My journey with breast cancer
Arlene Buckely shares her inspiring and heartfelt story about conquering breast cancer.
By 2010 Wade and I had been separated and divorced for close to four years. We had both moved on but remained in contact as we had two adult sons. Neither of us would admit that we still had feelings for one another. Then, our youngest son was involved in a serious car accident. The car was a write off but luckily our son was ok. Wade and I met at the scene and that was that. We remarried a little later in 2010 and couldn’t be happier.
In May 2011, I went to the Florida Mammogram Unit for my routine annual mammogram. I had been irresponsible and had skipped the past few years. They decided to do a scan as my breast had a lot of fibrous tissue. A small, dark shadow was found on the right breast. Twenty four hours later, my gynaecologist confirmed the worst. I saw a surgeon at the Florida Life Hospital on the Monday and by Tuesday I was booked in for a lumpectomy. The four day wait for the results of the biopsy on the tissue surrounding the tumour, was dreadful. The call came and we were summoned to the surgeon’s rooms. We feared the worst. Why would he summon us to his room? Why not tell us the news over the phone? The surgeon confirmed our worst suspicions and recommended that my right breast be removed. Lobular carcinoma. It got worse. He recommended that we remove the left breast as well.
He contacted the resident oncologist at the Florida Oncology Centre for her advice. She agreed. The decision was mine and I had to make it by Sunday night. The right breast would have to go but I could keep the left. I knew that there was breast cancer in the family as my late mom had breast cancer when she was 52 but she managed to be in remission for ten years. She only had the one breast removed, radiation and no chemotherapy.
What choice did I have? None. So on Sunday morning I let the surgeon know my decision. I was back at the Florida Life Hospital at 7am Monday morning. By 4pm that afternoon, my breasts were no more. I remember feeling like I had a plate of steel attached to my chest. My journey with cancer was running its course. The biopsy on the left breast showed no tumours but I didn't regret having both removed as I didn’t want to live in fear of the cancer spreading.
I tried to get back to normal as soon as possible. My husband supported me all the way and my friends and family were there for us all the time. I returned to work and five weeks later began six months of chemotherapy. I was terrified. I associated chemo with nausea and being ill all the time. Even thought they give you so many things prior to administering the actual treatment like cortisone by drip and medicine for nausea, it was not a walk in the park. I would go for the chemo on a Friday and never really got ill until the last treatment. Yes, I got very tired at times but I coped. My last chemo was toward the end of November and by then I had started the radiation. Five minutes a day, every day. However four days after the last treatment I landed up in hospital on a drip. The specialists were not convinced that it was the chemo and thought it could be a bug. I have been in remission since then and the only medication I take is Tamoxifen.
The hair loss was traumatic and scary. I got a wig and wore it every day for six months. Then one day early in December I just took it off. It was hot and it wasn’t me. My hair would grow. I felt the wig drained me and it was starting to look tatty. During the six months that I wore the wig, I would take the wig to a friend’s salon and they would blow wave it for me. We even named it Josephine!
That was almost twelve months ago. I saw my oncologist in July this year and she felt I was ready for reconstruction. I met with two plastic and reconstructive surgeons. The first surgeon recommended that he remove ‘flaps’ from my back to support the implants and then the areola would be tattooed on and the nipples reconstructed later. I wasn’t comfortable with this. But we were told this was my only option because of the damage caused by the radiation to the tissue on the right breast. My surgery was booked for 16 August. But still, I was uncomfortable. So we met with another surgeon. His approach was entirely different. We couldn’t believe that he could do what he suggested. We were so delighted that for a while I didn’t actually understand the seriousness or impact the surgery would have. I told myself I’d take three weeks to recover!
So on 16 August, the first phase of my reconstruction took place. They stretched muscle from my abdomen and attached it to my ribs by stitching it from the outside in. There was not enough skin on the tummy to do a tummy mtuck. Two expanders were then inserted. The specialist managed to remove most of the dead tissue caused by the radiation. My very dear specialist did warn me that this procedure was not a walk in the park and some women take six weeks to recover. I was so overjoyed that I was not having flaps cut out my back that I missed his warnings. I was unprepared, both emotionally and physically. The first ‘top up’ to stretch the skin was scary. The expanding process should take about four months and then I’ll have the final operation with new implants, areola (developed from my own tissue, taken from the inside of the area at the top of the thigh) and nipple formation.
After the surgery, there is tightness where the muscle has been stitched to the ribs and I couldn't move normally. I could not get up from a horizontal position for at least three weeks. The recovery process has not been easy but everyday things improve and I have even started to drive myself around again. I am due back at work next week but I am going to try and start tomorrow. Why not? I have had two fills and have had 80mls of fluid in each expander. The process is quite simple- they use a magnet to trace the metal port under the skin then once this attaches itself to the skin above the port, they use a needle and a drip-like contraption to insert the fluid. It’s a slow process but there is no pain and you don’t feel the fluid entering the expander.
My journey continues but it is almost over and I am looking forward to having my new breasts. It has been a challenge finding clothes but even now with my little ‘bumps’ things look better. I must admit I could not have done this without faith, my darling husband, my family and circle of girlfriends. I hope that maybe in some little way my story can help someone else. Breast cancer is frightening but we can overcome.