Updated: Nov 18, 2020
It is not fair to have cancer. It is even more unfair to have it twice. My mother is superwoman..she always has been. She is why I am the person I am today. She has been plagued with cancer twice. She previously shared her story about her journey with uterine cancer. Here is her story about breast cancer. Love you Mom.
...until next time.
My Cancer Journey…Part 2…Breast Cancer!
Marian V. Kajfez
As October progresses, I reflect often on my own Breast Cancer Journey. I was 3 years past diagnosis and treatment for endometrial cancer. My hair had grown back to below my shoulders! In my mind, I had beat cancer and planned to enjoy a long life with 3 beautiful grandbabies. I continued to work as Director of Programs and also began my own consulting business working with low performing schools.
I saw my doctor for my 3 year cancer free appointment…all was well. We had moved a few months before to NC to help with grandchild care. I had a regular mammogram scheduled the next week. The bottom fell out of my positive attitude! I was called back for a follow-up mammogram. I spoke with the radiologist who showed me the actual 3D films and compared them to the previous 3 years of mammograms. Nothing appeared on the previous regular mammogram films but the 3D showed, clearly, a lump with jagged edges. The radiologist explained that jagged edged lumps were always biopsied. I had previously read that jagged edges were “ALWAYS” cancer! I had a biopsy done and was diagnosed with breast cancer in my left breast. The call about the positive diagnosis came to me from my primary care doctor the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 2017. We were driving to a SC beach for the week and I cried every day of that week! I was convinced I would soon be dead.
My appointment with my surgeon, Dr. David Grantham, was another very tense waiting game. Marc went with me and Dr. Grantham was another young, very kind surgeon, who took a great amount of time explaining everything. He gave me the option of a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. He explained, in detail, what each choice would entail. He told me to go home, think about how I wanted to proceed and call him 3 days later with my choice of surgery. Three days of constant back and forth in my head as I talking to myself aloud as I tried to imagine what my life would be like as this cancer was treated! I was so undecided and kept trying to make an informed, logical decision. I had a friend who had a lumpectomy, another friend had gone the drastic route of a double mastectomy. I finally, after 3 sleepless nights and worrisome days, decided to do a lumpectomy. I spoke with Dr. G and told him my decision and he responded, “Good! Research is showing 5 years past treatment either lumpectomy or mastectomy has about the same cure rate!” So many emotions, fear and chemo memories, kept replaying in my mind, along with the question, “Why did I have to do this again?”
My lumpectomy was performed on December 8, 2017. Dr. G took out the lump and lymph nodes to check for any spread. I heard results right before Christmas and cheered because it sounded like he had gotten the cancer out and the lymph nodes were clear! My next appointment was with Dr. Todd Moore, oncologist. Another wonderful, kind, young doctor who made me feel safe in his care. He spent quite a bit of time with Marc and I explaining the results and telling us he was waiting for the last test results to arrive. We talked for about 20 minutes and he explained that the results we were waiting for would determine the treatment plan. His hope was that the graph line would be in the lower quadrant. His nurse knocked on the door and carried a paper to Dr. M. His face was very calm but he said, “Looks like we are going to have to do chemo and radiation as the line is in the upper quadrants!” I cried. My tears streamed, silently, down my face. I took a minute, a deep breath and listened to my treatment plan.
Dr. M said I would need to have a port implanted, again, and would have 4 cycles of chemo followed by radiation. He gave me the option to do the treatments either every 3 weeks (as I had done the first time) or on a two week repeat. My choices: 12 weeks of “HELL” or 8 weeks of “HELL”! I knew I could power through this and also was very conscious of the fact that my younger daughter was pregnant with baby #3. Her baby was due mid-April. I was hopeful I could complete this ordeal with another healthy, new grandbaby at the end?!
I chose to do the more difficult 8 week duration. I had the port re-implanted in the previous site and was ready for chemo. The treatment center was pleasant, chilly but with several kind volunteers. Marc dropped my off and planned to return when I was finished. The nurse tried to insert the needle into my port as my skin was numbed, but she was not able to find the correct placement. Another nurse tried several times with no luck! It took 7 tries all together! OUCH!! Finally, I was taken to the room where my port implant had happened and they put me under a machine that showed through my skin. The PA who did the implant was able to get the needle correctly placed in the port! Then back to the treatment center. I was mentally exhausted, teary, but with a stiff upper lip because I knew I could do this! The chemicals only flowed into my body 4 hours this time instead of 8 hours. One of the chemicals was brought to me by the nurse in a hazmat suit with a mask and gloves! She said the chemical was so dangerous she had to be careful to not get it near her!!! Dr. M came to the treatment area to see if I was doing ok, he had heard the ordeal I experienced to get the needle in the correct place. I returned home after chemo ended and began the painful week. Nulasta, a drug to keep me healthy, had been improved from the first round of chemo and now was a 3 inch rectangle with a needle glued to my arm that would self-inject 2 days after chemo. The Nulasta kept me from developing complications from chemo but was extremely painful. My skin hurt, I could barely touch any part of my body for the week. I took oxycodone every 4 hours without fail because I hurt so much.
