When I started this blog at the beginning of the year, I thought my next post after Connection and Kindness would be about the differences between being an expat and an immigrant, about expat privilege and the people I’ve observed who don’t acknowledge their expat privilege. I have a long list of topics I’ve been keeping notes on and writing about and I had a pretty good plan, I thought, for how I wanted this blog to unfold. Then, over the past two months, my whole world has blown up.
Everything in my life during the past 10 years has been defined by B.C. and A.D.–not Before Christ and After Death, but Before China and After Departure. Now the meaning of B.C. and A.D. has changed to Before Cancer and After Diagnosis because last week I definitively found out I have breast cancer. It still shocks the hell out of me to write those words. I have breast cancer. And, the kicker is that I have a 6cm banana shaped tumor in my right breast that never, EVER, showed up on any mammogram or ultrasound. My wonderful oncologist, Dr. Scott Karlan at Cedars-Sinai in LA, told me I’ve probably had breast cancer for seven to nine years and it’s a good thing we caught it now. Seven to nine years with no symptoms and no sight of the tumor. Unbelievable. In the past two months no less than seven doctors have given me a breast exam and not one of them ever felt that tumor. I’ve had three different mammograms and two ultrasounds. Nothing.
The only reason I know I have breast cancer is because my beloved Libby made us get super duper physicals to start the year off on a healthy note in early January. She was adamant, forceful and insanely possessed about us doing CT body scans, which were an optional add on. Lighten up, Libby, I told her because I thought she was being more than a bit extreme, completely over the top, and I even tried to talk her into putting the physicals off until this summer but she wouldn’t let me sway her. Bless her for holding fast. Over the last 25+ years Libby has figuratively saved my life more than once–this time she’s literally saved my life. If we hadn’t done those scans, I would have waltzed away from that physical thinking the only thing I needed to do was lose some weight. I just barely, by like three seconds, made it into the good category on the stress test. My cholesterol was good, blood sugar was good, my mammogram was totally clean, everything was good. As the doctor where we did the physicals said, “For someone your age and your weight, you did great!” I am overcome and filled up with tears and love and gratitude when I think about how many more years I’m going to enjoy with Libby because she made us do those CT scans.
What the scans showed were five enlarged lymph nodes in my right armpit–one 3.2cm and the other four about 1.5cm. The doctor who reviewed our physicals with us said she wasn’t too worried since nothing showed up in my blood work and my mammogram was completely clean. She asked me if I had cats. Cats? Yes, cats, because apparently there’s some disease people can get from their cats. No, no cats I told her, and this just gives me another reason to not care for cats. Then she asked if I’d recently been sick because maybe the lymph nodes were fighting off some infection. Nope, haven’t been sick. She told me, just to be safe, I should get the largest lymph node biopsied. Since Libby and I were hopping on a plane the next morning to go back to Modena, where we live in Italy, we decided to deal with this when we got back there.
I’m not going to bore you with all the details of the last two months, nor draw you in to the anxiety, panic, fear, rage and utter helplessness I’ve felt in these last two months. I just can’t go there right now. But I do want to say if you are a woman, love a woman, or know a woman, please tell them this: just because your mammograms are crystal clean and the radiologist tells you “everything looks great,” don’t believe it, especially if you have dense breasts. If I can save one person’s life by exposing myself like this, it will all be worth it.
My friend Darren Plested posted this Ted Talk on his Facebook page. It’s by Deborah Rhodes, a doctor who helped develop Molecular Breast Imaging (MBI) technology. Please watch it and don’t trust your mammograms. http://www.ted.com/talks/deborah_rhodes.html
Because of Libby’s insistence, and because of those CT scans, I will be ok. It’s going to be a long haul, though, with surgeries, chemo, radiation, and estrogen blocking pills, but it will be nothing compared to what might have been if I’d trusted those mammograms.
Thanks so much for reading.
Love you Nancy stay strong thank you for sharing. Love you Libby for taking such good care and not giving up.
