My Journey with Breast Cancer
By Pamela Wilson
When I went for my annual physical last January, the physician’s assistant noticed a lump during my breast exam. She said it felt like a cyst and referred me to get a mammogram. Both the mammogram and an ultrasound confirmed it was nothing to worry about.
I was referred to a breast specialist, Dr. Gayle DiLalla at Tolnitch Surgical Associates, who drained fluid from the cyst and told me it was normal for women to have cysts and that as long as the fluid was clear (and it was), it was fine. She instructed me to come back in six weeks.
About four weeks later, the cyst was back and larger than before. I returned to Dr. DiLalla, and this time, she sent the fluid she drained to be tested. The results again came back negative. This was on a Friday, and by the time Dr. DiLalla called me back – less than a week later – the cyst had returned. She performed a procedure in her office to remove the cyst walls so that it would not come back. During this procedure, she mentioned that some tissue looked abnormal. The following Monday, she called to tell me the test came back positive.
I had cancer – invasive triple negative breast cancer (right side). Apparently, the cancerous tumor was behind the cyst and not visible during the mammogram or ultrasound. Fortunately, the tumor was aggravating the cyst, which caused it to recur. Dr. DiLalla suggested a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation. She referred me to an oncologist, Dr. Spiritos of Duke Raleigh Cancer Center, and I met him later that day. He suggested eight rounds of chemo every other Friday, which I started last March and completed last June.
I originally thought I’d have my right breast removed and just wear a breast prosthetic. However once my BRCA results [genetic testing] showed I had a genetic mutation – increasing the chances of recurrence – I decided to have both breasts removed and get tissue expanders for silicone implants. Talking to survivors in my support group helped me confirm this decision. I also had my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed due to increased risk of ovarian cancer.
There is no history of breast cancer in my family; however my mother did the BRCA testing as well, and she also has the genetic mutation. My treatment was pretty aggressive. Every other Friday for 15 weeks, I had chemo, and on Saturdays, I would go for a shot to help increase my white blood cell count. By, Sunday I was pretty sore. Mondays were usually my bad days, and I would come around by Tuesday and be back to work by Wednesday.
I could not stand the smell of food cooking and didn’t eat a lot of meat. Grilled cheese sandwiches were my food of choice, along with lots of fruits. I made sure not to eat any of my favorite foods for fear they would taste horrible. It got to a point I was eating food only because I knew I needed to eat, but I could barely taste anything. My nails turned dark, I lost my hair, and I had tingling fingers and toes and decreased energy – the typical side effects. I didn’t have much nausea, thankfully.
I couldn’t have asked for a better support system than my family, friends and Red Hat coworkers. I never had to drive myself to my chemo treatments. My mom, Ruby, stayed with me from Friday evening through Monday evenings on my chemo weeks. She did my laundry, changed my sheets, cleaned my bathroom, swept, mopped and dusted. I joke with her that I sure do miss that now.
My sister, Kesharra, and niece, Aleah (6) live with me in Knightdale. They made sure I ate and took my meds. Aleah was my little nurse. Whenever I felt really bad, she had a way of knowing and doing something extra special for me. My cousin, Emerald, who is like my daughter, kept my nails and toes done since I couldn’t get them done at the nail shop.
My manager, Dorothy, her manager, Paul, and his manager, Charlie donated paid time off so I wouldn’t have to go without pay.
The hardest part of the chemo was the uncertainty of how it would affect me. I must say, I was given good information and was not really taking by surprise. The nurses were excellent and let me know what to expect.
If you get a diagnosis of breast cancer, realize that no two women will have the same journey. You have to deal with it in your way. As women, we often take on so much, but this is one time you have to take care of yourself first. Allow others to help you. Take time to rest and let your body react to all that it is going through. Find a support group. Love hard, play hard and enjoy life.
I am still trying to figure out how to live life as a survivor. Right now, I think about it every day, but I’m sure one day I will wake up and just be Pam and not think about the cancer. I pray one day there is a cure.