Lisa is a 50 year-old woman in a committed relationship with three step kids. She is a high level executive in the entertainment industry. Cancer runs on both sides of her family so when she was diagnosed, it felt as though her time had come. She talks candidly about confronting her fears prior to undergoing a double mastectomy. Lisa’s post-surgical recovery was difficult. The experience was nothing she would wish upon anyone but made her a stronger and more enlightened person.
My name is Lisa and I am a creative executive at DreamWorks. I'm in a committed relationship and I have 3 step-kids, 2 dogs. The kids are 13, 16 and 26.
Cancer actually runs on both sides of my family. My mother had ovarian cancer. She was diagnosed at 72 in 2004 and then she passed away in 2007. My father had prostate cancer. He survived that. Both of my paternal grandparents had cancer and my maternal grandmother had cancer, too, so it's sort of something that runs in our family.
Cancer is something that I've lived with and it's always sort of been in the background until my mom was diagnosed. My sister and I were sort of her primary caretakers going throughout that journey with her and that was sort of when it became more in the forefront dealing with that with my mom.
So I think I probably had my first mammogram at 37, 38, maybe. It was October of 2009. I was 47 at the time and I actually didn't have a diagnostic and they read the film and said everything was okay, you're good, come back in six months cause I had started to where I would go in every six months. I left the breast center and two or three hours later I got a phone call back that the radiologist had re-read the films and kind of thought there was something that was a little suspicious and she just wanted to be safe. She wanted to do a biopsy.
When I went to my biopsy on Friday and I've gone to Hill Breast Center for years and there's a second sort of area where they do the biopsies. It's not in the area at least where I had any of my mammograms or anything else and they're kind of individual; the waiting rooms have different waiting rooms. I just had this feeling. I just had this kind of ominous feeling that it definitely was going to be cancerous. I don't know why. I think just based on my family history I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I went in for my needle biopsy on Friday morning so I waited over the weekend. I was supposed to hear the results Monday morning. I didn't hear Monday so I kept kind of calling back, calling back, kept leaving messages. They finally called me back about 4:30 or 5:00 on Monday and the reason they had taken a while is because the radiologist actually had called my doctor, spoken with her, already gave her the results of my biopsy. They together talked about who was a recommendation for a great surgeon so when the radiologist called me back she said we have found DCIS. I would like you to go to get an MRI and I remember sitting there and there were two other woman in the waiting room with me and one woman started talking to me and she looked like she had probably been through chemo; she had sort of shortish hair and I think the way that she talked to me was almost assuming that because I was in that room that I was already a cancer patient. So I sort of felt like just even going in for my biopsy I was already sort of labeled as a cancer patient. And I said I'm just here for a biopsy. She kind of stepped back. She said to me, have you had your surgery yet, and it was almost assuming that I was probably in the same place that she was maybe, and it kind of, didn't shock me, but it took me back a little bit.
And I remember something, looking down and there was a little basket full of these kind of flower-shaped pill cases and I remember taking one, thinking, oh, these are pretty and I thought I'm probably going to need one of these if I'm here. It was just sort of a weird thing so then I got the call and Chris was with me. We were, I was shocked. I was trying to get information. I was scared but there's always this kind of thing, I think, anytime you're waiting to find something out, good or bad, just to know it cause then you can move forward. We were sad. I kind of hung up the phone.
So then I met with my breast surgeon. I took a very good friend of mine, a friend of mine who's been a friend for 25, 30 years. She had just actually had the same diagnosis a year and a half prior. It was DCIS in my right breast and then subsequently after the MRI results and when the surgeon got my films, read the MRI, and then based on her experience pretty much thought that I had invasive breast cancer in my left breast, also. So the mammography only showed calcifications within the duct in my right breast and the way that it was positioned from when I spoke with the surgeon it was in a particular quadrant and on the back of my chest wall so her feeling that we were going to need to remove about 70 percent of the breast, anyway, so I would probably most likely need to remove that entire breast.
It's not so much my family history of breast cancer but it was my overwhelming fear of diagnosis and living with it and continuing to live with it. I just realized from my perspective I was just leaning, I just didn't think that I could come back every six months to be tested. I mean because the traditional path of a ductal carcinoma is to move straight into the breast tissue so I didn't want to take that chance. And so I would say in my gut I probably knew, very probably, walking out of the surgeon's office. I remember Sara was driving me I said I don't think I can do this, I'm scared, and she said you can do this; you can because you have to and you can. And I think coming from anybody else, how do you know; but she had just been through it, and I mean exactly the same thing. So we talked a little bit more about what it would look like.
And later on I realized that she spared me a lot of the details kind of because I think going through the process I realized that doctors, nurses, people will say to you this is what is what it looks like, this is what your recovery will look like, this is the pain, but no one knows.
Exactly four weeks to the day was the day that I had my surgery, so in my mind I sort of think I was a cancer patient for four weeks because subsequently after my surgery they did get, after all the labs came back, they did get everything.
