Tuesday, 3 January 2012

How it Started: When I started to get sick

I've never been seriously ill in my entire life.  That said, I have amassed a collection of chronic, unusual, but quite benign conditions, usually with cute acronyms:  PVC, TMJ, IBS, MVP, and so on.  So when I started to get a little sick in late August 2011, I assumed that, first, one of my chronic conditions was flaring up, and later, that I was developing a new condition common to ehem "middle aged women."

Here's what happened.  The last week of August I had some nausea and diarrhea. I figured that was garden variety Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  Over the next weekend, I noticed a little bit of pain near my right hip.  This is a funny pain that I thought I knew well -- my endometriosis pain.  I figured that in the four years since my laparoscopy, despite taking continuous birth control pills, my endometriosis had grown back.  Luckily, I had made an appointment for my annual check-up with my gynaecologist for the end of September.  He would take care of the endometriosis.  And believe me, he did take care of me.

In mid-September, I was attending a genealogy conference that I had been long anticipating.  On the Saturday afternoon, I became really sleepy... more than I thought I could blame on the conference speaker!  I went home, climbed in bed and stayed there.  Really, I couldn't get up to get supper for Lena.  And I developed a pain in my upper back, on the right hand side.  That sounded familiar and sure enough, on Monday (I was too wiped out to make it back to the conference on Sunday) I talked to some colleagues who had had gallbladder trouble.  Our group diagnosis was that my gallbladder was unhappy, maybe full of stones.  Gee, take out my ovaries and my gallbladder and I'd be ready for action.  But as you know, that wasn't the problem.

I was able to get an appointment to see my GP about my gallbladder the following week.  Good thing I saw him then, as I developed a terrible lower back pain the night before the appointment, and I needed some painkillers.  After explaining my various pains to the medical student and GP, and to rule out weird possibilities like ectopic pregnancy, I was off for blood tests and an abdominal ultrasound.  I was able to get the ultrasound at the same clinic where my gynaecologist practises, a few days before my appointment with him, so I figured I had a chance to get my results a little early.  Sort of.

When I saw my gynaecologist he said he was sure that, with the birth control pills, the endometriosis shouldn't be back, and he'd been monitoring me on this for four years.  That said, he told me that the ultrasound showed "something" on my liver, so I should stop the birth control.  I "knew" that gallbladder problems can appear in the liver too, so this fit my working theory.  For some reason, however, the doctor decided to do a breast exam, which I don't remember him doing at my previous post-laparoscopy check-ups.  He found a lump.  "Did you know this was here?" he asked.  "Uh, no."  When I felt the lump, it felt to me like a "fullness" that I had had five years before in the other breast.  I had had a mammogram then that showed the fullness was nothing to worry about.  This seemed the same.

So I didn't worry about the breast lump.  But when I got home, I fainted.  I called my gynaecologist and he recommended I go to the Emergency Room.  I did.  They did blood tests that confirmed a number of unusual liver results.  But they couldn't reach the doctor or the ultrasound clinic to find out what exactly was wrong with my liver, so they concluded that I had swooned, adjusted my pain medication slightly and sent me home.

My gynaecologist wasn't done with me though.  He ordered a CT scan of my abdomen, STAT, and put my GP in the loop.  Even after the GP called and told me the ultrasound showed a number of spots on my liver, the Internet helped me believe I had an unusual but fairly benign condition related to birth control use.  I'm pretty good at wishful thinking, aren't I?  Otherwise, I would have had to admit that this wasn't a fullness, but a large breast lump.

Before long, the CT scan results were in.  They showed a number of what appeared to be metastasised tumours in the liver and bones as well as a sizable breast lump that appeared to be a primary cancer.  That's the news I got on the Friday before our Thanksgiving. 

Wishful thinking went out the window at that point.  All I could think was, "Fuck."


  1. Sitting in the car, shellshocked, for a long time after getting the news unable to get our heads around what we were just told and what it might mean. Those early days were hell.

  2. yes!! thanks for sharing, it sure will open a few eyes, and I pray for you and all women going thru this terrible, terrible disease.

  3. When was your last mammogram prior to your doctor finding the large breast lump? Was this an aggressive breast cancer? I started having yearly mammograms at age 40. Did you start having them every year as well? We are the same age, and have the exact same age daughters. I am thinking of you tonight as I write this.

    1. I had had a normal mammogram at 40. But I want getting regular mammograms before the cancer was found. I was 45 and there was no reason to expect breast cancer so young. ~Kate

  4. Kate, thank you for answering me. One last question, as I don't want to burden you. Did you go without mammograms after your mammogram at age 40 until you turned 45 when the fullness was felt? I can't tell, by your second sentence in your response to me, if that was the case or not.

    I also have family members, like you, who all have lived to be in their late 80's. No one in my family has died before age 88. There is no history of any kind of cancer in my family (or stroke or heart disease). Because of that I was thinking that by having regular mammograms at 40 that the radiation exposure, if looking at it from a risk-benefit point of view, may be worse than the risk of not having the mammogram. However, because of you, and what you have gone through, and with your lack of family history and of us being the same age, I am going to continue with the mammograms. I was told at my last mammogram I have dense breasts which is apparently a risk factor. Thank you again for your time. ~ Ann

    1. Oh, I see I didn't proofread my last comment. I have only had two mammograms. One at 40 for the fullness on the left breast (normal) and one at 45 on the right (cancer).

      I understand that only a very small percentage of breast cancer patients have a family history of the disease. Mammograms of dense breasts are harder to read; I think that is where the risk lies.

      I wish you long life, Ann, and all the best.

      ~ Kate

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