It’s October, and the nation is awash in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But one of the most common forms of breast cancer is one you may not be aware of. I sure wasn’t aware of it when it struck me.
My diagnosis came on a bright summer day in 2007, as I sat in my ninth-floor office in downtown Tampa, staring out the window at the streets below. The block bustled with workday motion, business people going to meetings or coming back from a late lunch. I faintly noted their movements as the radiologist on the other end of the line gave me the news.
“It’s cancer.” But after those terrifying, life-changing words he said something surprising.
“But it’s the good kind.”
That was the first time I heard the term ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, which is a very early stage of breast cancer. At that moment, I was stunned. I was married to a wonderful guy. We were trying to have a baby. I had a career I loved in public relations. And now it seemed the ground was shifting. All of my identities would give way to one: “cancer patient.”
I looked up DCIS on the internet and found words like “non-invasive” and “curable.” I started to understand why the radiologist called it “the good kind.” Maybe my world wasn’t crashing down around me. I’d get through this.
And if you’ve just heard these words for the first time, I want you to know that you will, too.
It All Started With a Mammogram
Thanks to advancements in technology and more women getting regular mammograms, DCIS is one of the most commonly diagnosed forms of non-invasive breast cancer.
I got my first mammogram because I was having trouble getting pregnant. By the time I turned 40, my husband and I had been trying for a few years to have a baby and had decided to start fertility testing. Among the basic health screenings I had to get during testing was a mammogram, which came back abnormal. That led to more mammograms, two ultrasounds, an MRI and a biopsy. With test after test, being smushed and smashed, poked and prodded, I really started to feel like a cancer patient. I’m thankful to the staff at at the Susan Cheek Needler Breast Center at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, where my cancer was diagnosed and treated, for being so professional and kind. They think of everything, including a warm blanket as you’re sitting in a cold exam room waiting for the umpteenth test.
After meeting with my doctor, we chose a partial mastectomy followed by radiation. The surgery went perfectly. My brilliant surgeon achieved “clean margins,” meaning no sign of cancer cells at the edges of the tissue. He’d gotten all of it.
And so I was on to radiation. Seven weeks and a hunk of burned skin under my armpit later, I was back in the doctor’s office to follow up and discuss next steps.
A Choice for the Future
I’d gotten through all the tests. I’d recovered from surgery and endured radiation. I thought this journey was nearing an end, and that my husband and I would go back to planning our family. But my surgeon had more news.
He explained that since the surgery had gone well and I’d had a “boost” during my radiation treatments (an extra hit of radiation in a large dose to make sure the cancer was obliterated), chemo wasn’t necessary. Now he pronounced that I was to start taking a drug called Tamoxifen.
For five years.
I’d put off my baby for a year already. And I was 41 now. The window was closing. In five years it would be slammed shut.
There was a slight chance the cancer could return. The doctor admitted the risk was fairly small and that the cancer could still come back even if I did take the drug. I turned to my husband. His eyes said what I was thinking: “We want our baby.” I decided I had to take the chance. My days as a cancer patient were over.
“No,” I said. “No Tamoxifen.”
And that was that. I delivered a perfect, nine-pound baby boy a little more than two years after my cancer treatment ended. When I finally met my son, I told him I loved him and whispered “you were worth it.”
My decision to refuse the drug is one I don’t take lightly. It means I have to be extra vigilant. Could the cancer come back? Maybe. But I’m on top of it. In the nearly 10 years since my diagnosis, I’ve been cancer-free. I do self-exams. I’ll have closely scrutinized mammograms for the rest of my life. I beat cancer once. If I have to, I’ll do it again.
Maybe you’ve come to this page because you’ve been told you have DCIS and you’re looking for information. You might be thinking your life is over. That your identity is now “cancer patient.” I want you to know you’ll get through it. DCIS is not a death sentence.
I’m living proof. And so is my beautiful little boy.