I barely moved out of the recliner for two weeks. I did what I could in my house but that was not very much. Marc tried to keep me eating anything but not much sounded very good. Chemo is an experience I would not wish on my worst enemy! I wasn’t around the grandchildren through most of this ordeal but the few times I was able to see them, they would run down the hall, stop short of me and say, “We will be careful of your booboo, Nan”! Andrew always hugged me and then kissed my shoulder above my port…melted my heart every time!
My 3 remaining chemo treatments began with the ordeal of inserting the needle. It took 4 tries by 2 people the second time then only once the other two times. The four hours of chemo drips were agonizing. I was by myself, no TV to distract me. Many thoughts and possible scenarios played through my mind. I dreaded the nurse in the hazmat suit just because it brought the reality of the poison being pumped into my body.
I had my hair cut short before chemo started. I kept my wig and was able to restyle it to wear again. Just as before, a short time after the first chemo treatment, my hair began to fall out in clumps. Marc helped shave the rest of the hair. At home I wore scarfs to cover my head and slept in a soft knitted hat because I would be cold at night. I only left the house to go to treatments. I was still working with a school but postponed my work until chemo was completed. Once chemo was finished, I went to see Dr M for a follow-up and asked to please have the port removed as soon as possible.
The port was taken out by the same PA who inserted it. As he lifted the port out, he commented to the others in the operating room, “Hmmm. There is a lot of blood pooled here.” I asked what that meant and he said, “It will go away on its own.” That weekend, I had a very tender vein in my neck. The vein was sticking out and was quite sore. My first radiation consult with Dr. Aker (another young, kind, talented part of my treatment team) was scheduled and when I was talking with him, I asked about my neck and he said, “That is probably a blood clot.” I was whisked down the hall to have an ultrasound, immediately. The ultrasound showed a large clot in my right juggler!! Scary!! Back to Dr. M, he put me on medication and said it was concerning but it would not drift to my heart and we just needed to get it dissolved. On blood thinner meds for 6 months.
Radiation was then scheduled and I went early in the morning. Radiation is a very embarrassing procedure. On my stomach with my left breast hanging so the laser could blast it. Techs took measurements and readjusted relatively quickly and then the techs would leave the room as the radiation was turned on.
Marri’s baby was due soon. He was born on April 14, 2018 at Moore Regional Hospital. I was strong enough to keep Ryan and Andrew as Frazier Alan was born. A beautiful, healthy baby boy! I had 2 more weeks of radiation to complete but the doctors were sure it was ok to be near the children as I completed the treatment. All treatments were completed on April 29, 2018 with another milestone in my fight against cancer accented by a healthy new grandson!
My recovery began and I was improving daily. My hair started to grow again, slowly, and I wore my wig. By mid-July I gave up the wig and just had very short hair. I had a new stylist in Pinehurst and she was amazing as my hair grew back. Megan trimmed and encouraged me as my hair grew. I take a “chemo pill” daily and my team of doctors told me by doing the chemo, radiation and continuing with the chemo pill for 5 years…I should still be here at the 10 year mark! Thank you, Dr. Grantham, Dr. Moore, and Dr. Aker!!! You saved my life!!
At my annual check-up with my primary care provider, Dr. Kathleen Letizia, two years after my treatments, she told me my “numbers” were back to normal! I felt better (mentally) as soon as my treatments were completed but it really was a good two years before I really felt like myself again.
I am thankful daily for all I have. I am strong, healthy and try to exercise every day. I thank God daily for my family. My husband, Marc, our daughter Maran and her husband, Rob and their beautiful, healthy 5 year old daughter, Clare. Our daughter Marri and her husband, Michael, and their healthy, beautiful children, 7 year old daughter, Ryan, 5 year old son, Andrew and 2 year old son, Frazier. I had so much support from family and friends that even though cancer is a horrible disease I was able to fight and survive the treatments, bounce back and plan to be here to see my grandchildren grow up!
I pray that I remain healthy and do all I can to stay that way. I happily pay forward my fortunate conclusion as I will share my story with others about my cancer journey. I humbly talk with others facing this scary disease with the truth about how difficult a cancer journey is but that I am living proof of a good life after chemo and radiation treatments thanks to supportive family, friends, amazing doctors and God!!.