The surgery was very difficult for me. I had never had surgery. The pre-op was difficult. I was very nervous just even getting a chest x-ray. All of the things that you go to just to be admitted to the hospital, I had never been in a hospital before; never had stitches; never had a broken bone; other than being with my mom. So every single aspect of that, every blood test, every day I had to go get a chest x-ray and you get more blood work and you do an MRI and then there's just all of that stuff and it I felt like I was just this heightened thing. I was just walking around scared. Everybody said, well, it's the white coat syndrome. Your blood pressure is going up because you're nervous, and I would say, no, but you don't understand, I'm really nervous; like I think I'm going to faint; like I'm ready to turn around; I don't want to do this; I'm so nervous to kind of go through it even though I'm not even thinking about what's on the other end if I don't actually go through this surgery.
The day of the surgery I was scheduled in pre-op, I was in at probably six in the morning and it was noon and I hadn't gone into surgery yet. The anesthesiologist came in and I started crying and everybody was so great, the nurses, the doctors, everything, and I remember being wheeled off to the surgery suite from pre-op and I was fairly loopy, I think, and I'll never forget going into these bright lights and having them put you on a metal table and they were giving me an epidural, and the woman, she said lean forward so I leaned forward and they would do it in the back and I just started to break down, and she, it makes me sort of cry, she just put her arms around me and just hugged me and said it's okay. I leaned into her and she hugged me and it just made me feel. I still to this day think about this because I had never experienced that kind of fear, and it was, she didn't have to. It was sort of don't move; we need to do this; and it was so cold; and she just hugged me; and I just felt like…and that was the last thing I ever remember until I woke up.
My recovery for all intents and purposes went just as it was supposed to. It was hard, though. It was really hard. I mean like things that you…that no one tells you. Like you can't lift up your arms to shave your armpits, so you've got like your husband, your sister shaving your armpits. It was just weird.
They tell you what it's going to be like, but they don't tell you what it's going to be like to live with that. That comes from more other people telling you. I had people say to me, get a lot of shirts that have snaps or buttons or snaps up the front. Your drains…you can have your drains for 7 days; you can have your drains for 15 days; and emptying that. And so what I think the hardest part of the recovery for me was realizing how long it took to even do normal things. You can't sleep on your back. You can't sleep on your side. You can't lift yourself up. You can't wash your hair.
The helpful hints, I think, come from people who have either cared for people or who have been through this.
A friend of mine came to visit me in the hospital. The day before I was leaving, and she said this gal Susie wants you to use this recliner. You're not going to be…I know everybody said you're not going to be able to sleep on your back, but you think you can still. But she said, you need to sit up for sleep, sleep sitting up for about the first month. So she said this gal wants to bring this recliner over; she's doesn't need it. She's had the surgery; she's just finished her last surgery; she thinks this would be great for you. And I thought I don't want to put anybody out, and the day that I got home my two friends arranged to have their teenage boys put this recliner in a truck and bring it over and it was this big kind of brown velour something, I don't even know a big Barcalounger kind of chair. When they delivered it, this gal Susie wrote a note and said I hope this brings you comfort, I'm thinking of you, and it was really special because I did not even know her.
A woman who was in this group with me, this journey group, I had met her once. She sewed a set of pillows for me, brought them by my house the next day, wrote a sweet note, and said you would never think you would need those, you might not even know what for, but you'll find uses for these, I promise.
An interesting thing back to the chair is since then another friend of mine, in fact one of the gals who brought the chair over, a good friend of hers was diagnosed, and said just as I was about to give the chair away, I was going to donate it to the health breast center or CSC or something and she said a good friend of mine is just going to have the surgery that you had; do you still the need the chair; so we did the same thing. She came and got it; her son, same son, in the truck, came and got it; and I wrote a note to the next lady and handed it off. I mean, we sort of determined that we would continue doing that.
It's something that I have gone through. It's something that changed me in many ways. And I think I sort of always still feel this way. When people say and this hasn't just been my experience where it's been a blessing in disguise. It wasn't a blessing. It was shitI would never want to ever wish that on anybody, but I did have certain experiences I would of never had. I had certain realizations. I learned to put myself out there. I learned to ask for things.
I've always been somebody who is fairly independent, does what I need to do for myself, not necessarily ask people to help me with things, so you have to. You have no choice. For two years it was so the top of mind; it was so what I was living and what I was thinking and what I was recovering from and how I was getting things back on track and all of that, and looking back it's been probably a year where it's been something I've been through or come through but it's not necessarily…it's sort of a part of me but it's more in the back of my mind than the forefront.
I've heard so many people that haven't made it through as easily I would say as I have. I think that people don't always have the benefit of having one of my very best friends who just went through this. That was very helpful to me. And I think that it's something that you…that I kind of owe to people that are four years behind me in this experience.
There are a lot of things that are going to happen in the next six months or whatever that no one's going to tell you about or somebody will tell you about but it's your experience and you need to ask for help. I don't even know what it is but I think just by putting myself out there to people, then at least they can see that on the other side there's…mirroring back…is someone who looks like them or thinks like them or lives like them. We don't have a perfect life; but we don't all look alike...people who are affected by this look different and behave differently and have different experiences but there are some common things that, if you hear it from people, then you'll know to come prepared for it.