In 2016, 2 years before I was diagnosed with stage III estrogen and progesterone receptor–positive, HER2-negative, invasive ductal carcinoma in situ in my left breast, I had felt a mass in my right breast that turned out to be a benign fibroid. When I felt a mass in my left breast one morning while taking a shower, I immediately called my gynecologist for an appointment for a complete breast exam. After the examination, she quickly scheduled a mammogram and breast ultrasound screening.
When the radiologist came into the exam room and uttered the words “We’ve found something and we’d like to biopsy the tumor,” I feared the worst and started to cry. At the time, my two young daughters were just 1 and 5 years old, and I worried about how a cancer diagnosis would affect them.
Although I suspected I might have cancer, hearing the actual words, “I’m so sorry, you have cancer,” was devastating, and I was in disbelief that this could be happening to me. Despite feeling overwhelmed by the diagnosis, the next day, I began putting together my oncology team. My oncology surgeon said that because the tumor appeared to be small, 0.9 cm, she suggested a lumpectomy. I opted instead for a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy. The decision may have saved my life.
Taming the Fear of Cancer
I suffer from anxiety, and all the what ifs of being a newly diagnosed patient kept swirling in my head: What if the cancer spreads to my other breast? What if the treatment isn’t successful? And I knew that I wouldn’t feel confident in getting to a cure with just a lumpectomy. I wanted to be rid of cancer. I also suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the thought of the asymmetry I would be left with after having one breast removed was more than I could endure, so I had both breasts removed.
At the time, I didn’t realize how fortuitous that decision would turn out to be. During the operation, my surgeon removed 12 axillary lymph nodes from my left underarm to test for cancer. Four were determined to be precancerous. In addition, a pathology examination of the tumor found it had grown from 0.9 cm to 5.2 cm since my diagnosis. If I hadn’t had the surgery, said my surgeon, I would have been back on her operating table within weeks.
I don’t want [my young daughters] to fear cancer, but I do want them to be aware of the risks for the disease, and the actions they can take to protect themselves.— Marci Greenberg Cox
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Enduring the Lingering Side Effects of Therapy
Because the diagnosis was now stage III breast cancer, and I was only 40 years old, my oncologist recommended I undergo aggressive therapy, including 4 rounds of doxorubicin; 12 rounds of paclitaxel; and 28 rounds of radiation therapy. The treatment was difficult, but I got through it. I was later prescribed the hormonal therapy tamoxifen to reduce my risk of recurrence, but it caused a blood clot in my lung, so I’m now taking the aromatase inhibitor letrozole. Plus, every 3 months I receive an injection of goserelin. The cumulative effect of all these therapies is early menopause. Most importantly, they also appear to have eradicated cancer from my body.
Finding a New Life Purpose
Although I don’t spend a lot of time ruminating about why I got breast cancer, I can’t help wondering if there is a link between the fertility drugs I took when I was trying to become pregnant with my first child and the development of this cancer. I’ll never know for sure the cause of my breast cancer, but the diagnosis has changed my life, in many ways for the better.
Before my diagnosis, I was a workaholic. Although I loved my career in real estate, I have found a new passion and mission in my life, which is advocating for newly diagnosed patients with cancer, especially breast cancer, to ensure they receive high-quality cancer care and the support they need.
I am a volunteer with Cancer Support Community Arizona and other cancer organizations in my state to provide emotional, social, and financial support to people impacted by this disease. I’ve also written books to help explain cancer to children and to give newly diagnosed patients with breast cancer a roadmap for navigating their cancer journey. The work is rewarding, and I’m glad to give back to a community that has given me so much over these past 2 years.
Having cancer has also made me realize the importance of enjoying today and not putting off plans for the future. My husband and I love to travel, but work always took precedent over family leisure time. Now, that has changed. Although the COVID-19 pandemic grounded us—and everyone else—from traveling this past year, now that life is returning to normal, we are going to start planning more family trips.
Cancer has also taught me the importance of listening to your body and taking action when something feels amiss. I’m fortunate to have a medical team that listens to my concerns and will go the extra effort to alleviate those concerns, including scheduling imaging scans and other tests when appropriate.
Protecting My Daughters From Cancer
My young daughters witnessed what I went through during my cancer treatment. I don’t want them to fear cancer, but I do want them to be aware of the risks for the disease, and the actions they can take to protect themselves. As soon as they are old enough, I’m going to teach my daughters how to do breast self-examinations, so they develop a habit of routine monitoring and a connection with their bodies and long-term health.
A breast self-exam likely saved my life. I want my children to have the same chance at detecting cancer at an early, curable stage. It is the greatest gift of life I can give them.
Ms. Greenberg Cox lives in Glendale, Arizona. She is the author of Mommy Has a Boo-Boo: Explaining Breast Cancer to Children; Mommy Has a Boo-Boo, Now What?: A Guided Journal for Parents & Children to Help Cope With Breast Cancer; The Breast Cancer GPS: A Guided Journal to Navigate Your Way Through Breast Cancer; and Courage, Hope and Strength: Breast Cancer Journal for Women. All these books were published by Flor Publishing LLC in 2021.
Editor’s Note: Columns in The Patient’s Corner are based solely on information The ASCO Post received from patients and should be considered anecdotal.