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Two words no woman wants to hear

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By Judi Siegal

Part 1 of 3 parts

I am a writer and a Jewish woman. I have a story to tell. Usually this column is about the practices and beliefs of Judaism. It is often filled with history, fascinating facts and interesting people.

This time the topic is entirely different. This time I will break from Jewish tradition and wander in a different direction. The topic is breast cancer – two words that put fear into the heart and soul of every woman it touches. The one in eight women who will contract the disease in America, the 180,000 who are diagnosed – the one out of those statistics that was me.

My story begins innocuously enough with my annual mammogram screening, something all women should have beginning at age 40. When the test revealed that a closer look was needed, I headed to Shands at University of Florida for more detailed imaging.

The radiologist took further pictures and indicated to me that a biopsy was needed because of a suspicious area. This could be accomplished in a procedure called a stereo-tactic biopsy using the mammogram as a guide to locating the problem.

I scheduled the appointment but in my mind I feared the worst. A week later my fears were confirmed when DCIS or ductal carcinoma in situ was found. I had my radiologist call the breast surgeon I had lined up “just in case,” and the diagnosis and treatment was sent in motion.

The surgeon’s visit revealed that a breast conserving lumpectomy was possible but because of the location of the cancer, I would lose my nipple and areola. I sobbed and fell completely apart in the doctor’s office.

My compassionate surgeon, her ever-ready box of tissues in hand, assured me that nipple reconstruction was possible, I would be fine, and since the cancer had not moved out of the milk ducts, a special site-targeted radiation called “Mammosite” could be done, sparing me total breast radiation.

Still reeling from fear and frustration, I collected my thoughts suffiently to hear that the surgeon needed additional tests before performing what I called Scenario A as opposed to the absolute unthinkable Scenario B which was mastectomy (breast removal) if anything else were found.

Again I schlepped up to Shands for what was called a breast MRI. Now I knew what a MRI was, having had one on my knee – but a breast one was relatively new technology.

I found the procedure scary and, of course, noisy. I hated being in that closed confining machine. I cried; I didn’t want to continue.

Somehow, I finished the test but only because my faithful husband sat at the other end of the machine where I could see him and thus feel a sensation of space.

At this point, my life was in shambles. Everything was going wrong. The waiting for test results was agonizing, and with the Memorial Day holiday I knew the results would take longer.

My wonderful radiologist, sensing my concern, read the MRI before the weekend and delivered the disastrous news: there was a lesion on the MRI that would need to be evaluated. An ultrasound was scheduled for the day after Memorial Day – but all weekend I feared the worst and Scenario B loomed even larger in my mind.

When the spot was unable to be found on the ultrasound, the radiologist insisted on a MRI-guided biopsy – I insisted on running away or jumping off a mountain in Ocala – both impossible and improvable moves. Patiently, she explained the importance of knowing what was going on in my breast before the doctors could help me.

It was her belief the spot represented a small invasive cancer but she didn’t think the nodes were involved. At my request, she called my former doctor in Connecticut, who had treated me for cancer in my other breast as well as my present surgeon. Both agreed that a biopsy was needed and my surgeon would not operate without knowing the full picture.

(If you or a loved one is facing breast cancer, feel free to e-mail me at niejudis@yahoo.com. I will e-mail, or call you if you give your phone number.)

Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil.