Below is my story that was published in the Orlando Business Journal in October 2001. This story is for anyone who needs hope. I am a 17 year breast cancer survivor and would love to help anyone else who has to go through this terrible battle. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org for anyone that would like to share or would like to talk.
My Journal~One Woman’s Story
By Sandra Frutchey
September 1998. Mark finds the lump. He says, “You have a lump.” I say, “I do not.” I know my own body. Then I feel, and he is right.
Of course, this is Labor Day weekend, so I can’t talk to the doctor’s office until Tuesday morning. They say if I want to come in and see the nurse practitioner, I can. I go, thinking: What the heck, maybe she will say it is a cyst.
What she says is this is something that probably will have to be biopsied, and we should do a mammogram and a sonogram.
I go for the mammogram, and they have a fit because there is a small chance I could be pregnant. They insist on doing a sonogram only. The doc looks for what seems 10 minutes before saying anything. She keeps wanting to get pictures from all sides. She finally speaks: “You definitely have a solid lump that is in deep tissue. That is usually not benign.”
Here, we go.
I need a mammogram as soon as possible.
“I don’t care if you are pregnant,” she says. “We can put a lead blanket over your belly. It is only a theoretical risk. We need a mammogram.”
I have no idea that she thinks the growth is eating into my chest cavity.
So I call the next day. The lady on the phone says I shouldn’t do it if I may be pregnant. She says, “You know that you will have to sign a consent form.”
I tell her, “Will it matter if I am dead, if I am pregnant? I just want a mammogram.”
The good news: It isn’t eating into my chest cavity. I tell the doctor to give me the bottom line. She says severe cancer, but don’t lose hope. It still could be some atypical fibroid tumor.
I schedule a biopsy. I opt to have the tissue removed, rather than the needle biopsy. I want that lump gone.
The next day, the surgeon calls to tell me it is definitely a malignant tumor.
I work the rest of the day and come home to find my husband crying. I explain this is not a death sentence. My husband feels miserable that I have to comfort him. But in my mind, it only shows how much he cares.
The surgeon informs me I am to have a mastectomy, no lumpectomy. That’s good, because I already had made up my mind to have a mastectomy. I want this cancer out of my body.
He wants to remove it immediately. I tell him that is impossible. I have a continuing education seminar to attend in a few weeks. He is very perturbed by this, as are all my family members, but I am not expecting to die and I need this education to keep my license current. I am planning for the future.
On October 19, 1998, I have my mastectomy.
I wake up, and I can’t open my eyes. My eyes keep rolling up, and I can’t focus. Everyone tells me to be calm and just rest.
They remove 25 lymph nodes; only one tests positive for cancer. I was expecting 5 to 10.
When the nurse comes in to change the bandages, she asks if I want to look. She asks if I want my husband to leave. No. I guess I feel a little more comfortable that he should see it before me.
He informs me it isn’t bad at all. And he is right.
When I go to the doctor’s office for the first time since the mastectomy, I still have the bandages on. I had asked that they be left on. When I leave the doctor’s office, I go home and finally look.
It just looks like I have a flat chest with a line going through it, with no nipple. Not gross, just different.
The mastectomy hurts less than the biopsy. The biopsy was very sore, and I was having a problem propping up my breast so I could sleep comfortably. With the mastectomy, there is nothing to hold up. The only thing I had to deal with was the tube left in for drainage. I hate pain and thought it would be very painful to have it pulled out. But it came out very easily. The worst thing was cutting the stitch to release it.
I lay in bed watching breast cancer awareness commercials while I recoup. I think they say there is a 97 percent survival rate with breast cancer if caught early.
I go to a Halloween party. I go to a birthday party for my son’s friend.
I just want to forget, but I am surrounded by it. People call and say, “I don’t know what to say,” or “Such and such wants to call, but they don’t know what to say.” I just say it sucks, because it does.”
