Meet Breast Cancer Grad, Leanna House
Name: Leanna House
Age at Enrollment: 33
Major: Stage III Invasive Ductal Carcinoma
What were the primary symptoms you experienced prior to diagnosis? A lump, or “nodularity” as my primary care physician described it.
What symptom(s) lead you to go to the doctor? A bike wreck (unrelated to cancer-- Did you know you can get a goose egg on soft tissue?). My PCP did a breast exam.
Courses Completed: Chemo, unilateral mastectomy with full auxiliary node dissection, radiation coming soon!
What was your hardest moment (or moments) and how did you you get through it/them? Fertility concerns: Blogged about it here .
Prior to my mastectomy was really hard. There was the “decision” to have a mastectomy, which isn’t really a decision. The fear of what I would look like, the fear of looking uneven or mangled or ugly or scarred. It seems like such a shallow thing, but especially with the single mastectomy, there is no matching. Will what I have even look like a boob? There are a lot of horrible pictures online, and no one can tell you what YOUR outcome will be. There are too many unknowns, so you just go under the knife knowing that if you don’t, the cancer has a great chance of killing you. So there is no choice, but it feels like you are choosing to be this new… this person that doesn’t have a breast. Even if it’s temporary, it’s really hard to go into that with your eyes open.
Post mastectomy, I only had one hard moment: my first shower. I looked at my scar immediately after getting out of surgery. I didn’t avert my eyes when the doctors came to look. I wanted to reclaim my body. Surgery has a way of alienating you from your physical self, especially when you have numbness. It doesn’t feel like you. When I was laying down, my mastectomy boob didn’t look too different from my other breast. But the first shower was really hard, because I could see how my tissue expander breast looked … it looked like I had a hockey puck with a scar. It looked NOTHING like a breast. It was hard to see that. I was lucky that my boyfriend was there, and because I had the limited mobility 2 days after surgery, he helped me with my shower. I was on Percocet, which made every physical sensation almost ORGASMICALLY amazing. So I was torn between tears for my poor mauled breast and LOVING my boyfriend washing me with an exfoliating cloth. I got out of the shower and made him hug me because losing a part of our body and feeling MAULED warrants some grief.
Any helpful (tangible) tips or tricks you discovered for dealing with your symptoms and/or cancer?
1) YOU are in charge of your experience. If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you are not comfortable with your doctor, get a second opinion. Speaking up does not mean you are a jerk; it means that you are in charge. Ask WHY doctors are making certain recommendations, ask what your options are, ask what happens if you don’t do something. This is your body and your life and you should feel empowered during this experience. It’s easy to feel like cattle; it’s easy to feel like you have no choices. With some things you DON'T have choices, but you have more choices than you think you do when you speak up.
2) Make sure you know you take advantage of your resources. Hospitals have support groups and mentor programs and free hats and art therapy and healing drums circles and social workers and people who will clean your house and programs to help with child care. You don’t know unless you ask. Ask more than one person. Part of your resources is your care team. People want to help you: let them. Assign someone to figure out what your resources are.
3) GET THERAPY. Even if you think you don’t need to, even if you are dealing well. You are not ok. The situation is not ok. CANCER is not ok. You need to have an outside perspective, someone who is not friends or family, someone who can give you tools to deal, someone who is trained to help you.
4) Be nice to the staff. Your shit is not their fault, and you have the chance to make your and their life funner. Plus, they will be nicer to you. Don’t be a dick.
5) Let yourself be sad or upset or breakdown, but don’t let it be forever. I give myself a time limit. “I can stay in bed all weekend and read and cry and watch Netflix. But on Monday, I have to get out of bed.” “I can cry for the next 30 minutes, then I have to call someone.”
- Chemo is SO LONG and SUPER BORING. Bring a friend or a book. Make your caregiver read to you. Nap.
- Drink water. Seriously a lot of water. It makes the IV easier; it makes the medication move through your system. Before, during, after.
- Immunocal protein powder got rid of my mouth sore side effects. I tried both with and without immunocal, and without the protein supplement, I couldn’t eat anything except the super soft stuff.
- GET OUT OF THE HOUSE. Take a walk. Go to the store; go get a coffee. Unless your doctor says you CANNOT, you should do what you feel comfortable doing, and outside makes everything better.
- If chemo hurts going in, put a heated blanket around your arm or ask the nurse to cut the drugs with more saline (this will make you need to pee way more, but it hurts way less).
How did you find joy during this experience? I keep a bound notebook, both for the mundane things like medications and appointment notes, but I also write the happy things. Especially in the beginning, I MADE myself write three things a day that made me smile. You will ABSOLUTELY remember all the shit, but I don’t want to forget the dance party I had with my three year old niece, or how I freaked out a chemo nurse by asking her exactly how bad it would be if I took shots of tequila while getting injected with chemo drugs. I want to remember the other patient who wanted to lay her hands on me so Jesus could heal me and was so appalled that I wouldn’t accept Jesus into my life so he could cure me. I want to remember giggling with my sister and making my older brother feel so bad for the dead leg he gave me when I am immunocompromised. I want to remember the bike ride along the river to dinner and my old boss cooking me amazing meals. Focusing on the shit is easy and makes you miserable. There is joy in every day if you look for it.
Did you learn anything about yourself? If so, what was it? I am at my core a very practical, happy person. I could be mad and miserable and cry all the time. But crying HURTS. And it won’t change my situation. Being upset all the time helps exactly nothing and just makes me feel awful.