My Breast Cancer Story
When my sister told me she had breast cancer, I was in my kitchen on a warm Australian summer’s day. The sun was shining in that endless blue sky. I could see outside clearly from our wall of windows in our townhouse in Paddington, just outside the Central Business District of Brisbane, where I had lived for nine years with my Australian husband and our two children.
I remember talking to Cindi on the phone in America all those miles away and feeling disbelief and shock. We had no family history of the disease and somehow I thought that meant we were less likely to get it, or that we simply wouldn’t get it. I remember switching into clinical mode while speaking to her. As a licensed clinical social worker specializing in psychotherapy, I was used to listening to people in crisis. I asked her questions and let her story unfold, being attentive and sympathetic, trying to be constructive and, of course, as supportive as possible.
Throughout the conversation she kept saying, “And you should get checked too. You need to go and get a mammogram right now.” I brushed the first few comments off and redirected the conversation to her. After all, I wasn’t quite old enough for a mammogram and I didn’t even have breasts, really. My brother had always teased me that mosquito bites were bigger, and at a 32 AA, well, I certainly didn’t have much. My small bosom had been a great asset in my modeling days. I had been a Ford model in New York City and had spent 11 years in front of cameras, wearing clothes that needed a hanger body, good shoulders and tiny breasts so that they hung well and looked good. I had gotten used to having small breasts through the years. The comments and teasing about being “flat-chested,” as I was so often called growing up (and sometimes still heard as an adult) hadn’t fazed me in years. I was happy with my body, and my small breasts had come through for me, performing surprisingly well when needed, feeding two children for a total of 22 months.
“You MUST get a mammogram, Laurie. Promise me you’ll go,” my sister pushed. By the end of the conversation I agreed, just to make her feel better.
I went into the breast clinic in The Wesley Hospital and couldn’t believe how many women were waiting. It was quite an operation there with women in blue hospital gowns from the waist up reading magazines with coffee, tea, biscuits and homemade banana bread (brought in by one of the many volunteers) there for our taking. I indulged in some tea and waited. Doctors and nurses would come out and call out names, then usher the lucky woman into a room. Sometimes she came back and waited to be called in again. Sometimes she just left. I had a passing thought that it was like some sort of odd lottery, where no one wants to win.
When my turn came I thought, “Thank God. Let’s get this over so I can get home. I’ve got a few things to do before the kids get home.” But after the mammogram, they ushered me into another room to do an ultrasound—then back to the waiting room. Next came a meeting with a doctor, then a fine needle biopsy for a suspicious area. “It’s probably nothing, but we just want to check,” is what I kept hearing.
I got the results a couple days later. Inconclusive. They were not able to get enough cells to determine if it was dangerous or not. I spoke to the Doctor and was given the options: 1. do nothing and monitor, 2. do another fine needle biopsy hoping to get more cells this time, 3. do an MRI, 4. do a core biopsy, or, 5. do more than one of the above. We agreed I would do an MRI and a core biopsy, options my sister had strongly recommended.
I went to the hospital a few days later and had the MRI. I was back at the breast clinic in the gown in the waiting room with all the other ladies when the doctor called me in with the results. She had a big smile on her face and told me it all looked “good.” I was free to go. It took me a while to digest this.
“So, I am OK?” I asked.
“Yes, we are happy with the results.”
“But what about the core biopsy?”
“Well, we are happy with the MRI results; MRI’s are 99% accurate,” she said.
I sat there thinking. I knew I should be getting up and thanking her and leaving but something kept me in my seat and prodded me on.
“But you told me the only way to really know for sure is if you look at a tissue sample. An MRI is just an image.”
The doctor looked at me intensely. ‘Laurie would you like us to do a core biopsy?”
It was one of those moments when you don’t fully realize that your life is hanging in the balance and yet, against all logic, you make a bold decision.
“Yes, I think I do,” was all I could get out.
Dr. Ellena Mackey took four cores that day instead of the usual two, and on the tip of one of them they found ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS with aggressive cellular characteristics. But since it was only in the ducts, I was lucky. So began my cancer story.
I ended up having two excisions that did not yield clear margins, so I made the decision to have a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. To everyone’s surprise, the pathology came back that I had had seven centimeters of DCIS in total. The entire top half of my right breast was full of the cancer, yet it didn’t show up on any imaging test. It was a stealth enemy within.
On a lighter note, because my “good breast’ was so small I had to have that side boosted in order to match my reconstructed side. So yes, technically, I did finally get a boob job! One year and five surgeries later, I was cancer free and sporting a new 34C bosom. My plastic surgeon, Dr. David Thiele, had a great manner about him and often made me laugh. The surgeon who did the excisions and mastectomy was wonderfully skilled but had a more serious demeanor. I realize now that he had to tell many, many people that they were going to die over the course of his career. I can’t imagine how that affects a person and how these courageous surgeons do what they do.
This all happened 3 1/2 years ago. I have basically moved on with my life and moved back to America. But, of course, I still get my other breast checked regularly. Again, I consider myself very lucky. I am able to move forward with some scars, but no ongoing drama. And nothing really haunts me on an emotional or psychological level.
That being said, there are some things that I still remember very clearly about those days and months. I remember praying the rosary while waiting for each of my operations. I remember how the nurses would put my rosary in a plastic bag and tie it to the bed, promising it would make it into surgery with me. I remember getting wheeled again and again down the corridors of the hospital on the way to the operating room, feeling like I was in some weird dream or a movie. I remember how narrow the operating tables were and how everyone was kind while I was trying to make funny small talk in those precious minutes (seconds?) before I was put under.
I remember the shock after my mastectomy, when they took off the compression wrap and I saw what it really looked like to be flat chested on one side. I can still see myself strolling on the ward with a material satchel holding plastic bottles that the tubes in my side drained into. It hung over my shoulder on my walks and I called it my “Louis Vuitton.”
I remember how kind women were from my children’s school—how they took turns delivering food to our home every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for six weeks. Busy women with busy lives helped me in such meaningful and practical ways; they were angels.
I remember how at peace I was with the whole process. How I gave myself over to it and realized that, whatever happened, I had had a good life. I was grateful. I am more grateful now that I am through it and I survived. My chance of getting breast cancer again is basically that of any other woman’s.
After my recovery, I had the privilege of working with women going through their own breast cancer journey. They have been doing my program, the 8 Steps to Becoming You,http://lauriemarsden.com/8-steps-to-becoming-you. This web-based therapy program helps women re-evaluate their lives and make changes that promote emotional, psychological and physical health. Although I developed and ran the program for many women throughout my 14-year career, the 8 Steps to Becoming You has been a very good fit for women survivors. There’s nothing like cancer to get you to think about what is really important and how you can honor and take care of yourself better.
-- Laurie Marsden is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist with undergraduate and graduate degrees from Columbia University. As a working mother, breast cancer survivor and former model— Laurie has unique insight into the everyday challenges that women face. She has dedicated more than 14 years to helping women understand themselves and improve their lives in one-on-one sessions, group therapy and seminars.
The 8 Steps to Becoming You available on LaureMarsden.com is a great program for women who have had a life-changing event like an illness or loss that has made them question their priorities and realize they have to take care of themselves in a daily and sustainable way.