Survivor Stories 2014:
1. How did you first find out you had cancer?
During the middle of the night on my oldest son’s birthday, October 3, 2013, I was uncomfortable laying on my right side. I went to reposition myself and felt a large hard lump on the side of my right breast near my armpit. Being a RN I just knew it wasn’t good.
2. How did you react when you heard the news?
The physician that did the biopsy indicated it was cancer and I had already prepared myself mentally so I wasn’t shocked. What was very difficult was seeing how upset my husband was. I told him we needed to battle, and I couldn’t battle mopey and sad, so he had that night to be upset and then Jesus, he and I were going to kick cancer’s ass!
3. What course of treatment were you prescribed?
I started with 5 months of chemo as I waited to have a genetics test to determine the surgical route, but first had surgery to place a chemo port in my arm and to do a sentinel node biopsy to know if the cancer spread. My surgeon was unable to do the sentinel node biopsy because the dye and radiation would not go past the mass, so she removed three lymph nodes, 2 of which were enlarged on a MRI I had a few days before.
Chemo started with 4 AC: Adriamycin and Cytoxan IV treatments that I nicknamed the “Angry Cocktail” which were every two weeks for eight weeks, followed with 8 weekly IV Taxol treatments that I nicknamed the “Terminator”! I had a week delay in the midst of chemo to have kidney surgery after they “accidentally” found a kidney stone the size of a marble when I had CT’s to determine why I was short of breath.
My genetics test came back negative so I was able to have a lumpectomy, but had bilateral breast surgery that took breast tissue from the healthy breast to fill in where the cancer was removed from the other breast. The reduction in the healthy breast was intended to make my breasts symmetrical without any implant. About 5 weeks following surgery I completed treatment with 27 radiation treatments that were 5 days a week. From the day I found the lump until the end of treatment was almost exactly 10 months.
4. What most surprised you about your treatment?
A few things surprised me, even though I am a nurse. I expected chemo to be tough but that first week was more difficult than I imagined. It let me know that I would have to put aside everything that wasn’t essential to getting well or that didn’t bring me joy, and that I would have to not only accept help, but I would need to ask for help.
I was surprised that I would gain weight on chemo and not lose weight, which I am still not happy about! The chemo included lots of steroids to minimize the side effects, but helped to put on about 30 lbs.
I didn’t expect side effects to a particular treatment to start when the treatment was almost over. As an example, I didn’t get peripheral neuropathy until I had already gone through 24 or 25 of the 27 radiation treatments I had.
5. What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
My advice is not to expect anything but a good outcome. My surgeon, who is in the top of her field, came out of the first surgery after removing lymph nodes telling my husband they were all cancerous, that the cancer had spread. Three days later the report came back from pathology stating the lymph nodes were not cancerous! This was not my surgeon’s first rodeo, if you know what I mean? She has seen plenty of lymph nodes, both cancerous and not. She would have not said they were cancerous had she not been fully convinced they were, and was so surprised by the pathology report that she subsequently ordered an ultrasound with needle biopsy of any remaining lymph nodes.
The ultrasound tech performed the ultrasound and then told me to wait while she spoke with the radiologist. She was gone quite awhile so I thought she had found something, but God had a different plan. The radiologist came back in the room with her to do her own ultrasound and spent quite some time looking at the ultrasound machine when she finally stopped, looked at me and said there is nothing to biopsy! We truly believe that God granted a miracle when those lymph nodes came back negative and the radiologist couldn’t find anything to biopsy. From the time I found the lump I never thought I’d lose my life to breast cancer. For me it was a matter of what I needed to do to get rid of the cancer and then I could get on with my life.
6. How long have you been cancer free?
I had surgery on May 29th, 2014 where all the cancer was removed and the surgeon got clear margins, but didn’t finish treatment until August 8th. I feel like I have been cancer free since treatment was complete because the intentions of radiation were to kill any possible remaining cancer cells.
7. What lessons did you learn from the experience?
I learned that God still provides miracles, and the goodness and blessings of people I am closest to, all the way to people I’ve never met, far surpassed the difficulties I dealt with. It’s a very humbling experience when mere strangers reach out with kind words, support, prayers and even cards or gifts.
8. If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
As women and mothers we are natural caregivers and tend to care for everyone in our lives but have trouble accepting help. When we find ourselves living with cancer or another situation that causes us to need care or assistance, we often try too hard to remain independent or feel guilty when someone offers, or cares for us. We know what a blessing it is to provide care for others, so we should not try to take away the blessing from our family and/or friends who want to care for us, and just politely accept in gratitude.
Angil Tarach-Ritchey is a wife, mother, “gammie” of 7 beautiful grandchildren with the 8th on the way), committed Christian woman, RN, GCM (Geriatric Care Manager), Eldercare Expert, Speaker, Consultant, and the best-selling and multi award winning author of Behind the Old Face: Aging in America and the Coming Elder Boom. Besides her recent journey through Breast Cancer, Angil has lived with Sjogren’s Syndrome and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome since 2003. Her passion to improve the treatment, living and care of older adults began in 1977 when she started working with the elderly as a 17 year old girl. After 30 years directly caring for the elderly, chronic illness caused Angil to begin writing to continue the work she loves within the constraints of a body that doesn’t allow her to physically work as she had. You can learn more about Angil and her work at http://www.elderboom.org.