Meet The Walnettos

I am sure it will surprise many people to learn I have  breast cancer. Many will not have been aware that I actually have breasts. I know some ladies who have nicknames for their breasts, “The Girls” and so on. I have always thought of my particular pair as “The Walnettos.” As these things go, mine have been a couple of duds.

Pathologists often informally describe a tumor’s personality using terms ranging from “indolent” to “aggressive.”  I would describe my breasts as “chronic underachievers.” They certainly have never been outgoing. For years they sat around like bumps on a log and then some rogue cell comes along and they just roll out the Welcome Wagon.

Before my low volume of metastatic disease was discovered in August 2009, I was scheduled for a mastectomy. One week prior to the follow-up tests, I was on vacation.

I kept thinking about my left breast. Maybe in its limited remaining time, it would start doing amazing feats, like hanging drywall or perhaps tuck pointing.

Two escaped prisoners were on the lam near my vacation rental. I imagined my left breast bringing the miscreants to justice: “All right fellas,” I would say as I marched the cons into the police station with my concealed weapon. “Nice and easy and nobody gets hurt. Don’t make me get old Lefty out.”

After I got back from vacation, I resigned myself to losing my breast. I bought a recliner. I made sure I had a good supply of button-down blouses. I read a lot about lymphodema.  And then I went for a bone scan.

The bone scan technician, who had been sharing her wedding plans with a coworker, fell silent. She called the other woman’s attention to something on the screen. “Katherine, does your back hurt?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

Eventually I got the metastatic diagnosis and my surgeon referred me to an oncologist. She told me the lumbar vertebrae was involved but not extensively.  “Hopefully the disease will remain under control for a long, long time although an ultimate cure is probably not attainable.”

I was wearing a pink paper gown. As I was lying on the table, the oncologist concluded her exam by sweeping the gown away from me as though she were a bullfighter executing a two-handed veronica. I found myself sitting upright on the table clutching the table’s paper runner over myself, not so much to hide my shame, but my surprise. I decided to find a different oncologist.

Because the cancer had already spread, my surgery was canceled. If you have extensive metastatic disease, surgery generally isn’t an option. If you don’t have a lot of cancer, a mastectomy will be considered eventually, provided your cancer isn’t doing much.

I had already told our benefits coordinator I was having a mastectomy.  Other employees have had non-invasive breast cancer and therefore some combination of chemo and surgery.

When I told the benefits coordinator I wouldn’t be having either, at least for a bit, she was baffled. “Have you sought a second opinion?” she asked. “They don’t seem to be doing much for you.”

Metastatic breast cancer patients start with the least toxic option first, in my case hormonal therapy—a daily pill. I know the medical rationale for this protocol. I understand that the emphasis is on controlling rather than curing the disease.  Yet there was still part of me that agreed with benefits coordinator: They didn’t seem to be doing much for me.

After five months of treatment, my cancer looked the same. Nothing got bigger or smaller. I was stable and therefore once again a candidate for surgery.  Now it’s just me and “Righty.”

People with MBC never finish treatment. That’s a hard concept for many people to grasp, including me.

Something Larry Norton, a doctor at Sloan Kettering said, has stayed with me. “Don’t forget the moment,” Norton said. “Be in the moment and enjoy it. Sometimes patients get so focused on what happened in the past or what might happen in the future, they miss the moments they have.”

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3 thoughts on “Meet The Walnettos

  1. Anna says:

    Yes my breasts were a great disappointment to me as well. From high school when their neat little A-Cup size was just not considered acceptable by spotty 16-yr old boy standards, to then wanting to kill me in my 30’s before I banished them from my body, well what can I say. I completely relate!

    But you’re so right, MBC treatment never ends. I too am having a hard time coming to terms with that as well. Especially since right now I’m on the more toxic hair-loss stuff. When will I see my hair again I keep wondering? Will I ever? I guess you just sort of get used to never feeling 100%, but more like 60-75% on good days which is very frustrating.

    I agree with the Doctors advice on “living in the moment”, but sometimes it’s easier said than done.

  2. katherinembc says:

    I feel very fortunate that I could start with treatments on the mildest end of the MBC spectrum (antiestrogen daily pill/ovarian suppression). I have further been fortunate in that I have experienced few side effects. I know that won’t always be the case! Rock on, Anna R!

  3. Cheryl says:

    I loved this article;it really brightened my day. I laughed out loud reading the first 2 paragraphs.
    I was recently diagnosed with 3 separate cancers in my left breast;1 DCIS @ IDC’s . Mets to the left shoulder. I started on letrozole on July 12. I will be getting Zometa after getting my teeth worked on.
    Oncologist says surgery will not be done unless cancer starts to “eat away” at the breast. Chemo as a last resort if hormones don’t work. But,there are quite a few hormones,so I hope to fight this for a long,long time.

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