Because it is breast cancer awareness month, I was asked if I would tell my story about my journey with this disease. I, of course, said yes and was honored to do so since this disease affects thousands of women and men across the globe; the more awareness that is out there – the better. But, as I started writing this I had the realization that each person’s cancer diagnosis and journey is as distinct as the person it affects, and how they recall this journey is just as distinct.
This is my story.
On the morning of Tuesday February 21, 2012, I sat alone on the examination table in Dr. Charles Scott’s office at Wilmington Health. I wasn’t there because I needed a physical or I had a cold, I was there because the week prior he had performed a breast biopsy and it was time for the results. He had already come in and checked my biopsy incision and stated that “everything looked good,” and then promptly excused himself for me to get dressed so we could go over the pathology. It may not have been a red flag for others but because I have worked in healthcare my entire career I knew that if I was really 100% fine, he would have told me so when he checked the biopsy site and there would have been no reason for a second chat. I knew the next time he walked in to my room I was going to hear a word that no one is ever prepared for and even though I had hoped I was wrong, the pit in my stomach was telling me to prepare myself because my life was about to be forever changed.
Dr. Scott came back in my room after a few minutes and this time instead of stethoscope he was carrying a piece of paper and his nurse Angela was with him. He looked me in the eyes and asked, “ready?” I remember slowly nodding my head “yes” even though I was definitely not ready. “Ductal Carcinoma In Situ” was his next statement to me because that was what the pathologist found in my biopsy. But, behind those big words was the real diagnosis…breast cancer. I do not remember everything that Dr. Scott said to me while I sat on his examination table because I was intent on not breaking down in tears, so I kept telling myself to “hold it together ” and “don’t you dare cry.” My mind was busily trying to accept my diagnosis and everything that was about to follow. I remember thinking how I was only 31 years old… I had a full-time job…. I was a full-time college student only three courses away from completing my MBA…. and most important, I had two small children at home so who was going to help my husband raise them if I died? My mind also went back and reviewed the last six-month journey that brought me to this very spot and how I had actually hoped to get here just not with the same ending.
In September of 2011, I was sitting on my couch when suddenly, I had this weird sensation run from the middle of my left breast to under my armpit. It was not a painful feeling just a very odd one and, in that moment, I had a powerful thought “you have cancer.” At first, my mind went to “what a crazy thought” but at the same time I had a pit in my stomach because breast cancer has affected every generation of women in my family and it has always been a worry hidden in the back of my mind that I too would pull the unfortunate short straw and be diagnosed with this disease. To ease my mind, I scheduled an appointment the next week with my gynecologist and when I explained the sensation I had, as well as my family history with breast cancer, I was certain that my request for a simple mammogram would be instantly approved. I was expecting him to appreciate being proactive and order the test even if to just to ease my mind. He instead patted me on my knee and told me that I was just being overly paranoid and that no mammogram was needed because I was too young to have breast cancer and no insurance would cover it. I left that office feeling shocked and unheard, but I was not yet defeated. The following day I scheduled an appointment with my PCP to get a second opinion believing that even though I did not feel heard the first time around, I hoped this doctor would hear me out and take my concerns more seriously. Two weeks later when I went in for that second opinion I told my doctor the same thing: the sensation I had, my family history and my request for a mammogram. I was unfortunately told very similar statements as before: “too young”, “your family history is not that bad”, and “no mammogram is needed”.
I wish I could tell you that the third time was the charm but unfortunately it was not. Neither was the fourth. I spent the next five months “doctor shopping” for a mammogram. I even went as far as calling a local radiology office and ask if I could pay cash for a mammogram, but their answer was “no” because special testing requires a referral from a medical provider. I honestly could not believe that it was really this difficult to get a mammogram! I feel this is the point where I started to lose hope and began to feel defeated. Defeated as a patient and defeated as a woman. But even in those low moments I knew that I had to keep going and make someone hear me.
About two weeks later, I was at work in my office when one of my medical assistants came in and asked if I was still looking for a new doctor. I told her I was, and she told me how amazing her PCP was then urged me to call her. I took down the information, but I was a little reluctant to call and go in because I wasn’t sure if I could handle being dismissed by yet another physician. I gathered my hope and made the call to Dr. Catherine Daum’s office at Wilmington Health later that day and scheduled an appointment with her later that week. Walking in to Wilmington Health for the first time was a little overwhelming but as soon as I met Dr. Daum, I knew I was in the right place and this was going to be different from my other appointments. Dr Daum listened to all my concerns and feelings and without any hesitation ordered a mammogram. I cried tears of joy in her office because someone finally listed to me and was willing to help me! This is what I had hoped for and was so thankful and knew that my hope had led me to the right physician. One week later I went in and received the mammogram that I hoped for and a few days later I was back in Dr Daum’s office being told a mass had been found and that she was referring me to Dr. Charles Scott, a surgeon with Wilmington Health who specialized in breast biopsy/cancer. I met with Dr. Scott for the first time a few days later and he too listened to everything I had to say and then asked me if I wanted to revisit the mass in six months or have him perform a surgical biopsy, I choose the biopsy and the rest is history.
Back to Dr. Scott’s office just being told I had cancer ……
Once I was able to focus again I found Nurse Angela with her arms wrapped around me and Dr. Scott (attempting to take some of the shock away) making a reference to movie that I had never seen. I interrupted his movie reference and asked him what my options were. After he reviewed them with me, I opted for a bilateral mastectomy. When I asked if I could get on his surgical schedule ASAP, he told me I’d be in surgery that Friday. I left his office knowing that I now had to tell my husband, children, family and friends about this new chapter all while staying strong and having hope that everything was going to be alright. I knew there were only two options, the low road or the high road and I refused to fall in to a pit of depression and let this diagnosis win. I didn’t have time for that. I can’t say that I was not scared because I was, but my faith and hope was stronger than any fear. Three days later on February 25, I had my bilateral mastectomy and was officially cancer free. Four months later I had my reconstruction and while there were some complications in between I never lost my hope that everything was going to be OK. Perhaps not perfect – but OK.
I am six years cancer free and I celebrate every February 25th as my cancer birthday. It has not always been easy, I had to make so many difficult decisions and my life is forever changed, but I am alive and here with my family and I even graduated with my MBA on time.Everyone who is diagnosed with cancer is a survivor, I just hope that I can inspire people going through similar situations and they can see this is what the face of cancer can look like. If I could choose one word to describe my journey, it would be hope because that is honestly what carried me through. More importantly I want people to understand the power of hope and to hold on to it even in the most difficult of times.
Sarah Snyder is the Practice Manager at Chrysalis Center.