Dorothy (Dottie) Geary
I was sixteen when my mother had her last operation for the removal of a benign breast tumor. My younger sister was only twelve. Before my mother’s operation she had us both feel the lump which had grown inside of her left breast. Out of her concern for us, we were taught to do self exams at a very early age.
Both my mother and sister are in good health today. I, on the other hand, was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer eighteen months ago, at age thirty-eight.
Inflammatory breast cancer doesn’t feel like a lump, or a small pea; and it doesn’t show upon mammograms or ultrasound pictures. It is misdiagnosed nine times out of ten as an infection, especially in pregnant or lactating women. It is not hereditary and is very rare. But, over 5,000 women will be diagnosed with this disease in 1995. It does not sound so rare does it? But compared to “normal” cases of breast cancer which will strike 182,000 women this year, it is categorized as “rare”.
I am upset that some doctors, as well as other women, are not familiar with this kind of cancer. I am writing in hopes of changing that.
I was only six weeks pregnant when I noticed a slight swelling under my arm and brought it to my gynecologist’s attention. He quickly reminded me that my body was going through a lot of changes, and that the milk glands were developing. During my three month checkup, my left breast seemed larger than my right breast. But, again, my doctor reassured me that these are normal changes in the body. But, this was my third pregnancy, and it didn’t seem normal to me. The following month I had him check my left breast again, this time complaining that it looked reddish in color. He felt that I possibly had an infection and prescribed antibiotics.
Shortly before my next visit I miscarried, and was sent to the hospital for an overnight stay. At that time my gynecologist ordered a mammogram and an ultrasound. Two weeks later I received the results in the mail: Negative.
In the meantime I had been applying hot compresses and swallowing antibiotics.
Six weeks passed and I decided to call my doctor. This time I insisted that something was wrong. My left breast was still swollen, still red, and I was now in pain. He set me up for an appointment with the chief of surgery at a local hospital. “Great”, I thought, “Now I can get this fixed.”
My exam was quick. He was quite sure I had lactational mastitis (blocked milk duct). He wasn’t in any hurry to operate, and asked me if I would like to wait until after the holidays (three more weeks). I wanted it done as soon as possible, so on a cold winter morning I went into day surgery. I was home by two P.M. that same day, and slept until the next morning. One week later I returned to his office for a simple post-operative checkup. It was on this day that I was told I had breast cancer. It was on this day that I was told it was too bad that I wasn’t diagnosed at an earlier stage.
The full impact of what was medically wrong with me didn’t register at first. I understood that I had cancer, and that it was in my breast. I was ignorant as to what it would eventually all mean. And, I was angry as to why I didn’t know that cancer could take other shapes, other forms. I had always been so aware of self-exams, of getting a yearly mammogram, of noticing when things weren’t “normal”.
After the initial shock, I ended up at the bookstore reading all that could and or would apply to me and my new disease. Less than five miles from my home, I read my entire diagnosis. Extremely poor, with a five year survival rate of zero percent.
Three days later my husband and I sat in front of the people that would eventually save my life. They were the doctors of an inner city major hospital. Amazingly, that day, we were given hope. New studies and new treatments were raising the survival rates drastically.
I began with six months of pre-operative aggressive chemotherapy. I then underwent a mastectomy. Four weeks later I met with the Bone Marrow Transplant Team who explained why I would be a good candidate of Autologous Bone Marrow Transplant Procedure.
Since my type of cancer was aggressive (growing very rapidly and with a high chance of recurrence), they harvested marrow cells to be reintroduced after chemotherapy. I then prepared for the procedure over the next four weeks by undergoing a battery of scans and tests.
I underwent the Bone Marrow Transplant along with very high doses of chemotherapy, which also destroys the bone marrow. I then received intravenously the harvested marrow cells that had been frozen. I was discharged from the hospital three weeks later. I had radiation for five weeks after that.
It has been eight months since I have had any treatments for cancer. I am now in remission, which means that there is now, no evidence of disease. My diagnosis for five year survival rate has increased to 73%.
Cancer affects millions of people, of all ages, and it can show up unexpectedly in many different ways. Educate yourself beyond what you think you should know!
Dottie has written an inspirational, easy-to-read children’s book: Before You… There Was Me: A Little Book Just for You, from Me, Who Went Through Lots of Chemotherapy.