The weirdest remark that I get from people when they find out is, “Which one?” What does that matter? Are they looking to see if I am even or not?
I have to wear a fiber-fill piece in my bra until the scar heals, and tell my techs to tell me if it is showing, because it can float out and then I see it around my neckline or I suddenly have one breast higher than the other. It becomes quite humorous, standing in line at Chick-fil-A with your fiber-filled breast coming out of your shirt.
I occasionally have a sharp pain, and it goes away pretty quickly. Feels like someone is twisting the skin under my arm. They say it is the nerves doing that.
I stay out of work for two weeks.
My 22-month old son does not understand why mommy cannot pick him up. My mother and mother-in-law arrive to help me out.
During the surgery, they remove your lymph nodes under your armpit to see if it has spread. So it is very hard to lift up your arm up. You have to do exercises. You have to walk your fingers up the wall. I can barely crawl the wall—only about 3 inches above my waist.
The doctor says I will need to undergo six months of chemo and six weeks of radiation.
I ask him why so many people die from breast cancer when there is a 97 percent survival rate. He gives me a dumbfounded look. Then my husband says, “ You weren’t listening to the TV commercial right. It said with early detection. You’re not early.” I am in stage two, out of only four stages.
So I look the doctor in the eye and ask: “What is my survival rate?”
He looks right back: Fifty percent.
“If you do chemo and radiation, 65 percent or maybe 70 percent, because we don’t know the full effects of the radiation treatment yet,” he says.
It is my worst day. I leave crushed. Fifty percent is a flip of a coin.
I go to church that Sunday. The songs are all about Jesus being with you until the end, and the next thing I know, I lose it. For the first time, I dissolve into tears. But by the time I get home, I am fine again.
My biggest concern is losing my hair. My hair is down to the middle of my back. I just can’t fathom losing it. My first remark is that I am going to get a great wig and never go without it and makeup. I am not going to look sick. I am going to look normal.
My first chemo treatment. I am very anxious. I hate needles. I don’t know what to expect.
Surprise: I feel so energetic after a treatment. I can’t sleep. I later learn it is the steroids they put in the chemo. The steroids make me hungry.
Everyone tells me it takes about three days to feel the effects of the chemo. They’re right.
I have chemo on Wednesday, and on Saturday the chemo effects start. I get up and feels so nauseous that I don’t think I am going to make it to work. I take an anti-nausea pill. Then I feel dizzy, and my vision blurs. The whole day is hard. I feel like I am pregnant, seasick and have the flu, all at the same time.
I ask how long it will take for my hair to fall out. The consensus is 12. I last 14.
On the 12th day, I am excited because my hair still feels strong and attached. On the 13thday, I notice a lot more hair in the hairbrush. On the 14th day, hair just starts falling out in gobs.
I finish my second treatment.
I let Mark shave, or should I say clip, my hair off. When my husband shaves my head, he first cuts my hair into a Mohawk. He thinks this is hysterical.
My wig fits better, but now the problem is that my head is prickly and it hurts to lay on my pillow. So I have to wear a chenille cap to bed. How sexy. But at least the pain has gone away. I may even go out in public bald. I feel that they stare when I have a hat on or a wig, so I might as well give them something to stare at.
I try on a hat in the store, removing mine and looking into the mirror hoping no one is watching. I am embarrassed by how I look. I don’t want to look sick.
I wear the wig to work, and as soon as I walk into the parking lot, I take it off. The wig is so uncomfortable, I decide to go without. Hats are just as scratchy.
Reactions are mixed. When I hand my driver’s license to an older woman at a craft store, she remarks, “Oh, this is what you looked like before you decided to cut all your hair off.” My husband is quite angry.
Mostly kids ask. Most adults say nothing.
I am so self-conscious.
There is one lady I run into in the waiting room every time I have chemo, and she remarks what a perfect head I have. There is a bald gentleman waiting on his wife, and he asks if I have had rain hit my head, because it is awfully cold.
