That phrase, said by the person who called from the breast imagery department, confirmed what my wife had long suspected and feared: something was seriously wrong with her.
The following week a surgeon did a biopsy on both breasts and a lymph node under her right armpit. Five days later, Erica, the liaison from the hospital, called with the results. They had found cancer in all three locations.
So, the battle begins — a war to survive against an enemy whose name alone is frightening. But I’m debating what title to use for this story, this true-life account of what we are about to embark on.
Brave New World?
Quest into the Unknown?
This is Us — Cancer Edition?
Each choice seems appropriate because what lies ahead is a personal journey into a strange world, one that has always existed but existed on the periphery, within sight but out of sight, real but surreal, a world we thought we would never inhabit.
Naturally, then, we feel overwhelmed and underprepared, thrust suddenly into a conflict on multiple fronts against an opponent adept at waging war from many locations within the body and prevailing — in many cases — against even the most well-conceived counterattacks.
We are hopeful combatants. But we are also filled with trepidation. Here then is the first chapter of our fight, the beginning of our cancer war chronicle:
The Bloody Prelude
The struggle actually began in the detection stage. Erica, our breast care department point person, told us the biopsies would take about an hour and half, and she explained the details of the procedure, including the fact that a staple-sized metal clip would be placed in each incision as a marking in case future biopsies proved necessary.
My wife didn’t like idea of metal being lodged in her breasts. But that issue proved minor compared to what happened during the biopsy surgery. On rare occasions — I believe the surgeon told me the incident rate was less than 2 percent — a vein is nicked during a biopsy, which can result in a hematoma. Naturally, my wife experienced this rarity. She told me after the ordeal that one of the nurses who assisted on the response team had never seen a hematoma so severe — a bona fide five-alarm hematoma.
Four hours after our arrival, I finally reunited with my wife. She was not in good shape. Nor was I. About two weeks earlier, I had broken my left collarbone in a bicycle crash and was still sporting a sling. Nevertheless, on the Scale of Relative Health, the balance tipped in my favor, which led me to insist on doing the driving on our return home even though I had not operated a vehicle since my accident. In any event, we were a sorry sight, two bandaged and bloodied middle-aged souls trying to navigate a cruel world.
We were told we could expect the results in “three to five business days,” which struck me as grossly inappropriate language for information of this nature. Why not “medical” days? Or “life-changing information” days? Business days is a fitting term in reference to orders from Amazon or bank decisions on mortgage applications — not on a cancer verdict, not on a matter with life or death repercussions.
Worse than the terminology, though, was the wait. My wife had the biopsies on Wednesday. The call on the initial findings did not come until Monday afternoon. That’s when we learned about the cancer. The more detailed information didn’t arrive until Thursday, which by my calculations is one more business day than the normal maximum. Erica told us the official diagnosis is invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer, but the particulars of the cancer are more complicated, an area clouded by the arcane language of the medical profession.
We learned that the breast cancer can be fed by the hormones estrogen and progesterone, although in my wife’s case only the left breast used hormones as a fuel source.
We also learned about a protein known as the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) and that my wife tested positive for them in both breasts. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is not good in that HER2 promotes the growth of cancer cells and is usually indicative of a more aggressive cancer. On the other hand, the Mayo Clinic reports that several medications have proved “very effective” in combating HER2 and thus the prognosis is “quite good” for those with this condition.
Finally, Erica told us one of the tests indicates how fast the cancer cells are replicating on a 100-point scale with a low score signifying slow growth and a high one representing rapid replication. In both breasts, my wife scored 60, a number that points to the cancer being moderately aggressive.
Our next step on the medical front is to meet with various oncologists (surgical, medical, and radiation) to determine the most effective treatment plan. In the meantime, we wait and try to make sense of the situation. It’s not easy. The questions and concerns seem endless. Will the physical and emotional toll of the treatment be severe? What about financial health? Can we survive without my wife working? And how much will insurance pay?
These, moreover, are the minor issues. The big one, the one nobody wants to mention, is about life itself. My wife is left to face these essential questions: How likely am I to survive? And if I do survive, what will be the quality of my life? And what about my loved ones? How will they be affected by this cancer, whatever its ultimate impact?
My wife is a strong person, both physically and mentally. She cares deeply about the people and animals she loves. So, I know, despite her fears, that she will fight hard. Already, she has begun to assemble her support network and construct an environment within our house and within her mind to best deal with the malignant force attacking her. And that will be the subject of the next segment of this chronicle, our cancer war chronicle.