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Finding new strength after breast cancer

Posted: Saturday, October 31, 2009

I look at the writings that my husband poured out of his soul when I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, and think, "We are both such different people now."

Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

Physically, I'm a different, stronger person. I endured the diagnosis of a rare, aggressive form of breast cancer. IBC makes up just 1 to 4 percent of all breast cancer cases, malignancy that is usually at stage 3 or 4 by the time it is diagnosed. Until recently, it killed more than half its victims within five years. It grows its mass in a sheet-like layer, ignoring the mammary ducts in favor of the lymph system. Because there is no "lump," it doesn't resolve itself in either mammograms or ultrasounds. Instead, it pulls and dimples the skin above it, so that the breast turns red, warm and resembles the peel of an orange.

In my case, late March 2008 in Juneau, we had already wasted almost three weeks with an increasingly heavy regimen of antibiotics, including inpatient at Bartlett Regional Hospital, trying to turn around a bad case of "mastitis." It was an initial diagnosis that didn't make sense. I wasn't lactating, and I was too old for this.

We stumbled over a remote possibility, provided by the Internet, and we told my doctor that we wanted a biopsy. The results came back: indeterminate, but unable to rule out malignancy. I asked the doctor if I should go to Seattle and she said yes.

Three days later, after an MRI and a second biopsy, our surgeon at the Swedish Cancer Institute gave us the words no woman wants to hear.

We shared tears at first, but then I made my mind up that it was time to fight. We learned that we likely caught the disease in time before it spread beyond my left breast. We essentially moved to Seattle for the duration. The doctors wanted to do an aggressive chemotherapy immediately, with the thought that chemo would pull the cancer back toward the center of mass and shrink the tumor before the surgery. It was a miserable eight weeks of chemo, and too many anti-emetics to fight the nausea. My digestive system turned into an unmanageable mess, and my husband shaved my head about three weeks in, as it was too hard to watch handfuls of my blonde hair fall out in the shower.

I elected to have both breasts removed as this cancer was just too aggressive to risk any kind of spread. After a month of healing, my incisions never fully closed, and so there was a second surgery to clean up the first. This delayed the planned radiation therapy, so the team decided that the best course was a second round of chemo while we waited for my chest wall to heal. I took this setback in stride, frustrated, but steeled to do whatever it took.

Radiation finally started and lasted eight weeks. Exhausted and grumpy, I powered through Christmas away from home. I did one chemo drug while going through radiation and then once radiation was over I got another 2 months of three different kinds of chemo.

Along the way, we trusted our beloved black labs and house to an assortment of house sitters. More important, and surprising to us, were the doors that opened to the two of us through this experience. Cancer introduced us to a universe of caregivers and pulled out the best in everyone we came into contact with. My coworkers at the state and Ken's coworkers with the U.S. Coast Guard showed more compassion and generosity than we could ever repay. Ken's firefighting brothers with Capital City Fire & Rescue organized a benefit dinner and dessert auction.

The divide between the evil of this disease and the good nature of our fellows is so wide that it still defies any sense to me. I only stand back in amazement, and think that now that I show no evidence of disease, we triumphed. My husband and I are left humble, grateful and appreciative for what we have, and what family, friends, and the folks of Juneau have done for us. I am alive, and I am glad beyond telling that we are different people now.

• Julie Lawrenson has lived in Juneau since June 2006 and has survived inflammatory breast cancer for eight months. Visit www.kickincancersass.blogspot.com



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