My story begins in late 2013. While helping my wife in the kitchen, she jokes and grabs my left breast. She squeezes and makes a face. “There’s a lump,” she says. “A big one.” Being a teacher, time off is limited (despite all those who say we get summer off). It’s Thanksgiving break, so I go see my PCP. He orders me a mammogram and biopsy, but I cannot get in until Christmas break. I go to my appointment, get the scans and tests, and am diagnosed with gynecomastia. My mass comes back benign, and I am given a short list of “watch out for these” symptoms: pain, skin protrusion, size increase, or nipple discharge (esp. bloody). My doctor says there is nothing to worry about as long as I monitor my lump.
Fast forward 5 years (with a move from Dallas to Houston) to late 2018. I’m in the kitchen (ironic) and feel a cold breeze on my left nipple. When I looked down, there was a wet spot (no blood!) on my shirt. I showed my wife, and we revisited the short list. Since this was one of those items, I scheduled an appointment with my PCP. Again, with limited time off, I went over Christmas break. She made the same recommendations as my prior doctor – mammogram and biopsy. There were no openings over the break, so I scheduled during the work week in late January. Another joyous scan and needle biopsy and I went back to life. I was confident this was just going to be another “no worries, just monitor” situation.
I was scheduled to see a specialist for the results. On February 5th, I went to see Dr. Nelson after school. I went alone since we were expecting no news. I was called to the back, my vitals taken, and then I waited. A short time later, Dr. Nelson arrived with a smile on his face. We made a bit of small talk before he dropped the words, “Well, it’s cancer.” He talked about what came next, but I didn’t hear any of it. When he finished, I apologized and asked him to repeat what he’d said, starting with “did you say I have cancer?” He told me no apologies were necessary. He ran through his information again, then finished with the smile he started with – “This is a fight you can win.”
I remember walking back to my truck in a daze. I remember texting my wife (and my mother) “Well, shit.” I remember stopping by Wendy’s for a cheeseburger (I’m a stress-eater). I remember my wife calling and me bawling on the phone. I don’t remember much else from that day. I just knew life was going to be very different moving forward.
The next day I met Dr. Hu, my oncologist. We talked for over an hour about the procedure- surgery (mastectomy), chemo, and maybe radiation. She drew pictures (which I loved, being a science nerd) and explained everything in such simple terms. I grew confident this was a fight I could win. I wanted to get started right away, as did my new healthcare team, so we set the date to begin the war – February 20.
The rest of the story I’m sure is fairly typical. During surgery, six sentinel lymph nodes were removed as one showed signs of cancer. The mass was smaller than measured previously, so my official diagnosis was Stage 2, ER+ DCIS BC. After surgery, I was at home resting for two weeks (three when you count Spring break).
After the break, chemo began – four infusions over the next 12 weeks. As a public-school teacher, I would have to work around class to minimize days off as well as protect my weakened immune system in a world of teenager microbes. All good fun and so easy to do [sarcasm intended]. Needless to say, the next few months were tiring and hard, but I try not to complain as there are so many others who go through so much more in their fight against cancer.
Since I had some lymph nodes light up, radiation followed chemo in late July, continuing until the start of the next school year in August. I didn’t have to burn any days off [pun intended] as a teacher, but it was certainly not a summer vacation anyone wants to have. Thank goodness for Dr. Shadle and my four superhero radiation therapists. They made my treatment relatively painless, but I’d like to not ever have electrons shot repeatedly at my skin ever again.
I’m feeling better and better every day. Follow-ups have revealed nothing, but good news and I pray it stays that way. If not, I know I have a medical support system ready to kick cancer’s mutated cellular butt. Some have said it was fortuitous that my diagnosis came after I moved to Houston. After all, it is one of the premier cancer research centers in the world. They may have been right – Dr. Nelson happened to be a fraternity brother of my cousin and a consult on my godmother’s BC fight. I was always in good hands.
Of course, I never would have made it without my wife, Julie. She and my girls (Jessica, Jade, and Jalynn) were the ones for whom I was fighting. My co-workers helped keep my students afloat at school and breast cancer organizations connected me with people to support me in my fight. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes family, friends, healthcare professionals, and caring human beings to fight cancer. Thanks to everyone who has and continues to help save my life.