Birthdays Are Now Bittersweet

Tomorrow is my 41st birthday. It’s also the day before I was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago.

I used to love my birthday. Since I was a kid, my mom always made a big deal of birthdays. They were fun and special. But that was before cancer came into my life. Now my birthdays are bittersweet with new significance.

Every birthday is now a big fuck you to cancer. Another year I’ve survived. Another year that I’m able to be around to talk about having had cancer. Another year that I’m able to keep dreaming about growing old.

Tomorrow is only my 2nd birthday having survived cancer. So I feel like I’m still figuring out the roller coaster of being a cancer survivor and being able to celebrate my birthday without getting upset that the day after is my diagnosis day. It’s hard to separate the two days.

Two years ago, I felt my lump a week before my birthday. My friends and family wanted to celebrate my birthday, but I knew that a diagnosis was coming. So I didn’t much feel like celebrating. I couldn’t stop crying about what I knew would be a change for the worse in my life. Even though the results weren’t in yet, I just knew I was in for a long treatment for breast cancer.

Last year, I had finished chemo and radiation just two months before my birthday. My hair was starting to come back, which felt great, but I was just beginning to deal with everything I had gone through. It wasn’t until after I was finished with treatment that I could attempt to process what had just happened. So, by the time my birthday came around, I was trying to make sense of what I went through and couldn’t stop crying about it.

But this year, I’m looking forward to celebrating my birthday The usual things will happen, as they have all my life – people will call to tell me happy birthday and how much they love me. I’ll get cards in the mail or emails wishing me a great day. I’ll go out for dinner with people I love, a great reminder of how lucky I am to have amazing people in my life.

And I’m sure I’ll be crying again this year, but this time those tears will be grateful tears. Grateful that I’m here to celebrate another birthday. Grateful that I’m cancer free (fingers crossed that lasts for another 41 years). Grateful that I have so many wonderful people who support me in happy times and tough times.

Another Study Asks If Mammograms Are Helpful or Harmful

In yesterday’s New York Times, there was an article, “Vast Study Casts Doubts on Value of Mammograms.” The writer explains how the study questions whether mammograms save lives or impose unneeded tests and treatment. You can imagine how upsetting this uncertainty is, especially for a breast cancer survivor.

In all cancers, there is a long-standing debate about how worthwhile scans are versus the radiation imposed on the body from these tests and the anxiety induced from such tests versus leaving a tumor in place that wouldn’t harm or kill someone. I understand the arguments on all sides, but I always have a strong reaction when someone says mammograms aren’t worth it.

For me, if one life was saved from an annual mammogram, then it’s worth doing. Especially if that one life is mine or someone I love.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 39. I hadn’t yet had a mammogram. Even though I come from a long line of women with breast cancer, none of my doctors suggested I get a mammogram before turning 40. And a few years earlier, a national government panel recommended mammograms be done starting at 50, instead of 40. Even more reason for my doctors to not push for a mammogram.

I often kick myself about not insisting that I get an annual mammogram starting at 35 years old, because of my family history. I found my lump in a routine self-exam, which I did without fail every month since I was in college. If I did get annual mammograms before age 40, would we have found my breast cancer earlier? Would we have found it before it spread to my lymph nodes? Would it have spared me having a mastectomy? Would I not have had to go through chemo and radiation? Of course we don’t know and will never know the answers to these questions. What ifs do little but create guilt. So I try to let that go. But I do admit it creeps into my mind sometimes.

Dr. Susan Love, one of the smartest, most well-known and accomplished surgeons and advocates on breast cancer, was interviewed about this study on KRCW’s Press Play with Madeleine Brand. Dr. Love talks about how there have long been questions about mammograms. And how this study shows that there are many different types of breast cancers and there isn’t a one size fits all approach to breast cancer screening and treatment. Which means we need research and studies to continue.

As Dr. Carol Lee of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center explains on the PBS NewsHour, this study is an update on a study reported nearly 20 years ago. Her opinion is that this study is just one in a long list of studies about mammograms that actually show a benefit of mammograms. Her opinion is that mammograms do save lives. I tend to agree with her.

I have another problem with this study, which was done with women ages 40-59. Once again, when breast cancer is researched, talked and written about, young women (women 40 and under) and women of color are barely, if at all, discussed.

As the Young Survival Coalition states, it is estimated that more than 250,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer at 40 or younger are living in the U.S. today. More than 13,000 young women will be diagnosed this year.

Mortality rates for breast cancer have been decreasing since 1989, with larger decreases in women under 50. That’s great new. But what about women under 40? The survival rates for young women are not good. Compared to older women, young women generally face more aggressive cancers and lower survival rates. The statistics on women of color aren’t good either. Although the overall lifetime risk of breast cancer is lower for Black women compared with white women, the death rates are higher.

Would annual mammograms save the lives of more young women and women of color?

When we look at the benefits and disadvantages of mammograms, let’s expand the conversation. Let’s look at all types of breast cancers, all ages of women and all ethnicities. Not until there’s a cure for breast cancer or a vaccine, the goal continues to be to save lives. And in my opinion, annual mammograms play a part in that.

Time For My First Doctor’s Appointment of 2014

This Friday I’ll have my first doctor’s appointment of 2014.

The appointment is with my gynecologist for my annual exam. Two years ago, I would have said the appointment is *just* my annual exam. No big deal. But since my breast cancer diagnosis, just isn’t really in my vocabulary anymore.

I’ll be going to see my gynecologist for the first time since my oophorectomy. It’ll be weird to sit in those stirrups when there’s so much less to look at with no ovaries.

And doing a breast exam with fake boobs….that’s still strange for me too. I can’t feel anything in this area, so its bizarre to have hands on my body with no sensation that this is happening.

They say someday I’ll get used to my new body. Not sure who *they* is, but I’ll believe this when I feel it.

I’m trying to stay calm about this appointment. Since my oophorectomy two months ago, I reduced my risk for ovarian cancer from 15% to 1%. So that should tame my worrying – *should* being the operative word.

It’s hard not to worry about cancer when you’ve had it and you read about so many other people having recurrences. I guess once you’ve had a cancer diagnosis, there’s really no such thing anymore as a routine doctor’s appointment. Another part of my life I have to get used to.