What does 1.4 cm mean to you?
1.4 cm can be a wonderful thing if it’s “oyster spit” (pearls) and it can be life changing if it’s the “c-word”.
In 1972, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. So, when I found my first lump in 1975, I was nervous to say the least. A trip to the family doctor resulted in a needle biopsy and being a “guinea pig” for his new mammogram machine.
When he asked if I minded if he brought a couple of interns in to watch, I innocently replied “on”. To my horror, at the ripe old age of 21, the room started to fill with gentlemen. Now, I don’t know about you, but to me a couple usually means 2 not 20, any one of which I would have rather seen at my front door on a Saturday night! So, there I am, Naked as the day I was born save for a paper drape across my lap. I could have died! With that, here h=came the crowd – all wanting a feel – boy did I wish the circumstances were different!
Every 6 months I went in to have the cyst drained. When I went in about a year and a half later they were unable to drain any fluid and it was suggested that I see a surgeon. I went in to see the surgeon that had performed my mother’s mastectomy. He saw me and 2 days later I was in the hospital scheduled for surgery.
In those days, you didn’t have a lumpectomy and then decide what to do later. I checked into the hospital the night before my surgery and was shaved, by a really cute male nurse with dimples, from my neck to my bellybutton. When I threatened him with bodily harm if I had black curly hair grow back in…he only smiled and replied that he thought that it would be fine. You may wonder how I could remember that after 30 years, but I will tell you, it was something I’ll never forget!
I went under anesthesia not knowing whether I would have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. I know that if everything was okay, the surgery would last about 3 hours and if it was cancer, the surgery would be about 8 hours. The first thing that I did when I came too enough to see, was to look for a clock – 3 hours – what a relief! I was a dance major at CSULB and with only one breast, I knew that my career would be over before it began.
During all this commotion with my right breast, I felt a very small area on my left breast, right at the edge of the areola that I brought to the attention of ALL of the doctors and I was told not to worry about it. That if it was anything to be concerned about, that it would show on a mammogram.
Thirty years ago, reconstruction was very different than it is today. It was really scary to be 22 – 23 and looking at having a mastectomy. Especially being skinny and wearing a leotard and tights every day…
Regular mammograms continued and in the late 1980’s I found another lump in my left breast. The original lump still has yet to show on a mammogram, but the new lump appears to be a cyst of some type.
“Okay, let’s get it out of there” was the battle cry and while you’re at it, take this other one out of there too! I think that it’s growing. “No, it doesn’t show on the mammogram…”
So, out-patient surgery was scheduled and the lump was removed, everything was fine and I went on about my life dutifully having my mammograms and asking doctor after doctor why I can feel this thing growing and why is it getting so painful and why doesn’t it show on a mammogram?
July 2002, here comes my 30-year high school reunion! I have new insurance and another new doctor. I schedule an appointment, at this point, I am in so much paint that I am ready to take a kitchen knife and cut this thing out myself! NOT REALLY – but close! He agrees to schedule a mammogram, this time with an ultra sound.
Once again, nothing shows on the mammogram. At first, the person doing the ultra sound can’t find anything and I suggest that he go and get his supervisor. She couldn’t seem to find it either and at this point I’m starting to get a little irritated. “Why is it that I can feel this thing and you can’t find it???” Finally, after what felt like an eternity, between the 2 of them – Eureka! “Oh honey, that’s just a cyst. I wouldn’t worry about that. Why don’t you wait and come back in 6 months.” I want this thing out and I want it out NOW!” “I think that you should wait. I will have to put down in the records that you had an abnormal mammogram.” If you don’t write in the records whatever you need to, so that I can have surgery, I will call Gloria Allred and I’m sure that she would be happy to see you in court!”
I can be a little feisty at times – what can I say! This is when my story would have had a complete change, if only I had known about Dr. Meschi!
August 2002, surgery is scheduled, the day before my high school reunion! I found out that afternoon that the thing that I felt growing and the thing that never showed on any mammogram was – CANCER! Can I have a cocktail please!
I sat down with the counselor at Hoag Memorial Presbyterian Hospital, Sandy Finestone, and listened dutifully to all that she had to say, but, all I could think of was – how did I end up here?
I saw the only oncologist that was covered by my insurance. What a nightmare! She started barking orders like a drill sergeant. You will do this, that and whatever. I said I don’t think so and stormed out the door.
The aftermath of the lumpectomy was not a pretty picture. The surgeon did a nice job, except that now I was two different cup sizes. Off to find a plastic surgeon…
I met with my first plastic surgeon. He told me that he couldn’t make me symmetrical due to the shape of my breasts and really thought that I should have radiation treatments.
My surgeon was after me to have radiation treatments and now the plastic guy! Bummer! I was concerned because my breast had a “fever”. It had been warm to the touch since the original surgery. I really didn’t want treatments to do radiation; I would have rather had a mastectomy with reconstruction. The problem was not the removing – the problem was the putting back together! My surgeon and the plastic surgeon both convinced me (along with 3 other plastic surgeons) that having a lumpectomy and radiation was the same as having a mastectomy and that I would be fine. So against my better judgment, I went and consulted with a radiation oncologist.
December 2002, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I went to Hoag and met with one of their radiation oncologists. He was wonderful and spent hours with me. I was still apprehensive about having radiation treatments and against everything I felt, I started radiation treatments in January of 2003.