Bless you for sharing. Good will come of it. Love to you and Libby.
Thanks Nancy just went thru several call backs on my mamma gram because I have dense breasts I am going to call and check this out Thinking of you and wishing you all the best
Wow. I was drawn to this TED talk originally due to my mothers own breast cancer yeasts earlier. Scared the hell out of me and I wanted to bring awareness wherever I could. I’m so torn to hear this aweful curse hit you Nancy, but I’m glad you caught it relatively early and something can be done about it. I’m so glad someone connected us
Nancy, I had a clean mammogram at the end of December in 2008 and in January of 2009 received a diagnosis of breast cancer (Paget’s disease) from my dermatologist!
Mammograms are an excellent tool but they don’t catch everything. Sending you healing energy on your journey to wellness.
Thank you for writing and sharing this. My own mammogram states “dense” breast tissue. Now I know to take extra precautions and not trust blindly. Thinking of you and praying. Hugs…
Nancy, I just saw this and I am in total shock! You are both in my thoughts and prayers! If anyone can kick this bitch of a disease in the a** its you Nancy.
All our love, Senga xx
Thanks everyone! Spread the word about mammos–you could save a life just like Libby has saved mine! XO
Sending so much love your way!
Thanks for the detailed account here — will share. And thanks, Libby, for being such a bulldozer about it! Go Nancy! Anything I can do, let me know.
I shared this article on my FB page along with a long comment. You should be able to find what I wrote on my FB page. If you cannot find it, email me, and I’ll make sure you receive my comment. My BC diagnoses (2) were somewhat similar to your situation. Thank you for posting this because we do need to educate people more about what a mammogram cannot do. Every test has its limitations. I’ve had them all many times over the past six years.
Your sister-in-breast cancer,
I just want to say that if a person’s mammogram shows up clean, it’s difficult for the doctor to justify an ultrasound, CT scan or PET/CT scan, and the insurance companies will not want to pay for it unless a patient has other symptoms or BC history, as in my case which concern the doctor.
I am Darren’s Mom and I am sure he has told you I had breast cancer, as well. I will be 3 years cancer free on June 2/14.
I can certainly relate to all of your feelings…I have been there. If you have any questions please contact me. I have left my email address.
My cancer was not detected by feeling a lump, but by an abnormality in a lay-over of a mammogram from my previous year. My doctor also told me the cancer had been growing for at least 7 years.
I also think it is important to share stories. In Canada, the health care providers think a woman over 50 should only have a mammogram every 3 years. Thank goodness I didn’t wait or I might not be talking with you now.
I am very proud of you for sharing your story so you can help others understand the importance of taking health into your own hands. The best of luck on all your treatments.
Thanks, Linda, nice to “meet” you, i’ve heard a lot about you from Darren and Amy!
nancy it seems cruel to know we follow the “rules” and do our mammograms religiously each year only now to find out that they are not enough or accurate or crystal clear accurate????????????? Nancy I am somewhere between shocked by your news, angry that what we do is not enough in terms of tests and worried…I have to see about this year’s tests for me and hope you will be fine with care and treatment..thank you for posting this I am sharing it with my friends. x x amalia
Well, this took me by surprise, Nancita…please keep me posted and know I’ll be sending you lots of light, healing energy, in my daily prayer to La Cosmos. Not an ‘easy journey,’ so your courage is wonderful to share. xoxoxoxo
Nancy, thanks for writing this. My mom died of breast cancer 20 years ago (trust me the breast cancer world was totally different back then …) and I have always dutifully gone for mamograms given my history. Many, many, many thanks for writing this and sharing with us all. I would like to post to my fbook page if that is OK for all my girlfriends to have the info. Let me know. Something definitely for us all to be aware of. I am thinking of you and Libby and so glad that all will be ok. Sending strong thoughts and wishes for a complete and speedy recovery. Warmly, Cynthia (Emily’s friend from NYC).