Lori Ross

Posted by on Feb 25, 2012 in Blog | 0 comments

Lori Ross

This was the day that I heard two words that no one ever wants to hear:  “It’s cancer.”  Wow.  Just the week before, life was normal…at least I thought it was.  I had no idea that I had a cancerous tumor in my body, which could possibly kill me.

It started when I went in for a routine, annual exam in mid July 2008 with my OB/GYN.  When my doctor was doing the breast exam, she found a lump in my left breast.  It felt like a marble.  I had not been doing regular self-breast exams, so I had no idea it was there.  I wasn’t alarmed immediately, since I had had a benign fibroid cyst removed from my right breast in 1999.  I assumed it was just another cyst.  She told me that since I was 40 years old, I needed to have a mammogram anyway, and for me to schedule one as soon as possible.  I made an appointment for about 2 weeks later, the soonest I could get in.  (We didn’t realize the urgency at that moment.)

While waiting for the day of the mammogram to arrive, I was filled with anxiety, but tried to not worry too much since breast cancer does not run in my family.  No cancer does.  It has to be a cyst, I told myself, since I had had one in the past.  I went to Solis Mammography for my testing.  During the mammogram, I was praying to God that it wasn’t cancer.  They did 4 mammograms, and then made me wait, and then told me they wanted to do 4 more.  I was told to sit in a chair outside the room while the doctor looked at the mammogram images immediately.  Not long after, I was told that the doctor wanted me to have an ultrasound done.  Now, I was beginning to worry.  They told me that the ultrasound will show them exactly what they were seeing on the mammogram, and what my doctor was feeling.  I will never forget the moment when the doctor doing the ultrasound told me that she actually saw 2 places of concern.  One looked like a non-cancerous mass, but the other, looked totally different, and looked cancerous.  They told me that I would need a biopsy to determine exactly what they were.  At that moment I was told not to worry…a cancer diagnosis is no longer a death sentence like in the past.  When caught early, it is highly treatable.   This didn’t seem to relax me at all.  They told me to come in the very next day for the biopsy, since they were not able to do it right then.  I came back the next day for the biopsies, in which 3 pieces of the one that looked cancerous were removed, and 2 from the one that looked like a cyst/mass.  The biopsy was painful and unpleasant, and I was very scared since I was fully awake as they did it, but not unbearable.  They told me it would be sent off to Pathology and I would be contacted with the results in a couple of days.

Two days later, I received a call on my cell phone while I was at my sister’s house.  They told me to sit down, and at that moment, I knew.  I was informed that one was definitely an adenoma, which was a non-cancerous mass.  The other however, was cancer.  My heart sunk in my chest, and I burst into tears.   I was referred to a breast surgeon, Dr. David Hampe (who is fantastic!) immediately, for the next step.

This diagnosis started an immediate whirlwind of testing and doctor visits.  Before meeting with Dr. Hampe, they wanted to make sure of exactly what they were dealing with before proceeding with any surgery.  I was sent for a breast MRI, which was an interesting contraption.  The results of that showed a possible problem on my right breast, and they immediately did another biopsy right after the MRI, on the place on the right.  Luckily, it was just a false positive, which the MRI is known to do, due to its power.  The right breast was clear, thankfully.

Next, I was told to go have a complete body checkup at a Dermatologist, to check for any possible cancerous places on my skin, anywhere on my body.  Again, that test was clear.  I was then told to visit Texas Oncology in Plano to have a full body scan (PET), and also a CT scan of my head done.  This really made me nervous, thinking that my whole body would be checked, from the inside basically, to make sure there was not any other cancer that had spread to any other part of my body.  I was in one of the machines for 26 minutes doing one of the scans, and prayed the entire time.  I still could not believe all of this was happening.  Luckily, both tests were clear, and no further cancer was indicated.

With all of these test results complete, I then went to visit Dr. Hampe, the breast surgeon.  I was very nervous to find out what treatment I would need.  Chemo?  Radiation?  Masectomy?  Lumpectomy?  All of them were very scary thoughts.   He showed me my mammograms and ultrasound results, and explained that the cancer was a 2.4cm (approx. 1”) tumor, next to the adenoma.  He explained that the tumor was only in the milk ducts, and not in my skin, or muscle tissue.  He said that he was perfectly confident that in my case, he could remove the tumor, and it wasn’t necessary to remove the whole breast.  He also informed me that he would remove the adenoma also, since it was right next to the tumor, just so it wasn’t an issue in future testing.  I was relieved to hear that a mastectomy wasn’t necessary, but it also scared me.  What if I needed a mastectomy?  What if it returns?  He explained that my cancer was diagnosed as Invasive (aggressive), Ductal Carcinoma, early stage 2.  (Cancer goes from stage 0-4.)  It was only upgraded to stage 2 due to the size of the tumor.  I told him to do to me what he would do if I were his daughter or wife, and he told me he would not even consider a mastectomy, since it wasn’t necessary in my case.  At this point, I put my faith and trust in the doctor.  He was highly recommended in the area.

