Okay, so all the pink everywhere won’t let us forget
that it’s still October, which means that it’s still Breast Cancer Awareness
month (I mean that in a good way). At the beginning of the month I ended up
being the listening ear for a friend who was dreading having her first
mammogram. Then, a just a few days after that was over, I was listening to my
boss tell me how shocked she was to learn that an old friend of hers had recently passed away from breast cancer. I started thinking; I would be getting that first mammogram in a few years and what if I ended up with breast cancer? I wanted to speak with someone who had actually experienced it. I wanted someone to tell me what it was like to be diagnosed and survive. I was most appreciative when attorney Camille Coke agreed to talk to me about her experience.
How old were you when you were diagnosed with breast cancer?
Camille: I was 37.
How did you find out? Did you suspect that you had it from a lump in your breast? Or did you just go to the doctor for a regular examination and they found it?
Camille: It was discovered as a result of my first
mammogram. I had scheduled a number of
routine doctor appointments in the summer of 2006 because I was about to leave
a job to start my own business. I
figured I would take advantage of my health insurance benefits and get checked out, since I wasn’t certain how costly things might be once I was on my own. I never expected to learn I had breast cancer during the first (and only) mammogram I ever had. I had fairly dense breasts, which is common for younger women, so I never actually felt any lumps. Ironically, I had a breast exam performed during my pap exam two weeks prior and the nurse practitioner didn’t feel it either apparently.
My primary doctor is a huge advocate for early detection and she had urged me to start going for mammograms when I turned 35. However, I had no family history and I took it for granted that I was relatively young, so I simply put the script in my purse and forgot about scheduling it. After a close girlfriend went for her first mammogram and was told it was suspicious, I scheduled my own immediately. It was a huge shock when my doctor called to inform me that there were small calcifications found in my
films that appeared suspicious.
And what happened after that?
Camille: I was told I had to go back to get enlarged mammogram
views, an ultrasound and a stereotactic (needle) biopsy. I had my breasts virtually smashed like pancakes for the enlarged views. Following that, I submitted to an ultrasound which involved having an ultrasound tech continuously roll a probe over my left breast, which was really uncomfortable! Because the ultrasound revealed some abnormalities, I was told I was going to have to do the biopsy. I was given a local anesthetic and a large needle was stuck into my left breast, while a loud vacuum extracted a small amount of tissue for pathology. The radiologist eventually confirmed I had two small tumors sitting side by side at the 3:00 position, measuring together approximately 2.5 cm. This was not exactly considered a small tumor, but it was not deemed to be huge either. Not long after that, I started a six-month round of chemotherapy.
What was chemotherapy like? Is your body the same as it
was before you went through chemotherapy?
Camille: Let’s just say that even though I had cancer, I never felt sick until I had to do chemo. I was given lots of great anti-emetic drugs that prevent nausea, but there are still so many other side effects that ranged from uncomfortable to tiring to just down-right annoying. I handled the first three months fairly well because I had 4 doses of chemo once every 3 weeks. The last three months involved weekly treatments, and they were the toughest for me because the side effects just seemed relentless. In addition to hair loss, I gained 20 lbs due to the steroids given simultaneously, dealt with insomnia, constipation, severe acne, tender nail beds, swelling of the feet and ankles, runny nose (due to loss of nose hairs), loss of eyebrows, eyelashes, etc. It’s nothing nice. But with a cancer diagnosis, I think most people would agree that you are in a head space that just requires you to do what you have to do to save your life without much complaint. My body is nothing like it was before chemotherapy. I still have a lot of achiness in my joints in the morning, and I’m still battling to lose the last 10 lbs. There are lots of new normals for me now.
You said that cancer doesn’t run in your family. What do you think caused it? Do you think it was just your misfortune, or do you think it was the direct result of something?
Camille: I firmly believe that my cancer was caused by my extensive and continuous use of the birth control pill. There are lots of medical professionals that will discount this theory, but I have strong convictions about it – particularly because I know that hormone replacement therapy in post-menopausal women has definitely been linked to breast cancer. The birth control pill, in my view, is a similar type of synthetic hormone that can’t be good for your body, if used extensively. There was also a study by the Mayo Clinic that came out soon after I was diagnosed. After surveying a number of breast cancer studies, they concluded that women who had long-term use of the birth control pill, who were over the age of 30, and who had never had a full-term pregnancy were at a 44% higher risk for developing breast cancer over baseline.
The link to the study is found here:
A new study from the
Mayo Clinic has concluded that there is “a measurable and statistically
significant” connection between the pill and pre-menopausal breast cancer,
re-enforcing the recent classification of oral contraceptives as Type 1
The study found that the risk association was 44 percent over baseline among women who had been pregnant who took oral contraceptives prior to their first full-term pregnancy has been, to a large degree, ignored by many media organizations.
The report, “Oral Contraceptive use as a Risk Factor for Pre-menopausal Breast Cancer: A Meta-analysis,” was authored by Dr. Chris Kahlenborn of the Altoona,
Pa., Hospital’s internal medicine department and others. Kahlenborn said the
results mean that, following standards of informed consent, “women must be
apprised of the potential risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer prior to
commencing drug use.”
The study, which is available online through the Mayo Clinic or at the Polycarp Research Institute, is a meta-analysis of that sometimes-fatal link.
Dr. Kahlenborn focused on the younger, pre-menopausal women who had been on the pill before having their first child. He found 21 of 23 studies showed a connection between the pill and cancer, something that certainly should be alarming women.
What do you suppose got you through? Of course doctors
did an excellent job in saving you, but what helped you to cope mentally?
Camille: I went through all the stages of grief very quickly;
shock, anger, denial…I surprised myself by how easily I was able to move into a
pure state of acceptance. I figured if I didn’t inherit this, then I knew this
experience was designed to teach me something spiritually. I had incredible support from my family and friends and I found a great support group online at www.youngsurvival.org. There I read encouraging stories posted by some amazing women detailing their experiences with breast cancer and it helped me to fight.
Are you ever afraid that the cancer isn’t really gone? Is
there a time frame that the doctor’s give you, something that happens…?
Camille: There was a time, mostly during my treatment, when I thought about cancer every single day. It made me sad that it was always on my mind, and I wondered if I would continue to think about it every day. However, I’m now more than five years out from my diagnosis which is a fairly good prognosis or benchmark for a non-recurrence. I know I had a wonderful team of doctors who did everything to save me, including my oncologist who insisted on chemotherapy and the use of a highly effective drug called Herceptin. I also took Tamoxifen for three years which further helps to reduce the risk of recurrence.
So I wouldn’t say that I suffer from any real anxiety about a recurrence anymore. Perhaps it’s due to my faith which has brought me through so many challenges and obstacles, or it could just be that denial is my best coping mechanism at times. Generally, I don’t worry about things until I HAVE to worry about them. Ultimately, I never truly believed in my heart of hearts that I was going to die from breast cancer. I knew cancer was serious and that it could kill, but I seemed to always believe that I would beat it and that the experience would serve a spiritual purpose in some way. I know my treatment was aggressive, and I now try to take care of myself with a healthy diet and exercise. But it’s still important to say there are no absolutes with this dreadful disease, and we still don’t know enough about all the genetic and environmental factors that may play a role in the outcome. There are lots of women who were just as aggressive as me in their treatment (and even more so) who still lost their lives. That is a painful reality and we must continue supporting research and searching for the cure.