Other women approach me in the waiting room and ask what chemo is really like, because they are waiting for test results or have just gotten the same bad news.
I go to a breast cancer support group meeting after my first chemo treatment. It is great to hear that I will survive and that my hair will come back, maybe even a little curly. They tell funny stories, such as one lady who says she was so happy to be able to have a bad hair day again.
Another woman had run into her boss’s office claiming she couldn’t take it anymore while pulling out handfuls of hair. He had been doing an interview, and the look of horror was priceless.
One lady says the worst thing about your hair falling out is you don’t know where to stop your makeup line.
All the hair on my body is now falling out—my eyelashes and eyebrows. I am so tired, and my face seems to have no character, so I stop wearing makeup. So much for my pledge.
Being bald is not that bad. I didn’t realize how much time and money go into fixing your hair. When I took a trip before my treatments started, half the suitcase was filled with stuff for my hair—hair dryer, curling iron, hair brush, comb, shampoo, conditioner.
During chemo, my short-term memory is terrible, and my attention span is short. I llok at patients and wonder, “Why did you come to see me today?”—then think, “ And in a minute, I might throw up on you.”
My husband asks if he can drop me off for my chemo, because he is getting depressed by seeing all the people being given chemo and hearing their stories. Whereas I feel uplifted. It could always be worse. One lady with brain cancer says she hasn’t had a good day since May.
I am on the toilet in severe pain. Chemo causes horrific constipation. I keep doing those breathing exercises they teach you in Lamaze. The pain is so intense I feel like crying. The look of pain in my husband’s eyes is almost unbearable. He feels so helpless. Then he grabs my hand and holds it, and that is probably the best think anyone can do for me at that moment.
I am using a special mouthwash, because you can develop a fungal infection in your mouth, on your tongue. How gross.
My mother-in-law and friends make dinner for me during the rough days, which really helps.
I develop and interest in scrapbooking and do that through my treatments. I crochet an afghan for my partners for Christmas.
We hire a maid to do the cleaning because I am too weak, too weak to play with my son. He is a mommy’s boy, and once I am home, he isn’t leaving my side. My husband takes my son to play so I can sneak upstairs to take a nap.
In the middle of chemo, I am scheduled to start radiation treatments. The sooner the better. Anything to get this torture over with is fine with me.
I am scheduled for 31 radiation treatments—Monday through Friday for six weeks. Every day.
I go in and they make a mold for me to rest my head and shoulders on so I will be in position every time.
They mark me with colored markers to make sure they have me lined up. They tattoo on my body—tiny black dots—so they will know how to line me up. After they mark me up, they tell me not to wash ‘til I return on Monday.
Here I am: bald, with green marker all over my neck, walking through the park with my husband and son. My husband jokes that I look like I let our son draw all over me.
The radiation treatment only takes two minutes. I do it on my lunch hour and go back to work. For the first 4 ½ weeks, it is a piece of cake.
Then I notice blisters on my skin—three small ones. They don’t hurt.
I am in my son’s room while my husband is changing his diapers. I am sitting in the rocker, thinking about how tired I am, thinking to myself that this must be what people feel like at the end, but I am not at the end. I am going to make it if I can lift up my index finger. If I can do that, I will be OK. I stare at that finger. One minute. Three. Five minutes, willing it to move. Finally it does. But it takes every ounce of energy I have.
The blisters spread to the point of opening up the skin. It looks like ground beef.
I am in so much pain. I want to die. I can’t wear my bra because I can’t stand the rubbing against the skin. This means I can’t wear my prosthetic.
This just made me miserable. Here I am, in pain, only one boob, in baggy clothes.
As soon as I get home, I take my shirt off and walk around with no top because I can’t stand for anything to touch the skin.
The pain makes me even more tired.
As I walk through the parking lot to work, I realize that I have forgotten my wig. I only wore it to work to make my patients feel more comfortable. It is too late to go home and get my wig, so I just decide to grin and bear it.
