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A Look at my Mom's 2023 Cancer Journey

In February my mom asked me to join her at a doctor's appointment. She had a lump in her armpit that had been bothering her for a while and she wanted to have her primary care doctor take a look. What you may not know is my mom is hard of hearing. It is from a tragic relationship. She wears hearing aids and can generally hear as long as you are looking at her. In medical settings sometimes there are masks or soft spoken providers. And my mom was nervous and didn't want to miss anything. So I went with her.

The most frustrating thing. This has been her doctor for the last 7 years. He took a look, felt the lump and said he thinks it is just a "clogged sweat gland." I was like, you know she had breast cancer in 2010 with a double mastectomy. We would like to have an ultrasound done. I was so frustrated that he wouldn't have a thought in his head about her prior cancer diagnosis and take this more seriously.

He said he would refer us to get an ultrasound. This is early February! My mom had to call SEVERAL times before it actually happened. At the beginning of April the referral was finally in and she made an appointment for May 1st.

I wasn't at the ultrasound with my mom. We figured they would take a look, take photos, send a report to her doctor and we would have a followup appointment. However, the ultrasound tech was looking around and taking photos. And then they got up and got the radiologist. They decided right then and there to do a biopsy. From the look on the ultrasound it was cancer. The radiologist confirmed with my mom that it looked cancerous.

She called me as she drove home and gave me the news. We both knew it was cancer. I was heartbroken. Not again. Not my sweet mom. Her mom had breast cancer that metastasized to her brain and she eventually passed away from it.

After that initial ultrasound we had about 15 doctor's appointments, surgeons, oncologists, labs. The whole thing. My sister and I were becoming fluent in cancer-speak. We planned a girls weekend trip before surgery. I started working on what needs to happen in the worst case scenario.

My mom had surgery Mid-June to remove the tumor. Because she had reconstructive surgery, her implant would be removed as well and a tissue expander would be put in its place to keep her skin from shrinking with radiation. The surgery went great. She recovered and we began chemotherapy in July.

Chemo was something I don't think I was prepared for. Mom was to do 8 treatments every other week. 16 weeks of chemo. The first four treatments were with two drugs Adriamycin (otherwise known as The Red Devil and Cytoxan. The Red Devil lives up to its name. The first infusion was a shock. She had a port placed when she had surgery so they could do the chemo through it. She had fluids and then they came out with a biohazard bag that had 2 50cc syringes full of red liquid in them. The nurse administering had on a paper gown over their scrubs and was double gloved. All I could think was, you're wearing this and INJECTING it in to her body?! The Red Devil made her so sick. I remember crying watching her lay her head down on my dining room table at dinner that night. She would get a shot in her stomach of slow release anti-nausea medication, an IV bag of anti-nausea meds and then 3 different prescriptions at home to take to keep the nausea away.

The week after chemo she was so sick. She had little energy. At about a week after chemo she would start to regain energy. Then it would be another chemo treatment. Each time it felt like she couldn't get her energy back fully. I thought of it like an iPhone batter, where it says it's at 100% but the battery health is really at 87%. It was just not possible to really get to 100%.

After mom's second infusion her hair started to fall out. One evening she asked me to comb through her hair to get the strands out for her. The feeling of losing her hair made her scalp super sensitive and tender. It was painful. We sat on my back steps and I combed her hair. My tears running down my face as I pulled gently and clumps of hair fell out.

After 4 infusions of The Red Devil it was over and mom started Taxol. This was much better than the last two drugs in terms of side affects. She was less nauseous, didn't get as wiped out and all around just handled it better. 3 weeks after she stopped The Red Devil there was a complication. The breast where they had done the tissue expander was turning red and mom was feeling sick. Per her blood counts, her red blood cells were low (I think 7.9 when the normal range is 14-18), so we set up a blood transfusion. We saw the plastic surgeon about her red breast and did an ultrasound and a culture on any fluid they could get. These all three happened within two days. Tuesday, saw plastic surgeon, Thursday, ultrasound, culture and blood transfusion. We knew it would be a couple of days before we knew the culture results. By Monday, moms breast was purple. I sent a photo to the plastic surgeons office. They said surgery was scheduled for Wednesday and they were sending us to an infectious disease doctor. Mom had an infection called Pseudomonas Aeruginosa. It was bad. I called my siblings that were far away and said, you need to come. This is serious. Mom needs us all.

And they came. Mom had surgery. She was so worn out, sick, coughing, feverish. I fully trust her surgeon, Dr. Elise Mecham. But sending her back was terrifying for me. Less than 45 minutes later I got a call from Dr Mecham that surgery went well. They cleaned mom out, removed the tissue expander and she was going to recovery. You would not even believe my mom had been sick. She woke up from surgery feeling amazing, had energy, hung out.

We finished Chemo on October 31. The last day of Breast Cancer Awareness month. It was glorious. Mom rang the bell, we had party poppers, cheered and went home to celebrate. We had a few weeks to recover and then radiation started. The treatment plan was 5 days a week for 5 weeks. Due to the holidays, mom finished radiation last Wednesday, January 3rd.

Now we are moving on to hormone blockers to hopefully keep the cancer from coming back and then reconstructive surgery in June. I know this is going to be the time we take to live life to the fullest from here on out.

I am so proud of my mom and how far she has come. I am proud of her for doing the hard things to rid her body of cancer. I know there were days she questioned if the cure was worse than the disease. I know it felt unending for her. But, she did it. She fought hard and she is winning. Take that cancer.

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