Cancer survivors tell all: ‘I woke up from surgery missing a third of my right breast’

Women (Daria Shevtsova/Pexels stock image)

For someone who has never had to experience or endure breast cancer, it might be understandable that there are questions involved. Does a diagnosis typically come as a surprise, or do people often suspect that something feels not quite right?

How often should we be performing self-examinations, anyway?

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(At least once a month, the experts say).

We posed some of those questions, and more, to our readers -- and as you can imagine, there was quite a range when it came to the answers we received.

Like with many things in life, it’s hard to generalize. Many people’s responses sounded familiar, and you could certainly find some common themes, but each story was also different in its own way.

By the way, respondents had the option to self-identify however they’d like. We asked for names, ages and locations, but people were able to provide as many information or as few details as they’d prefer, which is why you’ll see some full names, and some people on a first-only basis. Some responses have been edited for length, clarity and grammar.

We hope by sharing women’s stories, it will encourage and inspire others to stay proactive about their own health.

Here are those answers to a few of our questions.

How did you learn of your cancer?

Patty Harrison, age 65, from Jacksonville, Florida: “I felt a lump. It felt like a peanut, like a roasted peanut shell. I went to have a mammogram and then an ultrasound and then a biopsy. I was told over the phone I had H2R negative cancer. So I started crying, and they said, ‘Let me write this down, because you are falling apart right now.’ I had both breasts removed.”

Abina Baral, from Christiansburg, Virginia (answering in regards to her mother): “We were able to figure out through a mammogram. My mom also tested positive for the BRCA-1 gene without any known family history of breast cancer. It was a 0.5% chance of testing positive, and unfortunately, my mom did. A bilateral mastectomy, immediate reconstruction, eight rounds of chemo, and a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy later, she is finally cancer-free.”

Kim Taylor, age 50, from Melbourne, Florida: “I found a lump in my breast while washing in the shower. I had to wait three weeks for a mammogram, then another week for the biopsy. I was told officially on Valentine’s Day 2020 I had breast cancer. I had a lumpectomy and 33 radiation treatments. I was lucky enough not to need chemotherapy. Now I must take a medication every day for the next five years that will hopefully keep any cancer from coming back. I will be getting mammograms every six months starting in December.”

Mary Carr, age 69, from Sterling Heights, Michigan: "I went for a routine annual physical. My primary doctor did a manual breast exam, bloodwork, etc., and she didn’t feel a lump. When I was getting ready to leave, she said I was overdue for a mammogram by a few months, and she knew they had some available right then -- and did I want to go down to get one? I went down the hall and got a mammogram, and they came out and told me my doctor would see me. She told me they found a spot on my breast, and I needed to call and get it checked out as soon as possible. The doctor set up an appointment for a biopsy. The mammogram was Oct. 20; the biopsy was on Halloween. Everyone kept telling me not to worry, and it’d be fine. The surgeon’s office called me at work, and said I needed to come in the following afternoon. I brought my husband as I knew at that point it was not good news.

The surgeon was incredibly kind, and showed us the scans. She drew so many diagrams with different scenarios and various treatments. At that point, we didn’t even know anything about breast cancer and had no idea of what questions to ask. The surgeon gave us a large binder (my ‘bible’ for months) that was full of explanations, questions, and protocols. My cancer ended up being Triple Negative breast cancer, which is very aggressive. I had to decide between a partial mastectomy or a mastectomy. My surgeon recommended a partial mastectomy (lumpectomy) as my survival would be the same with added radiation. But it would be a much quicker recovery. I had the surgery just before Thanksgiving, and then had a port implanted the first few days of January, and started my chemo. That was followed by radiation therapy. Now, I’m almost six years out and doing well. I’ve met an incredible number of amazing women. I feel ‘lucky’ to have gotten a cancer that there is so much support for, and information on."

Christine Papayorgis, age 33, from Miami: "I was told by a women’s diagnostic center I was too young to get breast cancer and they denied my mammogram. I was able to get an appointment the same day at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. They performed my mammogram, followed by an ultrasound. I had a mass and had it biopsied the next day. By Friday, I got the call to confirm it was cancer. I was diagnosed stage 3C -- almost a stage 4. So much for being ‘too young.’ Cancer doesn’t discriminate.”

