suffering because there are a lot of things they can do to alleviate them.
After my 20 weeks of treatment, I will have surgery. The surgery will either be a lumpectomy or mastectomy depending on how my tumors respond to the chemo. This will be followed by several weeks of radiation. Again, I don’t know much about that yet as everything is subject to change. J has been doing some research, but I am not digging into that too much. I trust my doctors and will research when I want to, but there’s just too much information out there and freaking myself out won’t help anything.
I’m still feeling relatively good, considering. I have been feeling more tired lately, but I love that I can take nap breaks during work. My hair started thinning over the last weeks, so J buzzed it off for me. I will share pictures soon, but I need to get used to my new look first before I share with the group. Until then, here are my awesome RBG socks that I wear to treatment. RBG has beaten cancer 4 times. I hope these socks will give me a little of her mojo and badassery to help me through.