I stared at the person in the mirror and I gasped “Is this me? I look beautiful and healthy.’’ Bewildering right? How I could say that about myself but I don’t think you will blame me when you know the full story.
About three years ago, while I was taking my bath I noticed that the skin of my breast looked red and felt somehow warm. I was confused but wade it off thinking that it was because of the warm water I normally use to bath. But as time went on the breast started feeling itchy and it also looked a bit bigger and harder. I felt scared and immediately gave my best friend a call to explain the situation since she was a nurse. She told me to raise that hand up and use my fingers to feel the breast for any lump and I did as she told me but I didn’t feel any at all. When I told her she told me that she will call back later. I felt really scared because I knew that was a technique used to check whether a person had breast cancer or not.
I kept on checking the phone waiting anxiously for her call. When she finally called and told me to do a full body check up at the hospital I knew something was wrong with me and I wanted to burst into tears. I was only a twenty four year old career woman who haven’t even gotten her first kiss nor reached the peak of her career. My imagination ran wild and there were so many what ifs in my head. What if I get admitted and never leave again? It was then that I realized that I haven’t even lived my life to the fullest. I really wanted to cry but what if there was really nothing wrong with me. With that mindset I decided to go to the hospital and face reality head on.
At first it was thought to be a breast infection since the symptoms were quite similar but when the symptoms weren’t getting better few days after the first checkup, I decided to go for another checkup. Since I was neither pregnant nor breast feeding, I was told to see an oncologist. The oncologist scheduled a breast biopsy, a surgical procedure that removes some of the suspicious breast tissue for examination under a microscope.
The oncologist said since there wasn’t a distinct lump but instead there were changes to the skin, a skin punch biopsy will be used to make the diagnosis.
[During this biopsy, the doctor used a circular tool to remove a small section of my skin and the deeper layers that followed, and then stitched the wound closed when he was done. If the doctor can see a distinct lesion, he or she may perform an ultrasound-guided core needle biopsy. Ultrasound is an imaging method that places a sound-emitting device on the breast to obtain images of the tissues inside. Guided by the ultrasound, the doctor inserts a hollow needle into the breast to remove cylindrical-shaped samples of tissue from the area of suspicion.
If the biopsy shows that inflammatory breast cancer is present, the doctor will now order additional tests to figure out how much of the breast tissue and lymph nodes are involved, and whether or not the other breast is affected. Breast MRI or magnetic resonance imaging, is considered the most reliable test for gathering more information about inflammatory breast cancer.]
When the result of the test came out it stated that I had inflammatory breast cancer and the next thing that came to my mind was “is this the end?’’
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is rare and accounts for only 1-5% of all breast cancers. It differs from other breast cancers in its symptoms, outlook and treatment. IBC symptoms include breast swelling, purple or red color of skin, and dimpling or thickening of the skin of the breast that it may look or feel like an orange peel and you might often not feel a lump. Its symptoms are caused by cancer cells blocking lymph vessels in the skin and soft tissue causing the breast to look inflamed.
Lymph is a clear fluid that contains tissue waste and cells that help fight infection. It travels through the body in vessels that are similar to veins. Lymph nodes are small, bean shaped organs that link lymph vessels.
IBC doesn’t look like a typical breast cancer and might not show up on a mammogram making it harder to diagnose. It also tends to be more aggressive, it grows and spreads more quickly than more common types of breast cancer. It causes a number of signs which develop quickly (within3-6months), including:
Swelling of the skin of the breast
One breast looking larger than the other because of swelling
A retracted or inverted nipple
A breast that may be tender, painful or itchy
One breast feeling warmer and heavier than the other
Swelling of the lymph nodes under the arms or near the collarbone
After the MRI had been done, it was discovered that the cancer has not spread outside the breast or nearby lymph nodes which meant that I was in stage iii. I first underwent chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. With the constant chemotherapy my eating habits changed, I couldn’t eat all the junks I used to eat before. Then, I underwent surgery to remove the cancer. I was scared at first but my family and friends were there to motivate me. I was really happy and I decided to face the nasty disease head on. The surgery was a success. Before I underwent radiation which is using high power energy beams to destroy and stop the spread of the cancerous cells, I read dozen of books and articles about this terrible disease. I told myself that to survive the cancer and live a long and satisfying life, I need not only to heal my body but to heal my soul as well.
I started with participating in workshops to meet new friends and share my story with them. I continued my job but in a different state of mind. I wasn’t a pessimist anymore and I saw life in a whole new level and also became grateful for every new day. I decided to be true to myself no matter the circumstance.
As absurd as it may sound, I feel better today than I was feeling before the cancer. Every time I go for a checkup, I tell myself that every cloud has a silver lining and I Lorena Gills is not giving up.
Bolawole Oreoluwa Elizabeth
University of Medical Sciences, Ondo State, Nigeria