I was diagnosed with breast cancer on Dec. 8, 1993. I had turned 50 just two months before. I had regular checkups and periodic mammograms--the previous one, in the spring of 1993, came back fine. Towards the fall, I began to notice that my left breast felt a bit swollen and painful, but I'd had this before and thought it would go away by itself eventually as it had in the past.
I had just switched to a new ob/gyn and my next appointment was set for December and I figured if I still had the problem, she would address it then. But I couldn't wait that long. By Columbus Day weekend I was so uncomfortable I had to sleep with a pillow under my left arm and could not lie on my stomach.
When I woke up one morning with what looked like a black and blue mark the size of a half-dollar on my breast, I arranged to have a mammogram nine months after the last one. I never even called the doctor. About a week later, I was asked to come in for some additional views of that breast. Two weeks a doctor called and said the radiologist saw something "that might not be cancer" but should be checked by a surgeon.
I've read in more than a few places that inflammatory breast cancer is often mistaken for benign breast disease or for a less aggressive form of bc. My surgeon's comment after he looked at the slide and examined me was, "We're going to do a biopsy, but I've seen enough of these. You have breast cancer." I still shiver at the memory.
The following week, after the biopsy confirmed the ibc, I spent a day meeting with my team: radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, psychologist, and nurses. I had six cycles of CAF at three- to four-week intervals from late December through April (with a noticeable reduction in the swelling by the time I came back for the second cycle), and an mrm in June 1994; none of my lymph nodes was positive. I expected to then begin CMF and to complete the treatment with radiation. But the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, where everything was being done, had just opened its new bone marrow unit to bc patients and I was recommended for the procedure. After a series of tests and consultations I was accepted and underwent an autologous bone marrow transplant in September 1994. I had my stem cells removed by pheresis in August and had my bone marrow harvested under general anesthetic on Sept. 8, 1994. I received cytoxan, thiotepa and carboplatin for four days and the stem cell/marrow mix was reinfused on Sept. 16. I came home on Oct. 2--25 days after I was admitted.
I was one of the fortunate people who had almost no side effects from any of the treatment. The little nausea I had during the six cycles of chemo was controlled with Zofran--so well that my husband and I went for dinner after my Friday afternoon treatment--and I drove myself in for the last four cycles. I worked until noon on Friday, drove the short distance to the hospital, and often did errands on the way home. I was back at my desk on Monday.
I had no hair for 14 months but my friends and colleagues were kind and convinced me they couldn't tell I was wearing a wig. I had no side effects in the BMT unit either -- except for continuous nausea and vomiting once the HDC got hold of me. The nurses said I would not have suffered so much if I had been willing to accept IV medication for it but it made me groggy so I refused any anti-nausea meds that weren't in pill form.
I returned to work full time exactly four months after my transplant and have not had any significant problems since. I ended my protocol with approximately seven weeks of radiation. I am now taking Tamoxifen and Fosamax. I feel wonderful!
I credit my success to a surprising tolerance for the chemo side effects that enabled me to continue my life with only minor disruptions; to my husband and children and family and friends who continue to be my cheering section; and, most important during this challenging treatment, to a medical team I believed in and who believed in me.
In December 1999 it was six years since I learned I had inflammatory breast cancer. I am very much alive and very much the daughter/sister/wife/mother/friend and colleague I was before I was diagnosed--experiencing the joys and meeting the challenges of day-to-day living--just like everyone else.
The words I live by are from writer/reporter Linda Ellerbee: "Breast cancer is part of my past and may be part of my future, but it's certainly not who I am. And while I don't expect to live forever, one can always hope."