Facing a Possible Cancer Diagnosis
When it came to health and vitality, my husband Brian ticked all the boxes.
After thirty years of marriage, I still marveled at his boundless energy and strength — the rival of men half his age. On the day of his 52nd birthday, he looked the same to me as he had on the day we met, and I remember thinking, with his constitution and love of life, he will probably live to 100.
Less than eight months after Brian’s birthday celebrations, he began to experience shortness of breath. His doctor diagnosed him with pleural mesothelioma from his exposure as a child in the asbestos mining town of Wittenoom in Western Australia.
Brian would never live to be 100; his mesothelioma prognosis was not good. Doctors gave him a life expectancy of less than a year.
The unexpected onset of Brian’s terminal illness, made me aware of how much I had taken his health and mine for granted. Despite my appearance of well-being, I also worried I might suddenly be diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Brian died at age 54, and I became a widow at 51. My anxiety of getting cancer intensified as I got older, and I came to dread my yearly medical checkups and mammograms for fear of a life-changing result.
Fear of a Cancer Diagnosis
For years, my terror proved groundless. But following my regular mammogram this April, I received a call that sent shivers down my spine.
The mammogram showed a lump of calcification about four to six millimeters in size just below the nipple in my left breast. My doctor ordered a more highly magnified mammogram to further examine the lump.
Although I found mammograms unpleasant at the best of times, I was not prepared for the pain caused by this type of mammogram. During the tense wait for the final results, I researched online for calcification in the breast and discovered there are two types of calcification that can form in the breast as we age:
- Macrocalcifications: These are coarse calcium deposits dispersed randomly within the breast and a natural result of a breast’s natural ageing process. About 50 percent of women over the age of 50 will develop these, and they are nothing to worry about.
- Microcalcifications:These aretiny calcium deposits that present as fine white specks on a mammogram, and doctors deem these as “suspicious.” Although they are benign in 80 percent of cases, they can be a sign of cancer, particularly if they present in a shape and pattern.
Because mine were microcalcifications, my doctor referred me to a breast specialist who informed me it was highly likely that I had Ductal Carcinoma In-situ, a noninvasive and early form of breast cancer that initially forms in the milk ducts.
My worst nightmare was coming true. It worsened when the doctor warned it could become invasive if cancerous cells traveled from the milk ducts into breast tissue. There was no way of knowing what was going on inside my breast until we had the results of a core biopsy scheduled for the following week.
An Unbearable Wait for Test Results
The wait and apprehension of that procedure only deepened my fear of cancer.
Though my family kept telling me to remain positive, I lay in bed each night thinking the worst. Good or bad, I needed to know what the future held.
Thankfully, the core biopsy wasn’t as painful as I had imagined. But waiting another week for the results was difficult. There were so many questions: Did I have cancer? If I did, was it invasive?
But I didn’t get the answers I wanted. The results of the core biopsy procedure, which required five samples, were inconclusive. I had to undergo a wire hook extraction surgery to remove breast tissue from the calcification area for a thorough biopsy.
Another two weeks of waiting followed, but thankfully, I found a way to deal with my anxiety.
Comfort, Relief in Sight
Using guided imagery, I imagined myself sitting right in the middle of a see-saw suspended equally on both sides.
Whenever I began to slide down into the fear of having cancer, I would push my way back to the middle of the see-saw where I could remain neutral about my outcome.
As I waited to go into surgery, I thought a lot about Brian. Here I was, fearing I might have cancer and finding it extremely difficult to function normally. How on earth did he manage to carry on with his life knowing he had cancer? And worse, knowing he was going to die within a year?
Despite the physical and emotional pain he must have endured, he never once complained. Would I act the same way if I ended up with cancer?
Thankfully, I’ll never know. Five days after having my operation, the doctor called me with the best possible news: All tests were negative. My relief at hearing I didn’t have cancer was beyond measure.
It has taken some weeks to recover from my operation and the emotional turmoil I underwent. But I am so grateful to be once again able to look forward to the future.
How I wish my beloved Brian had been as fortunate.
- Jane O'Brien, Specialist Breast & Oncoplastic Surgeon. (n.d.). Microcalcification/Hookwire Localisation. Retrieved from http://www.melbournebreastcancersurgery.com.au/microcalcificationhookwire-localisation.html