PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – I was in the Local 10 News van, waiting to do an interview for a story when the doctor called. I already had a gut feeling what she was about to tell me.
“It’s cancer,” she said.
Specifically, ductal carcinoma in situ, also known as DCIS. It’s very early-stage cancer in the milk ducts. It is usually highly treatable with a good prognosis, she said.
I called my husband. I wanted to calm his nerves. I didn’t have the heart to tell the photojournalist who was working with me that day. Or any friends or colleagues.
What I wanted was to get to the interview and to not think about it.
What floored me was that I never felt a lump or had pain in my breast. And my annual mammogram never saw it, either.
It all started in the early fall, when I received a letter from Mount Sinai Medical Center, where I go for my annual mammogram, recommending a supplemental breast magnetic resonance imaging, commonly known as an MRI. I’m considered high-risk: I have dense breasts, which make traditional imaging with a mammogram difficult. I also have a history of breast cancer in my family: my mom had it, my dad’s sister had it, and it has struck numerous cousins, too.
It was the MRI that saw what the mammograms and breast ultrasounds missed: a nearly eight centimeter area of cancer in my left breast.
The next month would be a blur of appointments and meetings with surgeons.
Although the cancer was not invasive, it had to be removed because of its potential to become invasive. And because it was so large, surgeons agreed that the best course of action was a mastectomy: removal of my entire breast. That was a gut-check.
"The area that was involved appeared to be from about 2 to 4 o’clock, and basically from the front of the breast to the back of the breast. So it was a very extensive area,” said Susan Kesmodel, M.D., director of breast surgical oncology at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center/University of Miami Hospital and Clinics.
Kesmodel also explained my options in our meetings leading up to the surgery. She drew pictures of cancer cells and mapped out probabilities. She gave me words of encouragement.
Because of family history and difficulty with imaging, I decided to have my right breast removed as well. It’s not a decision I took lightly.
Surgery was scheduled for Nov. 27, 2019. It would be nearly eight hours long, involving removing breast tissue and then immediate reconstruction.
The people who helped me check in at the hospital were kind. Surgical nurses treated me with respect. I had never felt more grateful for people who work in the medical field.
About four hours into the surgery, Kesmodel found my husband, Michael, in the waiting room. She told him that the mastectomy was a success and that after initial testing, it appeared the cancer had not spread.
John Oeltjen, M.D., Sylvester’s plastic surgeon specializing in breast reconstruction, put me back together again. I wouldn’t look like my old self, but it would be a new normal that I would learn to embrace.
The next couple of months involved a lot of sleeping, an infection scare, and a steady recovery with the help of nurses, doctors, and physical therapists.
I asked my surgeons about the impact they have on cancer patients, especially those with more difficult cases than mine.
“I’m not living the experience, but I’m trying to help the patient get through it,” Oeltjen said.
“Most patients come to the clinic that first time; they are frightened. They are scared they’re going to die,” Kesmodel said. “It’s just trying to help them understand that we’re going to be there with them through the whole experience.”
I also believe my recovery was bolstered by the stream of support by friends, family, and other survivors. I can’t believe how lucky I was to hear from others who unflinchingly shared their own cancer stories with me.
I’m one of the lucky ones.
Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Miami Dolphins are teaming up again to fund cancer research. For more information, go to: dolphinscancerchallenge.com