I was scheduled for the Lumpectomy on Aug. 6, 2008, one week from the original date when I found out I had cancer.  What a crazy week I had endured with all the testing and doctor visits.  I was relieved that the surgery could be done so quickly.  Once I learned I had a cancerous tumor inside my body, I wanted it removed ASAP.  He explained that they would continue to remove tissue until the margins were clear, and that they would remove 1 or 2 lymph nodes to make sure it had not spread.  Those words scared me.  Spread?  Oh my gosh!  I had a son that was not even 1 ½, and a daughter about to turn 5.  My prayers were that it hadn’t spread.  I HAD to be alive for my children.  Dying was NOT an option.

The surgery took about 3 ½ hours, and was successful.  When I woke up from the anesthesia, I was so relieved to know that the cancer was no longer in my body.  I reached down to the bandages on my breast, and was relieved that my breast was still there.  I was worried that it might have been removed in the surgery.  I was also worried of what my breast looked like, and what it would look like after it healed.  I had a drain sticking out of my side, to drain the fluid that would be “oozing” from my body for about 10 days.  Luckily one of my friends is a nurse, and between her and my mom, I never had to “drain” it myself.

A couple of days later, I was called by the doctor and told that the Sentinel lymph node had one, microscopic “dot” on it that was cancerous, but the 2nd node behind it was clear.  The doctor told me that even though it was tiny, it was recorded as “positive lymph node” even though it appeared it hadn’t spread.  He said it was literally like someone “dotted a lower case letter I”.  Normally, the node will have many cells on it, not just the one “dot”.  This news made me realize, that we had caught the cancer just as it was starting to spread.  Wow.  Praise the Lord.  He informed me that I would be coming in a couple of weeks later to have my chemo “port” surgically implanted at my collarbone, and while I was under anesthesia, he wanted to remove 10 more lymph nodes to make sure it hadn’t spread.  He told me that his medical training told him that if the 2nd node was clear, then the nodes behind it would be clear…but since I was so young and had very young children, he wanted to make sure all the nodes were clear.  I agreed with him.  Whether or not they were clear would determine my treatment.

My 2nd surgery was done on August 26, 2008, almost 3 weeks after the first one.  The idea of the chemo port freaked me out, knowing it was implanted under my skin, and would be the means of allowing the harsh chemo drugs into my body. The port is used due to the power of the chemo drugs.  If it were just done with a standard IV, the veins would be destroyed by the chemo, and burn marks could also appear on the skin.  The port was definitely the way to go.  It was routed through my veins and you could see it under my skin at my neck and collarbone, which was creepy to me, but necessary.  The results from having the 10 extra lymph nodes removed were clear.  Great news!  The cancer had definitely not spread!  Again, praise the Lord!

(During this time I also had the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic testing done, to see if my cancer was genetic.  I am very grateful that it was NOT.  They checked for 2 chromosomal abnormalities, and both results were negative.  This means I did not pass anything down to my children.)

With the testing results all in, it was determined that I would need 6 “cycles” of chemo, spaced out once every 3 weeks, followed by 33 daily radiation treatments.  I am not someone that takes much medicine, and have to have a really good reason to put any type of medicine in my body, so the thought of these severe and harsh treatments worried me, but at this point, I had to do what was necessary in order to be alive for my kids.

After giving me a few weeks to recover from the surgeries, I started my first chemo cycle on Sept. 26, 2008.  I was in tears that day, knowing this was the beginning of the brutal treatment, to kill any remaining cells that might be in my body, but undetected by the testing.  I received “Cytoxin” and “Taxotere” as my chemo drugs, being part of a clinical trial, which means I did not get the “Adriamycin” drug, which is very hard on your heart.  I was glad to be part of a trial, but worried about “what if I need the Adriamycin?  I put it in God’s hands and proceeded with just the 2 drugs.  (This trial is ongoing, with early stage cancers like mine, they have determined the 3rd drug is not necessary.)

It took about 2 ½ hours to get the chemo.  Each cycle was followed by a shot the next day, to raise my red/white blood count.  The chemo lowers everything, and the shot gets them back to a more normal level.  The combination of the chemo and the shot caused severe side effects.  There were days I just wanted to die, it was that bad.  No energy to even drink water, no appetite, nausea, pain, etc.  It would take about a week to get over it, and I’d still be weak and about the time I got over it, it was time to get it again.  There were days that I wasn’t sure I would be able to continue with the treatment, but just took it all one day at a time.  My kids gave me the strength to get through all of side effects.  It only takes one cycle of chemo to make you lose your hair, which happens on about day 15.  That is a shocker, especially to a woman, to have your hair fall out.  After seeing patches of my hair come out, leaving bald spots on my head, my mother shaved my whole head.  To try to lighten the moment in which we were both in tears, we gave me a “Mohawk” before completely saving me bald.  That picture is one that only a handful of people have seen!  What a sight that was.