I had extreme side effects from the radiation including; nausea, vomiting, chills, blisters in the treatment area with green puss, coughing up green mucous, vertigo, thrush and nerve pain in the treatment area and shoulder. I ended up suffering with the vertigo for 4 years and still have shoulder pain (2009). I never thought that I would aspire to become a human pincushion, but I never would have made it through all the treatments with our acupuncture. After all of the treatments were completed, I was talking with the doctor and I mentioned that the side effects that I had were so much more than what most people had, that I felt that I had made the right decision about not submitting to chemotherapy. He agreed and told me that the chemo probably would have killed me!
Back to the search for a plastic surgeon…
I was seen by 3 other plastic surgeons and now my problem had been magnified by the fact that I had had radiation. I was no longer a good candidate for an implant. My breast was hard and was still warm to the touch.
November 2006, it’s time for the MRI. The only good thing about having the radiation now I get MRI’s instead of mammograms! Yeah! No more squeezing!
Bad news – the area that we thought was fat necrosis from radiation is growing and another surgical biopsy is done. The original tumor had been 1.4 cm and now the tumor is over 6 cm and my oncologist tells me that radiation has been shown to cause recurrent cancer in women who make keloids when they heal from surgery. Well isn’t that just peachy? Why didn’t someone ask me how I heal? So her I went and did what I was told to do and something that I didn’t want to do in the first place and now I find out that it most likely caused the cancer to return! It just keeps getting better!
My new oncologist tells me to have a mastectomy and have a shunt put in for chemo and I said – “NO”!
Here I am AGAIN looking at being one-boobed! One of the plastic surgeons that I had consulted with previously had mentioned a type of surgery that they are doing at UCLA. A friend of mine who’s a nurse made some phone calls and found Dr. J. Festekjian. I went in for a consultation and was, under the circumstances, excited. He would do a procedure called a “DIEP Flap”.
During this procedure, one team of surgeons performs the mastectomy and his team harvests the fad and a blood supply from the abdomen. Then they build a new breast mound and reattach the blood supply. It’s massive surgery – but hey – I get a tummy tuck out of the deal!
Then his assistant, Jeani Primes, asked if I would mind filming an episode of “Plastic Surgery: Before and after” for the Discovery Health Network? So we did…and they filmed about 20 hours for about 15 minutes. Before interviews, the surgery and after interviews! The episode started airing in April of 2007.
Surgery was scheduled for February 14th 2006. Now, I don’t know about you – but I can think of a zillion other ways that I would rather spend Valentine’s Day, than having surgery! But, I guess you gotta do what you gotta do! At least I had the film crew to wish me Happy Valentine’s Day!
Although the tumor was large, there was no evidence of it having spread to the chest wall and the surgeons removed the top layer of muscle tissue to make sure. Upon microscopic review of the tissue, everything looked fine and Dr. Festekjian made a beautiful new breast. Reconstructive techniques are getting better all the time. Gifted surgeons, like Dr. Festekjian, are making huge differences in the lives that they touch and rebuild.
While I was in the hospital at UCLA, I noticed a small lump up by the armpit. When I mentioned this to Dr. Festekjian, he said that sometimes that fat necrosis occurs due to the fact that all of the blood supply for the fat has been disturbed and that he wouldn’t worry about it. He really felt that all would be fine.
Then I had a follow up MRI with a new oncologist who was concerned about the way that these areas presented on the MRI. Although they agreed that fat necrosis would appear the same way, they wanted a surgical biopsy.
Surgery was scheduled at UCLA in April of 2007; I was told that I have breast cancer of the lymph system of the skin. I understand that what I have is extremely rare and is considered by western medicine to be “incurable”.
December 2007, PET and CT Scans were done and revealed that my bone marrow reaction was indicative of the cancer spreading. My oncologist suggested Faslodex.
Here we go again with symptoms outside of the “normal” reaction: vertigo, vomiting, and 10 alarm bladder infection, all within about 20 minutes of being injected. Needless to say, I didn’t do that again, once was enough?
We tried Arimadex – 1/4 of one pill – here we go AGAIN…ENOUGH! My oncologist told me that he had nothing to give me and wished my luck………….he gave me about 12 months.
May 2008, I saw Dr. Meschi. In December we decided to repeat PET and CT scans. They reveal that my bone marrow is now clean. The lymph node that highlighted on the previous scan doesn’t show. The general up-takes are lower and the blood markers are coming down.
Thanks to Dr. Meschi, we have been able to keep the cancer contained to the breast skin on the left side and away from the chest wall
I am still in a major fight for my very life – but for the first time – we are beginning to win the skirmishes and I have real hope for winning the war.
Now, armed with another new oncologist that respects alternative medicine and Dr. Meschi, I find myself walking a fine line between traditional western and holistic medicines. Fortunately, I have been able to find doctors that are open and willing to work together and think way “outside the box” to help me find a cure.
If I’d known about Dr. Meschi – I would have seen him in the first place and have no doubt that I would be done with the whole mess. My biggest regret is that I didn’t know him in 2002. If I had seen him first, well, let’s just say that I know without a doubt, my story would be different.
Fear is not an option – only hope. Hope that stories like mine will someday be a thing of the past.*
February 11, 2020