Sherri’s Story

The Beautiful Scar: Sherri’s Journey Down The Pink Path

The Beautiful Scar

I began my journey down the pink path in late May of 2010. One morning I woke up, and the upper part of my right arm felt very stiff and was aching. I thought I had pulled a muscle since I had been lifting heavy objects the day before. A few days went by and the stiffness persisted. The next afternoon I felt a sharp pain in my right breast, and then I discovered a dime sized lump and began to get very scared. My heart began to race and I immediately started to think about what might be going on inside of my body. By that evening my breast had become very tender and swollen. This was confusing because with everything I knew about Breast Cancer, I had never known it to cause pain or swelling. It was the beginning of the weekend and I spent the next two days trying to stay calm, but the fear that I might have cancer kept going thru my mind. The next two days passed very slowly as I waited for Monday morning to arrive so I could call my doctor. At night I would try to sleep, but after a few hours I would wake up with a knot in my stomach. The uncertainty of what was happening was so difficult.

When Monday morning arrived I made an appointment with my doctor and I was very grateful he was able to be see me the next day, by this time the lump had increased to the size of a golf ball. When I arrived at my appointment I was told that I would not be seeing my regular doctor and if I wanted to keep my appointment I would need to see another doctor. Seeing another doctor added to my stress and uncertainty about my situation, but I agreed to see the new doctor. I told the doctor about the stiffness in my arm and the lump I had discovered. I told her of my fear that it could be Breast Cancer.

She examined me and said she really didn’t think it was cancer. Because for me to have a lump that large, I would have discovered it a long time ago. What she said had significantly calmed my fears. Because of the inflammation she thought the lump was caused by an infection. I had Squamous Cell skin cancer on my left heel and she thought that was the cause of the infection. The doctor ordered a mammogram and ultrasound, these were so painful that I cried. The test showed a mass in my breast which she interpreted as an infection, for which I was prescribed antibiotics. I was told if I did not see improvement by the end of the week to let her know.

The antibiotics did not help at all. My breast continued to become more painful. So I went back to see her. At this time she did a needle aspiration. A few days later she called and wanted me to come see her to discuss the results. When I came to see her I was expecting to be prescribed a different antibiotic since the one I was taking did not take care of the infection. She walked into the room and said very matter-of-fact way “I’m sorry you have breast cancer”. I started to shake and cry. My biggest fear had just become a reality. I could not speak, I could only sit there in shocked disbelief. The doctor wanted me to have surgery as soon as possible to remove the tumor. When asked what type of breast cancer I had, she said they would not know until they sent the tumor to pathology.

Everything was happening so fast and I could not wrap my mind around any of it. I was being treated at the University of Minnesota for the skin cancer on my heel, so my partner wanted me to see an oncologist there. I had to know what kind of breast cancer I had before I could take the next step. I was referred to the breast center and within a few days I was having several biopsies done. I as still in shock and feeling numb. When the results of the biopsies came back, I was told that I had Papillary Inflammatory breast cancer, and that it was not a very common type. The cancer had already spread from my breast into the lymph nodes under my arm, which is why my upper arm felt stiff and ached. The news that the cancer had spread terrified me.

Soon after, I met my oncologist and she would become such a blessing to me. From our first meeting I felt her warmth, compassion and caring. She examined me and told me that this type of cancer was very aggressive and I had to start chemo as soon as possible. I began my chemo in the beginning of June 2010. I was scared because I did not know what to expect from the chemo. A few days after my first chemo I began to feel very weak. I could not even stand up to take a shower. I felt so bad I had to be admitted to the hospital. My white cell count had become extremely low, and as a result, I developed an infection in my heel. I also became anemic and had to have a blood transfusion.

My hospital stay lasted five days, and by the time I left, my oncologist had made the decision to change my chemo because the first type was too hard on my body. My new chemo was scheduled to begin in a week to allow my body time to recover. Two days after I came home from the hospital, while brushing my hair, I noticed my hair was starting to fall out. Although I knew this was going to happen, it still upset me. It was another “seems like a bad dream, but its real” moment. I had just stared at the huge pile of hair and thought “am I going to lose my eyebrows and eyelashes too?”. I got my answer two days later when I was washing my face and the washcloth became the new home for my brows and lashes. As I looked in the mirror I saw someone I didn’t recognize. I felt so uncertain of what each day would bring.