I had already picked out my wig, one that looked much like my normal hair, before chemo started.  As soon as we shaved my head, I put on the wig and realized that within just a few seconds, I could appear fairly “normal” again. This helped with the issue of being bald, but I cried many tears over losing my hair.  I will never complain of a “bad hair day” again.  A true bad hair day is when you don’t have any hair!  The only good thing about chemo?  You don’t have to shave (anywhere!) for the whole time you get chemo!  I saved on razors and shampoo!

With my faith as my strength, I got through all 6 chemo cycles, the last one being on January 6, 2009.  I was allowed to recover for about 30 days before starting radiation.  Dr. Hampe had left “tumor markers” in my breast, which showed the Radiologist exactly where the tumor had been.  I was given 3 “tattoos” on my chest/breast to mark the axis of where I would get the radiation.  The thought of radiation was very scary, but again, I had to do what was necessary.  Luckily, the radiation doesn’t have any side effects, like the chemo does.  I started radiation in February 2009, and received a total of 33 daily treatments.  The first 26 are done on the entire breast, and the last 7 are focused more directly where the tumor was.  The only side effect I had was looking like my breast was really sunburned at about week 4, but after chemo, radiation was a breeze.  It was just mainly very inconvenient since you have to go every day (Mon-Fri) at the same time every day.  It was like repeating the same day every day.  The radiation only takes about 1 minute to get, once you are on the table.  It literally took longer to sign in and change into a gown, than it did to get the radiation.

April 2, 2009 I received my last radiation, and received a certificate of completed treatment from the nice ladies at Texas Oncology.  What a great feeling!  I felt like I could start to get on with my life, finally.  Looking back, it was so hard to go through, but doing it just one day at a time made it all possible.

I was still wearing my wig, since my hair hadn’t grown back.  Once it started growing back in, a couple of months later, I quit wearing the wig.  My hair was still extremely short, but at that point I was just so excited to have hair again!  And, it was very hot to wear the wig, so it was getting uncomfortable.  My daughter, who was 5 at this time, would kiss my bald head every day, and when my hair started growing back in, she told me every day “Mommy, you have more hair today than you did yesterday!”  It made me cry every time she told me.

When I look back on this whole process I am thankful for many people:

  • Dr. Jennifer Campbell, my OB/GYN who I feel saved my life by finding the tumor during an exam.  I could never thank her enough, if I told her every day.
  • Dr. David Hampe, my breast surgeon for successfully removing the cancer from my body.  I just want to hug him every time I see him.
  • Dr. Chris Stokoe, and my nurse Mary Fitzgerald at Texas Oncology for prescribing the proper treatment so that I remain cancer free.  I am eternally grateful.
  • My mother, Linda Grimes, who took care of me, the kids and the house during my entire treatment.  I am blessed to have her as my mother.

I have thought about where I would be now if it hadn’t been caught when it was, or if I would be here.  Breast cancer is highly treatable when caught in early stages.  I am living proof of how early detection is the key to survival.  If mine would have been found just a year later, I am afraid my outcome would have been different, since we caught it just as it was about to spread.

I have heard many women say that they aren’t 40 yet, or there isn’t any cancer in their family, or that they are scared to get a mammogram as reasons for not getting one.  It’s not a correct statement to say “What I don’t know won’t hurt me.”  What you don’t know can kill you.  At the age of 40 I was diagnosed with a 2.4cm cancerous tumor, with no history of cancer in my family.  The doctor told me it had been growing for 3-5 years.  Sometimes, mammograms aren’t done for 6 months after you breastfeed, and I had just quit breastfeeding my son 3 months before diagnosis.  Don’t let this stop you from getting one.  There are women in their 20’s and 30’s with no history, that are diagnosed with it.  If my story can cause just one woman to go get a mammogram, and her life is saved, then everything I endured was well worth it.

Today, I have been cancer free for 3 ½ years now.  I continue to get blood work and mammograms done every 6 months.  This will continue until I get to 5 years, and then I will just go once a year, like normal.  All I do is take 1 pill a day, called Tamoxifen, which is like a mini-chemo pill, but doesn’t have any side effects.   After being cancer free for 5 years, I will be moved to a similar but different drug, for another 5 years, and then I will be completed with treatment.  I feel great, and feel normal, just like this never happened.   In December 2009, I had a complete hysterectomy, due to the fact that Tamoxifen can cause uterine cancer.  It didn’t think it made sense to take a drug to not get breast cancer, but then get uterine cancer.  Since I had already had my tubes tied, we determined it was best to remove the places where women get cancer often, so I had my cervix, uterus, tubes and both ovaries removed. (The ovaries were removed due to sometimes women who have had breast cancer get ovarian cancer, and I also had cysts on both ovaries at the time, so it was mainly done as a “peace of mind” deal.  If they aren’t there, you can’t get cancer in them.)

I will never know why this happened to me, but in a way I feel blessed to have been given this diagnosis.  It gave me the chance to make some changes in my personal life that were necessary in order to live a happy life.  When you see how quickly your life can be taken away, it makes you want to live every day the best way possible, and as happy as possible.  On a lighter note, I learned that hair does grow back!

Philippians 4:13  “I Can Do All Things Through Christ Who Strengthens Me.”

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