Brooke McDavitt: “It was just a regular yearly mammogram. I didn’t feel a lump. I didn’t suspect a thing. It was just a part of taking care of myself as a woman over 40. I was sent for a biopsy the next day, which indicated LCIS (Lobular Carcinoma In Situ), which is a lesion indicating a high risk for cancer in either breast, but not cancer itself. My gut feeling was to remove it anyway, because I wouldn’t look back in a year regretting removal, but may regret not doing anything. After it was removed, I found out it was Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC).”

Kathy: “My sister was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2000 at the age of 39. While hospitalized, she kept insisting that I needed a mammogram. I kept telling her I was fine, younger (32), and had not felt anything suspicious. She kept up her insistence. At a visit to my doctor for another concern, I mentioned my sister’s battle and insistence. She said she would order a mammogram even though I was young, but that it should help my sister as it would put her mind to rest.

So, off I went to a mammogram, thinking to myself ‘What a waste of time.’ The very next day, my doctor called and said, ‘You have a suspicious spot, and with your sister’s history, I am sending you directly to an oncologist tomorrow.’ Wait. What? Are you kidding me? I met with the oncologist who was very frank and said if this were anyone else, she wouldn’t be too concerned, as the spot didn’t look suspicious. But considering (the sister’s) age, type and stage of cancer, ‘We aren’t messing around.’ She scheduled me for surgery within a week. Well, I woke up from surgery missing a third of my right breast. The doctor explained she opened me up and there was not one, but three lumps, and that one of them -- one that didn’t even show up on the mammogram -- was definitely cancer. She had removed all three and the surrounding tissue. So I owe my cancer diagnosis and the early detection to my sister."

How did you feel?

Harrison: “Scared.”

Baral: “They were very uncertain times. The word ‘cancer’ in itself is very scary. It came with a lot of emotional turmoil and we found ourselves very helpless, especially also because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Dealing with COVID and breast cancer was nothing short of an emotional roller coaster.”

Taylor: “From the minute I found the lump, I was scared. Waiting and the unknown were the worst. I am a nurse at a local hospital and I was the eighth person on my unit diagnosed in (about) three years. We have all supported each other during our different but similar journeys. The support from my family and friends was wonderful. But cancer changes you. I was so worried about how my kids and husband would deal with it all. One of the hardest things I had to do was tell my family I had cancer. It was an emotional experience. Even being a nurse, I didn’t understand what everything meant."

Carr: “Scared beyond belief. But determined to do whatever it took to get back to my life and living. And believe it or not, it has enriched my life in ways I never thought of.”

Papayorgis: “I was scared, but I tried to keep myself together. I have three children watching me. So I could’ve handled the news as best as I could, or fallen apart. My treatment was aggressive -- and there were days I wanted to give up. However, with my family’s support and the support of my cancer family, I pushed through each day. I was hopeful then, and I still am now. There’s no right or wrong way to go through this difficult time, but support does help. I am thankful for my second chance in life. You feel and see this differently. I am more appreciative of each day that I’m here."

McDavitt: “I realize I was lucky to have it discovered so early, but it was terrifying at first. My daughter was 2 at the time, I was under 45, and completely caught off guard. I was shocked and scared but the sisterhood of survivors at my workplace led me through the process and hooked me up with the best team. Fellow survivors were like sherpas through the climb. I try to pay it forward to the next survivors."

Kathy: “I was in shock, denial, and on complete auto pilot.”

Anything else you’d like to share or say?

Taylor: “I hope this convinces others to get their mammograms. I put off getting my first mammogram, blaming it on being too busy and thinking I’d do it tomorrow, and the days passed and I just never did it. I was lucky enough to feel the lump in my breast while in the shower. Now, I encourage everyone to get tested and not wait like I did."

Carr: “Some women I’ve met on this path just want to put their cancer diagnosis in a box, on a shelf, in a closet, and close the door on it. They don’t want to have to think about it. I get it, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I am more of the mind that I have to learn everything I possibly can. And then I share it with whoever will listen."

Papayorgis: “I was diagnosed at 31. Early detection is important, and education is vital when it comes to this disease.”

McDavitt: “I’ll be getting my now yearly mammogram tomorrow. Graduating to yearly is a milestone. Yay!”

Kathy: “This nasty cancer stuff doesn’t discriminate -- and it can hit anyone, no matter their age.”

Thank you so much to our loyal readers, who trusted us with their answers and made all of this possible.