Posted by: Duke Raleigh Hospital | June 26, 2013

How My Monthly Breast Self-Exam Led to a Discovery, and a Double Mastectomy

Wendy Harder, RNBy Wendy Harder, RN

As an OR nurse, I know the importance of breast self-exams. I’ve always done mine at least monthly. In July 2010, when I was 42 years old, I discovered a lump on the outer side of my left breast, which I hadn’t noticed a couple of weeks before. I knew there was a problem, so I changed my scheduled appointment for a baseline mammogram to a diagnostic mammogram and made an appointment to see my primary care provider, who wrote the order.

Once I saw the lump (and I could see it as well as feel it), I recalled an episode from a week prior when pain shot from my left nipple to my left armpit, and I now believed they were related.

I had a biopsy the same day as my first mammogram, and they showed the same thing – breast cancer. I was calm when I got the news, because it confirmed what I already suspected. Getting the diagnosis gave me a sense of, “OK. What’s next?”

Originally the cancer looked like it was contained, so I began discussing with my doctor a lumpectomy. But an MRI showed two more lumps. Dr. Tolnitch described them as “satellite tumors” that had spread from the first tumor. Dr. Tolnitch also suspected I may have cancer in my lymph nodes. That news changed my approach; I opted for a double mastectomy.

While I wasn’t surprised that the lump I noticed was cancer, I was surprised to have discovered breast cancer at all. I have no family history of the disease. My mother has never had breast cancer, nor have my three sisters. My grandmother will turn 100 in August, and she’s never had it, either. I breastfed my children for a year, so I had always thought if I did get cancer, it wouldn’t be breast cancer. After my diagnosis, I was tested for the gene mutation, and I don’t have it.

I acted swiftly after my July 2010 diagnosis. I had surgery that August. During the surgery, three lymph nodes from my left axilla were found to be malignant, so my cancer was staged at IIB, and I immediately began eight rounds of chemo, followed by six weeks of radiation. I found chemo tiring, but I was able to eat and work while undergoing it. On Saturdays during my chemo treatment, I had to have shots to increase my white blood cell count. Those shots made me achy to my bones, but these flu-like symptoms lasted for just a day or so.

My children were in college during my treatment, and they showed their support in different ways. My daughter has begun to get involved in breast cancer prevention activities and the Susan G. Komen run.

I’m fortunate to work in the field I’m in, where people generally feel comfortable discussing health issues. Everybody at work was very supportive, and I was able to talk freely about everything I was going through. I knew if I ever needed to leave work during the day, I could. But I never did.

It took about a year to get my energy back. I’m still not quite as active as I was before cancer, but I have allowed myself the grace to slow down. And cancer helped lead my husband and me to an important realization. We want more children. We’re now actively looking into adoption through foster care and hope to have a 10- or 12-year old boy or girl join our family soon.

I also make breast pillows for Duke Raleigh breast cancer patients now because I know how much it meant to receive one when I was in the hospital. After a mastectomy, you’re really sore. You need some padding when you put on a seatbelt or when you have a portacath inserted. We call it the “Post-Op Pillow Project,” and there are four of us who sew the pillows for patients who have had breast or chest surgery and those who have a porthacath. We’ve made and given away more than 300 so far.

There is life after cancer. It’s not the same life, but it’s a life worth examining. Speaking of, ladies, don’t forget the importance of examining your own breasts every month. That simple exam could save your life.

Wendy Harder, RN works as an OR nurse at Duke Raleigh Hospital.

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