One gentleman who only had met me one week before for his contact lens exam keeps giving me a weird stare. Finally, he says, “Didn’t you have long hair last week?”
I explain to him that I am going through chemo and had forgotten my wig. The look of relief on the man’s face is priceless. I know he thought I had had a nervous breakdown and cut off all my hair.
My last day of chemo. April 14. The first time in my life that I am happy to see tax day come.
I have reconstructive surgery.
I never felt grotesque. My husband never made me feel that way. But I tell him I am being selfish. I want to feel normal again. I don’t want to have to search for my prosthetic every time I open up the front door.
The prosthetic was heavy and ended up being a nuisance. I had to sew pockets in my bathing suit so I could put my prosthetic in it. I had nightmares that it would come floating out in the pool. I was just tired of it.
The doctors tried to talk me into having a silicon implant put in, but I wanted the “tram flap” surgery, where they make a breast from my stomach fat and muscle. One great advantage is that it gives me a tummy tuck, too. After the chemo, I had put on 20 extra pounds. I remember going out to a restaurant, eating a full course meal and then turning around and coming home and being starving. And I had to eat because my stomach would cramp up and start to hurt.
The surgery turns out wonderfully. The doctor told me that I would feel like I was hit by a truck, but he is wrong. I feel like I was hit by a motorcycle.
It is nice to be symmetrical again.
September 2001. I never asked, “Why me?” because I believe things happen for a reason. My husband and I haven’t had one day off together for two years, because we alternate our days off so we can watch our son. We didn’t want him to go to day care. I believe this was God’s way of saying we needed to be together as a family. We now have family day every Wednesday.
I only have to be checked every six months now, and on the last visit, they increased my survival rate. I have full mobility in my arm. It is not as strong as the other arm, and I have developed a condition called lymphedema, which causes your arm to swell.
Your arm has no way to get rid of the lymphatic fluid, and you have to do massages to make the swelling go down. You constantly have to wear a compression sleeve or have the arm bandaged. I am not allowed to go into hot tubs anymore or lift more than 15 pounds with that arm.
My hair is back, slightly wavy, thicker and darker than before. It is just as black as when I was a child. A lot of people tell me they wish they could shave their heads and start over.
My energy level is great.
Life is good.
September 30, 2013
Wow can’t believe that I just hit my 15 years of being cancer free. Update. I had a baby girl in 2003. Erika. And as she will tell you—she is my miracle baby. In 2005, my husband and I opened a private practice together. It has been a wonderful adventure that we are sharing together. My son is 16 now, driving and playing varsity baseball. Erika is 10 and doing competitive dance. Life is still good.
In March, my oncologist informed me that they finally have a name for my Breast Cancer—Triple Negative Breast Cancer. It is one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancers. It is found in younger women and in about 10-20 percent of breast cancer patients. It reoccurs in 30 percent of the patients. Wow! I am one very blessed person…I hope that my story will helps others that are going though treatment, will be going through treatment or someone helping others with breast cancer.
I survived and I know that one day cancer will not be looked upon as a death sentence.
September 22, 2015
In six days I will celebrate 17 years of being cancer free. This year I finally did the brca gene test and it was Negative! Yay! Told my daughter who is now 12 that if she develops breast cancer it will not be from me. It was scary doing the test but of course I’m ecstatic with the results. Erika is still competitive dancing and Marcus started college last month. I felt another milestone was met living long enough to see him graduate. When he put on that tux for senior pictures, I started to cry. He is not familiar seeing me emotional and said what’s wrong. I explained that seeing him in the tux reminded me of his wedding day and that was the goal I kept thinking of when I was going through chemo. I wanted to live long enough to see him get married. Every day I am grateful for my life and don’t take it for granted. I try and see the beauty in everything big and small. Life is amazing! Thanks for sharing this journey with me.
God Bless You!