My new chemo was to be once a week for twelve weeks. I was very nervous about how my body would react to the new chemo therapy. This chemo was much easier on my body and due to the anti nausea medication, I was never sick, for which I was very thankful. As I was finishing my chemo, I met with the surgeon who would be doing, due to the size of the tumor, my mastectomy and lymph node removal. My surgeon, like my oncologist, was such a blessing to me. He is not only very skilled, he is also very warm and compassionate. He wanted me to have radiation before he performed surgery, because he wanted the tumor to shrink as much as possible, as well as eliminate as much cancer as possible from the lymph nodes. This was to help the outcome of surgery be as successful as possible.

I then met my new radiation/oncology doctor, my third blessing. I was to begin a twelve week course of daily radiation. I had learned about the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge during my chemo. It is an amazing home away from home for cancer patients and their caregivers during treatment. The staff and volunteers are so warm and caring. I could not have made it thru my journey without them. And so the Hope Lodge became my home throughout my radiation. As with the chemo I was very nervous and did not know what to expect. The first three weeks were not too bad, but the fourth week really started to become difficult. My breast and underarm were already very sore and swollen from the cancer and the radiation made the pain even worse. I knew I still had a long road ahead and I had to try to find a way to deal with the pain. I prayed for strength and focus so I could fight hard and win. An amazing thing began to happen, as each day of the radiation went by and the pain of the burns on my skin increased, I began to imagine the cancer becoming weaker as the treatments kicked cancer’s behind. Having that mental image made it easier to deal with the extreme discomfort.

The radiation nurses were so wonderful. They were so positive and friendly. To help boost my spirits, they would tell jokes to me before my treatments. To get into the best mood possible, I would wear bright pink clothes and fun hats or bandanas. On days I really felt silly, I would decorate, my now completely bald head, with eye shadow and bindis. I had decided that just because I had cancer, I was not going to allow cancer to have me.

After I completed my radiation, I went back to see my oncologist and surgeon. I had to wait a few weeks before surgery to allow my skin to heal, but chemo and radiation had been successful!! I was ecstatic! I was relieved that my cancer free destination was in sight after the long hard journey I had been on. My surgery was planned for December and I was asked if I wanted it to take place before or after Christmas, as a few days either way would be fine. I said “I want the surgery before Christmas, because I am going to start 2011 cancer free”.

My surgery was on December 20th. Before I went into surgery I put on bright pink lipstick (I got the idea from the book Why I wore lipstick to my mastectomy). I also made a sign that said “So long Mimi” and had my picture taken. Poor Mimi had been through so much and deserved a proper send off. As I was wheeled into surgery I felt a sense of peace. I had made it this far in my journey and now I was going to be free of the unwelcomed guest who had moved into my body. I took a deep breath and saw myself healthy. Then it was time for my “nap”.

When I woke up in recovery, I just had to take a peek, at my now flat right side. I was very surprised about how good it looked. My breast was gone but that was ok, the last several months it had become a big pain anyway! I was delighted to see that my tattoo was still intact. I had two drainage tubes in, and they were not too bad, they were mostly annoying. When I returned home from the hospital, I was surprised at how little pain I had. My recovery went very smoothly. Two days before New Years I went in to get the tubes out.

I was told that my surgeon had gotten a clean margin around my breast and the 18 lymph nodes were all free of cancer. I WAS going to begin 2011 healthy. In February 2011, I began monthly infusions of a drug that will, hopefully, prevent the cancer from returning. I completed my one year of treatment this past February. I see my oncologist every three months just to make sure everything is ok.

Do I worry the cancer will come back? It will always be a concern for me. But I am not going to live my life in fear. Life is too short to worry about “What if?”. I’m going to live each day with as much joy as I can. It took a bit of getting used to having only one breast, but I have honestly never felt like less of a woman. I have also never felt the need to have reconstruction surgery or wear a prosthesis. I feel like a strong pink warrior who has this beautiful battle scar.

Sherri (Pinky)